|SignWriting List Forum|
Valerie Sutton |
Date: Tue Apr 27, 1999 6:19 pm
Subject: Silent News Article, March 1999
Article Published in Silent News, March 1999
"A Controversial Approach to Communication:
SignWriting, The "Alphabet" of Signs" by Alexandra Han
Twenty-five years after it was invented by a hearing woman and dancer who
never originally intended to use her "Sutton Movement Writing" to record
sign languages, SignWriting continues to face a great deal of opposition
and ridicule even within the signing communities in North America for its
primary goal: to create written versions of sign languages, just as spoken
languages have their written versions. Yet SignWriting, with its computer
software which allows even children to type signs into sentences, may
ultimately turn out to be the most accurate way of recording into print
form the hundreds of native sign languages that exist worldwide for many
purposes, including linguistic (languages), educational, or simply
The Center For Sutton Movement Writing, in California, is the primary
advocating organization for SignWriting, which has been used in other
countries such as Norway, Nicaragua, Brazil and Denmark, for linguistic and
educational purposes. Ironically, even though SignWriting was originally
invented in a lingusitics lab with the advice and assistance of many native
ASL signers, Denmark still became the first country to officially adopt
SignWriting, using SignWriting in Deaf education and sign language research
As for North America itself, only very recently has a few schools of the
Deaf begun to consider SignWriting, although "things are changing now.
People are now much more positive than before," says Valerie Sutton,
inventor of SignWriting and executive director of the Center For Sutton
But just what exactly is SignWriting? "It is an 'alphabet' - a list of
symbols used to write any signed language in the world," replies Sutton.
The SignWriting alphabet can be compared to the alphabet we use to write
English, which is the Roman alphabet."
"The Roman alphabet can be used to write many different spoken languages.
While each language may add or subtract one or two symbols, the same basic
symbols we use to write English are used to write Danish, German, French
and Spanish. The Roman alphabet is international, but the languages it
writes are not."
"In the same way, the symbols in the SignWriting alphabet are international
and can be used to write American Sign Language, Danish Sign Language,
Norwegian Sign Language, British Sign Language, Dutch Sign Language - any
signed language you choose."
As for its value, "SignWriting makes it possible to have books, newspapers,
magazines, dictionaries and literature written in signs. It can be used to
teach sign and sign grammar to beginning students, or it can be used to
teach other subjects, such as math, history, or English to skilled signers."
How did Sutton stumble into SignWriting? "In my youth, I was a dancer. I am
an American who moved to Denmark at age 19, in 1970, to work with the Royal
Danish Ballet. I developed a way to read and write all body movement called
Sutton Movement Writing...Just as I preserved the historic dance steps of
the Royal Danish Ballet in DanceWriting, I also began writing Danish signs,
and even though I did not know what they meant at the time, Deaf people
whom I met in Denmark could read the signs and they knew what they meant! I
decided that I would dedicate my life to developing the written form for
hundreds of "movement based" languages."
"I used to take the bus a lot, at age 19, when I first moved to Copenhagen.
I was glad, when I stood on the Danish bus, that there was a way for me to
read the signs (posters) on the bus, which were written in both Danish and
English." Due to this experience, she can identify with some Deaf people's
frustration in navigating their way through society. "Years later, in 1984,
when I returned to Denmark because SignWriting was being used in the Danish
school system , I visited some classes of Deaf children learning to read
and write Danish and Danish Sign Language. There, on the walls of the
classroom, and in the hallways, were signs (posters) written in Danish and
Danish Sign Language in SignWriting. It was a feeling of deja vu, and a
memory I will never forget!"
Why would there be such a strong resistance to learning SignWriting? "I
lived a life of controversy the moment I started writing signs in 1974",
Sutton says cheerfully, pointing out that "Historically, new ideas that
create 'social change' are always met with resistance in the beginning, and
SignWriting is no exception."
When she was first invited to use her Sutton Movement Writing to record
sign languages, "people were still getting used to the idea that signed
languages were real languages, and that idea was a major social change too.
(Deaf people) had been taught that their own language was inferior, so it
took them time to adjust to the fact that they could be proud of their own
language now. And reading and writing it (their own sign language) was just
one more thing, piled on top of all the changes in thinking, and it was
overwhelming for them...It took 25 years for them to get used to ASL and
other signed languages as being 'true languages'. " However, "once that
idea became more established, the need for writing the language became
"We have all heard about the 'war between the oralists and manualists',"
she adds. "SignWriting certainly has nothing to do with that "war", but
many people were wary of any new idea in Deaf education, because they were
steeped in controversy between oralism and Sign Language already." As well,
"They were skeptical that a hearing person might respect and want to
preserve American Sign Language and other signed languages."
Has something like this been attempted before? Sutton points to a Cherokee
Indian chief, Sequoyah, who in the early 1800s fought to do the same thing
she is doing, and succeeded: "(He invented) the written form for his
language. His own people burned his books and it took him 25 years and the
threat of being executed before his own people finally realized the value
of preserving their traditions." Today, though, Sequoyah's Cherokee
Alphabet is still used by Cherokees.
"SignWriting has been compared to that because we are seeing it being used
during the liftime of the inventor. Most written forms are not used for
centureis. English was very slow to be written, and it is only in recent
centuries that the average person can read and write English." Compared to
English, then, SignWriting took off relatively fast.
English glosses, which have been used for many years to represent ASL,
shows a picture of a person signing a sign, with the written English
version beneath the sign. Sutton is adamant that English glosses don't work
well even for linguistic purposes: "English glosses are awful and
definitely not accurate. There are multiple signs for each English word -
so which sign are you choosing when you place an English word on the page?
It is totally non-visual. It is wrong to try to write one language with
another - if I wrote Danish grammar with English words, the Danes would
kill me!" SignWriting, because it records native sign languages far more
precisely, does a better job.
Sutton observes how learning SignWriting seems to increase self-esteem for
both Deaf children and even some Deaf adults, who then find it easier to
learn written English; however, she humorously pointed out that "I don't
want to save the Deaf - I have enough problems saving myself - thank you
very much!" Her primary goal in SignWriting is to merely record sign
languages as precisely as possible so that other people can use them for
their own purposes.
SignWriter software can be downloaded for free from the SignWriting Site at
Silent News Columnist
The DAC, Deaf Action Committee for SW
Center For Sutton Movement Writing
an educational nonprofit organization
Box 517, La Jolla, CA, 92038-0517, USA