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From:  Valerie Sutton
Date:  Sat Oct 23, 1999  9:19 pm
Subject:  Why is SignWriting Controversial?

October 23, 1999

Hello SW List Members...
As you know, I get lots of private messages and sometimes people write to
me and ask me questions that may be of interest to the group as a whole. So
I am posting an answer to a recent question about controversy over

There was a time when SignWriting was very fact I bet a
lot of you have already experienced this yourselves. All kinds of people
have been against it in the past. That is normal for new ideas,
historically, but it is confusing too. Sooo...I went through my old files
and I found this old article. I thought I would share it with you:


written in 1997

Let me tell you about something that is starting to happen with respect to
SignWriting here. It's surprising. The general mood is favorable in every
ambiance, but there is an unexpected contradictory movement.

All this seems very strange to me. Why should anybody who talks a language
resist to learn, or even to try to learn, a way of writing it? It doens't
make sense. Or is there a sense that I can't grasp?

You talked many times about the resistance to SignWriting, about the major
cultural and social change that it implies. Do you think those people here
are reacting against social change? Even Deaf people?!

Answer from Valerie:
Yes. Social change is occurring. Social change is always greeted with fear
by the very people who shall be benefitted, because they are the ones that
have to make the change, and change is frightening. The burden for change
is on two groups...the educators and the Deaf...and of those two
groups...the Deaf have it the hardest...because it hits them at the root of
their identity. The hearing educators can go home and continue to live the
same...but the Deaf people have to change their "very image" of themselves.

This pattern repeats itself in every country that starts using SignWriting.
Here in the United States..after 23 years ...finally the truly educated
Deaf adults, who are the leaders within the Deaf Community, are finally
saying "It is time to write our language". I am not saying it is perfect ..there are still a lot of people who have not "caught up" with
the social change...but that will happen automatically when they see other
Deaf people accept it. This takes a lot of patience.

Of course I understand your feelings, and I always have to explain this to
everyone who first starts using SignWriting. When they meet with the
resistance, they are always surprised and confused by it. But history has
repeated this in several instances. So this appears to be a normal human

The pattern is this:
The majority language rules, not because people want to hurt each other,
but because most people speak the majority language. It is only natural.
That is the language of commerce.

The minority group feels insecure. They are afraid they won't be accepted
by the majority. They are afraid that if they "make waves" that is "if they
bring attention to their differences" that the majority will not approve.

Technically the minority language is this case Sign
Language, without people even realizing it. The users of this minority
language, in this case Deaf people, have noticed that they do better if
they learn the majority language. It is not that they have directly been
abused by the is more subtle than that. And so the fear
spreads amongst themselves. Fear is catching.

Historic Example One: This story already happened in the 1800's with the
Cherokee Indian Language, here in the North American region called
Oklahoma. The Cherokee Indian chief, named Sequoyah, was a brilliant man
who decided it was time that their language become a written language.
Their traditions would be lost if they didn't write them down. His own
people hated him for this and thought it was the work of the devil. They
even burned his books! When asked why they felt that answer was:
"Only the "white man" is "allowed" to read and write. Indians were never
meant to do that". It took Sequoyah 25 years or so, before the writing
system was accepted, and because of him, their traditions were preserved.
Now the Cherokees are proud of Sequoyah. The little book telling the story
is entitled "Sequoyah - Biography of the Inventor of the Cherokee
Syllabary" by Grant Forman. Another book is "Sequoyah: The Cherokee
Genius"by Stan Hoig.

Historic Example Two: When Dr. Stokoe proved scientifically that ASL is a
true language, you would have thought the Deaf people would be thrilled to
finally have a hearing person prove that their language was a good one.
Before that time they were told their language was a bad form of English.
But no...even native signers who came from whole families of Deaf people
had accepted that their language was no good. And they had been so
endoctrinated in the school system that English was good and ASL was bad,
that when Dr. Stokoe said ASL was good they protested and were angry at
him. Why? Because they had worked so hard to learn was such a
struggle...and now they were afraid the hearing public would not accept
them further...if they are "officially" different. It took twenty years
before the Deaf Community was truly proud of ASL. And SignWriting started
writing ASL back when all that was going reading and writing ASL
was even more controversial. When we started writing ASL, we were about 20
years ahead of our time - but that was the way it should be. New ideas
always take time...

Try to imagine living to adulthood with no written form for your own native
language. You speak your native language fluently, but because there is no
written form for it, reading and writing is not a part of your self-image.
And then imagine suddenly someone tells you that you "must read and write".
It would be so new you wouldn't know what to think! And when you sat down
to try to learn it, you would find that you didn't realize you said things
that way. You had no idea your language did that...and that...and that. And
suddenly you feel overwhelmed. And others around you feel the same way. So
you gather in groups and say - "We don't want to learn this because it is
too hard. It brings confusion to our lives. Let's leave things as they

That is why teaching young children in school is the only way to make true
social change for the next generation. But the present generation of Deaf
adults did not learn SignWriting as children, and it is hard to teach
adults. I am afraid this will go on for some time.

Please don't let the social change get you is a good
shows that you are succeeding. I hope you can explain all this to your
co-workers. It will help them to get a perspective on history. Best -

Val ;-)


Valerie Sutton

SignWritingSite...Lessons Online

SignBankSite...Databases Online

Deaf Action Committee For SignWriting
Box 517, La Jolla, CA, 92038-0517, USA

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