forum SignWriting List Forum
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From:  Joe Martin
Date:  Thu Jul 2, 1998  4:30 am
Subject:  Re: Nixograms

Earlier, Valerie wrote:

I noticed this thread was entitled "Pictograms". I don't believe that
SignWriting can be compared to "pictograms". Perhaps a linguist could help
explain the difference -
And she is totally right. A pictograph (or pictogram) is a picture of the
thing that it represents. Like a stick figure of a person, you can tell
what it is just by looking--no language is needed to interpret it. It
could be "persona" or "hito" or "person" or a manual Sign.

In contrast, a written word in whatever script, is not a picture of the
thing it represents. Instead--in spoken language--it stands for a
particular sound, a bunch of compression waves in the air. They're
invisible--you can't draw a picture of them. The closest you could come
would be a sonograph, which shows a lot of squiggly lines drawn on a
screen by the vibrations. You have to be a real expert to read them, and
they don't look a bit like a picture!

SO those are the two main divisions of writing systems; Phonologic, based
on sound, and Pictographic, based on image. (there are some other terms
floating around, like semasiographic, ideograph, and logograph, but
those are just for linguists to split hairs with:-)
(you can stop here; this gets worse)

SignWriting *looks* like pictographs. It is little pictures. BUT--this
is important--they are not pics of the thing represented. Instead they are
pictures of the word (the linguistic sign) that represents whatever it is.
A pictogram of a tree would look like a little tree; but the signwriting
symbol for the ASL Sign <tree> does not look like a tree. Well, a little,
if you're drunk enough, but you get the idea; write <linguist> or
<boring>; the SignWriting symbols don't look like the thing represented,
they look like the linguistic symbol--the Sign (or word)--that does the

So at one level they are pictographs; little pictures of hands and
faces. They are still very different from pictographic *Writing*, because
at this level they don't have any meanings: nothing linguistic is involved
yet. It isn't writing until it is plugged into a linguistic
Seeing the SignWriting symbol for a Sign, or the Sign itself
even, doesn't do you any good if you don't know the language being
represented. As Valerie points out, one particular sign (with its
SignWriting symbol) has either the meaning "to cook" or "translate,"
depending on if you are using American or Danish Sign Language.
The International Phonetic Alphabet does this same thing; one symbol for
each sound, and no necesity to even know what the words mean, so you can
hear it, transcribe it, and read (that is, pronounce) it back without
ever knowing the meaning. Like in High School Spanish class. If somebody
wrote the funny little IPA squiggles, upside down r's and stuff, you could
sound them out, and have the word "red." You still wouldn't know what it
meant though; is it English, meaning the color?--or is it the Spanish
word for "net?" no language has entered into the picture yet.
It seems to me, then, that we should ignore the pictographic aspect.
(I warned you to stop. It just gets worse yet!)

In the case of SignWriting, how to "sound out" a word? We look at the
little face and get the grammatical expression, look at the hand symbol
and get the shape, check the shading for the orientation, the arrows for
the movement, a quick look around the computer room to make sure you're
alone, and produce the sign. We have to look at *All those symbols before
we have the Sign. Without going into what makes a phoneme, that is why I
don't think it is an alphabetic system. None of those symbols by
themselves represents a segment the way a letter does, like [B] or [S].
The handshape, say, by itself is meaningless. What each symbol stands for
is smaller than a segment;it is a subphonetic feature.
In an alphabetic system each symbol represents a segment, and they follow
each other sequentially. The little hands and faces don't seem to do this
though, they gang up in groups to form segments, and these groups follow
each other. There seems to be aproximatley a skazillion possible groups,
and I can't imagine an alphabet with that many letters, but there can be
an unlimited number of features.

Whether the language it represents is manual or oral I think is kind of
trivial; writing systems are classified by how they represent the
linguistic structure of the language. The three basic ways are by the
syllablic, segmental, or featural. This last class is represented by
Pittman shorthand, and in part by the Cree/Inuit syllabary and also
Korean HanGul--which is widely held to be the most perfect orthography
known. Seems to me that SignWriting exemplifies this principle even more.

So that's my take on this thing; if Albert or anybody is still reading
this, what do you think? Hello? Hello? Anybody?
Joe Martin
Plain Old Ordinary Student
Western Washington Univ.

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