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From:  Joe Martin
Date:  Wed Aug 25, 1999  9:18 pm
Subject:  SignWriting principles

Martin (and everybody):

Valli, Clayton & Lucas, Ceil. Linguistics of American Sign Language; An
Washington DC. Gallaudet U Press. 1992
This is a good overview of the whole business, for beginners or others.
Mainly in English, only some basic linguistish. You won't find this stuff
on the web.

Something to chew on.... any and all comments welcome)

Like Valerie says, Signwriting isn't like Written Chinese, or written
English either. Although all three consist of a sequence of units strung
together, in Chinese writing the units are words. (morphemes if you wanna
be all precise) In the other two the units aren't words, they're
something smaller.

People often assume that signing takes place in three dimensional space,
and that speech has a fourth dimension of time with one sound following
another. Actually, signing also happens in time with one sign following
another, and if speech doesn'take place in three dimensional space, where
does it?

If all we had was the one dimension, time, then speech would be a boring
........uuuuuhhh...... Lucky for us though things change within each
segment of time. When the second segment changes, instead of [ uu ], we
get .[ up ]. Same in signed languages; James is very right that sign
language is linear. A classic example in ASL is two signs that start by
moving a B-hand out from your mouth .. First two segments are the same in
both, third segment is different in one because in that one you close your
hand to a fist. First one means "THANK YOU, second one means BULLSHIT.
The two signs are identical except for that last linear segment.

What changes to make that second segment different is the position of the
articulators. Articulators is a linguistish word for all the stuff we use
to make language; vocal cords tongues, faces, fingers, hands, ...all that.
So the job is to describe those articulators. In signed languages, you
can take a picture. Or draw one; then you can make it real schematic so
it just has what you need and no distracting junk. That's what
SignWriting symbols do. But with speech--hooo, boy!--how do you make a
picture of an ...uuu...sound? Or any sound? Ya can't! James put his
finger on it when he said that it was harder to change from an aural to a
visual mode.
In order to represent speech on paper you gotta make up some arbitrary
symbols, and have them arbitrarily stand for .the sounds. SignWriting, on
the other hand, isn't arbitrary.

Actually, you could draw pictures of the vocal tract--the articulators of
speech--and show gross little tongues and vocal cords and stuff, but
nobody ever wanted to. (except I think it's kinda fun) Instead, linguists
describe things in terms of parameters; it's more precise. For example
they describe a spoken consonant sound by where the tongue is, what it
does, and whether or not the vocal cords vibrate. Those three things are
what's important in telling consonants apart (in speech). We call 'em

Every unit of language has certain parameters. The three above are Place,
Manner, and Voicing. Obviously, signed languages have a little different
parameters since they've got different articulators, but it's the same
idea; parameters for signed consonants are Location, Handshape,
Orientation, and Facial Expression.

Each parameter is a set (like in math) of a certain number of "features."
Voicing is easy, there's only two; voiced or voiceless. Location, for
speech, is the five or six places where you can put your tongue, from the
back of the throat to the teeth; but in sign language there's gobs of
Places. So anyhow, we pick one Feature for Location and one for each of
the other Parameters, and that's how we describe a linguistic unit. All
this info is written down in a big complicated grid with all the features
listed one way and the time segments the other way. They take up a lot of
space and they're awful to read.

Each bundle of features makes up a phoneme, which could be from German, or
ASL, or whatever. But it couldn't be Chinese, cuz each Chinese character
stands for a whole word, not just a phoneme. Totally different from an
alphabet where each character stands for a complete feature bundle. Also
different from SignWriting where the characters mostly stand for
individual features, like [bent thumb] or [brows up]. What's cool is that
when you look at a SignWriting symbol you can see all the little features
without having to deal with those huge, complex, technical feature grids.
And as James pointed out, evidently without ever having to sit through a
lot of boring grammar lessons. (like this one).

Joe Martin, Plain Old Ordinary Student
Top Left Corner USA

  Replies Author Date
1764 SW Materials at London Conference Valerie Sutton Sat  8/28/1999
1771 Re: SW Materials at London Conference Valerie Sutton Tue  8/31/1999
1794 SW Question-Response on "TeachASL List" Sept 3 99 Valerie Sutton Sat  9/4/1999
1851 New signs posted Sept. 19 Valerie Sutton Sun  9/19/1999
1852 Algonquin School Web Page Valerie Sutton Sun  9/19/1999
1854 New Special Feature Posted! Valerie Sutton Sun  9/19/1999
1885 Exciting Posting on Brazil! Valerie Sutton Mon  10/4/1999

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