forum SignWriting List Forum
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From:  John Albert Bickford
Date:  Mon Jun 8, 1998  10:09 pm
Subject:  Re: pictograms


Joe Martin asked:
>Here's a question that came up in one of my classes; I think I answered it,
>but I wonder what other people would say; We were looking at various
>kinds of scripts used to write the world's languages--some are alphabetic,
>logographic, sylabic,.........what is SignWriting?

I've felt for quite a long while that SignWriting would best be described as
an alphabetic system. That's the short answer. For those who are interested
in a longer answer, the reasoning behind it, with some extra explanation for
those who aren't familiar with the distinction:

1) In logographic systems (of which Chinese is the only real example that I
know of), each symbol represents a whole word, that is, the MEANING of the
word, not its pronunciation. (Actually, it's not quite that simple, but if
you're interested in learning more about how the system works, see chapter 2
of Felix Ma's M.A. thesis at
http://www.und.edu/dept/linguistics/theses/theses.htm.) Clearly, SignWriting
is not logographic. Even though they are both pictorial in some sense, the
"pictures" in SignWriting represent individual pieces of sign, not the whole
word. One puts together the different SignWriting symbols to represent the
"pronunciation" of the sign, not its meaning. If you don't know the sign
language that is being writing, you can't read the SignWriting. (In
contrast, the same Chinese symbols are also used sometimes for two
completely different languages: Japanese and Korean, even though the
pronunciation in those languages is completely different.

2) In syllabic writing systems (of which there are many), each symbol
represents a syllable. Thus, there is one symbol for "KA", another
completely different symbol for "KI", etc. Linguists don't completely agree
on what is a syllable in sign languages (and this is an area that I don't
know very well, so those who know better can correct me), but my rough guess
is that GOOD in ASL would be considered to be one syllable, while JESUS
would be two. That is, the assumption seems to be that each movement, plus
the beginning and end points, constitute one syllable. (Again, if anyone who
knows better is reading this, feel free to correct me.) But, in SignWriting,
there is not one symbol for the whole movement plus endpoints, but rather
one symbol for the movement, another for the handshape, other symbols for
the locations, etc. By putting these symbols together, you indicate what the
whole gesture is. In other words, SignWriting has ways of writing the
"pieces" of a sign that are smaller than the syllable.

3) In an alphabetic system for a spoken language, each symbol represents one
sound. By "sound", we mean something smaller than a syllable, like a
consonant or vowel. If you ask what there is in a signed language that is
analogous to consonants and vowels, the usual answer is that it is movements
and holds. I'm not saying the analogy is exact; that's for signed language
linguists to debate. But, it seems to me that each symbol in SignWriting
represents something a lot smaller than a syllable, something that is more
of the size of a consonant or vowel.

So, although the fit is not exact, it seems like the term "alphabetic" seems
to be the most appropriate way of describing SignWriting (and also, by the
way, most other notation systems for signed languages, including Stokoe
notation).

Albert Bickford

P.S. For those of you who don't know me, I am a linguist who works primarily
with spoken languages, but I've been interested in sign languages for about
10 years. I did some initial survey work on Mexican Sign Language, although
others have done much more since. I used an earlier version of SignWriting
on that survey as a way of recording the different signs that people used in
different parts of the country, and was pleased with how helpful it was and
how quickly I could learn to use it. Mostly, I'm just a reader on this list,
but I thought this was one time where my background as a linguist might be
of help and interest to people.

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