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From:  Valerie Sutton
Date:  Mon Nov 29, 1999  3:43 pm
Subject:  SignWriting OverView

November 29, 1999

Dear SignWriting List:
There will be an article about SignWriting published in a linguistic
magazine from the Netherlands. Here is the English copy of the article.
Thought you might be is a pretty good overview....obviously
no diagrams can be shown in this email message, but otherwise it is
complete. I submitted information to the editors of the magazine, and then
the editors put this article together, so it is written by a team of people:


SIGNWRITING: On the occasion of its 25th anniversary November 1999
Valerie Sutton
Center For Sutton Movement Writing

1. A Brief Historical Overview

1.1. Early history
SignWriting was developed by an American, Valerie Sutton, at the University
of Copenhagen in Denmark in 1974. She had invented a movement writing
system called Sutton DanceWriting in 1973. When she was invited to teach
her system to the Royal Danish Ballet in the Fall of 1974, newspaper
articles caught the eye of Danish audiologist and signed language
researcher Lars von der Lieth at the University of Copenhagen. Signed
languages were just being recognized as real languages; Lieth and other
researchers needed a way to record the movements of the languages they were
studying. Sutton adapted her system for signed movements, which she called
SignWriting. The name is now a registered trademark of Sutton's nonprofit
organization, the Center For Sutton Movement Writing, La Jolla, California.
For more information about the early history of SignWriting, see:

(1) 1966-1974 DanceWriting Begins; Precursor to SignWriting

(2) 1974-1978 SignWriting Begins In Denmark; The Early Years

(3) 1975-1980 SignWriting Begins In USA; MIT, NTD, NSSLRT, NTID

1.2. SignWriter newspaper
Sutton hired Deaf native ASL signers and proceeded to publish the first
newspaper written in the signed movements. The SignWriter Newspaper was
written directly in ASL by hand; it was published from 1981-1984. There
were even articles in four languages side by side - Danish Sign Language,
American Sign Language, Danish and English. For more information on the
history of this newspaper, see:

(4) 1981-1984 SignWriter Newspaper; Native Signers Begin Writing

1.3. SignWriter computer program
In 1986, the first version of the SignWriter Computer Program was released,
programmed by Richard Gleaves. At present, SignWriter 4.3 is in MS-DOS, and
SignWriter 5.0 for the Macintosh and Windows is planned for release in the
year 2000. For more history on the SignWriter Computer Program, see:

(5) 1986-1999 SignWriter Software Development; Apple IIe to MS-DOS to Java

1.4. Native signers use SignWriting
Deaf researcher and teacher Lucinda O'Grady Batch formed the Deaf Action
Committee for SignWriting, under the auspices of the Center For Sutton
Movement Writing, in 1986. The purpose of the DAC is to encourage members
of the Deaf Community to contribute to SignWriting's further development;
for more information, see:

(6) 1986-1999 The DAC, Deaf Action Committee For SignWriting

DAC members work on dictionaries, instruction videos, and ASL literature
when there is funding. For information on literature written by the DAC,

(7) Children's Stories Written in ASL

(8) Deaf Author's Series Written in ASL

As more Deaf people wrote their own signed languages in SignWriting, there
was a natural "evolution" of writing styles. For a history of changes and
improvements, see:

(9) 1974-1998 How SignWriting Has Changed; The Evolution of Writing Styles

2. About the system itself

2.1. SignWriting printing, handwriting & shorthand
There are three sections of the system in use today: SignWriting Printing,
Handwriting and Shorthand. The Shorthand and Handwriting are used for quick
notetaking and daily writing. The notes can then be typed by computer in
SignWriting Printing. Examples of each can be seen at:

(10) SignWriting Printing

(11) SignWriting Handwriting

(12) SignWriting Shorthand

2.2. SignWriting - How it works

Diagrams are here...

The sign THREE requires notation for only its handshape and which way the
palm faces. The sign BEARS requires more information. The 'claw' handshape
is formed with five spread fingers bent in a claw. The symbol is white
because the palms are facing the chest. Dark dots over the fingers means
that the middle joints of the fingers bend in a closing motion. Two dark
dots means two closings, or 'close-close'. In this case they are used to
describe the motion of 'scratching' like a bear. There are crossed arm
lines extending from the hands. The arm lines are only written when there
is something special, like crossed arms. The thick line at the end of the
sentence can be compared to the period at the end of a sentence in English.

2.3. Facial expressions, gesture & mime
SignWriting does not stem from a linguistic base. Therefore, SignWriting is
a "movement writing" system, because the movement is written down in a
generic form, not based on a prior knowledge of the language being written,
but instead based on how the body looks as it moves. This means that
SignWriting can write any signed language, with detailed facial expression,
gesture and mime. To learn SignWriting, see:

(13) SignWriting Lessons Online

(14) Facial Expressions

2.4. A comparison of transcription systems
Although SignWriting is not linguistically based, the visual qualities of
the system make it easy to use. Because Deaf people use it daily in some
countries, it gives linguists a new focus for their studies. For a look at
different transcription systems side-by-side, see:

(15) Writing the Same Signs In Different Transcription Systems:
Comparing SignWriting, Stokoe Notation, and HamNoSys

2.5. SignWriter capabilities

Signs, fingerspelling and words from spoken languages can be typed
separately or blended together. In addition, part of the software concept
is that the availability of Dictionaries make learning SignWriting easier.

2.5.1. Dictionary features
The beauty of the Dictionary in SignWriter is that it can be used by
beginners. Each sign is already written in SignWriting, edited by a staff
of Deaf native signers. This eliminates "spelling" errors because the signs
are written for you. The USA dictionary includes over 3000 entries.

2.5.2. Three ways to type
The program automatically opens in Sign Mode. One way to write signs is to
copy them from the dictionary into your document. But when the sign you
want is not in the dictionary, it can be typed by using the Sign Keyboard.
With another keystroke, you can change from typing signs to typing
fingerspelling. Simply type words in the standard orthography, and the
fingerspelling symbols in SignWriting appear on the screen. There are also
Fingerspelling Keyboards for 16 countries. Figure 6 shows the ASL alphabet

Finally, with one keystroke, you can change from typing signs to typing one
of nine spoken languages in the Roman alphabet.

2.5.3 Availability
The SignWriter Shareware version is for American Sign Language (ASL) only.
It can be downloaded for free from the SignWriting Web Site:

(16) SignWriter Shareware

The SignWriter International Package can be purchased as a package, with a
three ringed hardbacked notebook with five instruction manuals and seven
floppy disks. It includes signed languages and spoken languages from 16
countries. Nine spoken languages - Danish, English, French, German,
Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish, are available at:

(17) SignWriter 4.3 International Package

SignWriter 5.0 is a new version of SignWriter for Windows and the
Macintosh. Files typed with SignWriter 4.3 will automatically convert to
the new SignWriter 5.0 format when it is released. For more information
about SignWriter 5.0, see:

(18) SignWriter 5.0

3. Who uses SignWriting?

SignWriter is international in scope, giving users access to many spoken
and signed languages within one user interface. The program provides
linguists with a tool to study languages. For teachers and parents, it can
provide dictionaries, vocabulary lists and grammar lessons. Most
importantly, it inspires deaf children to read, write and type languages.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, deaf children as young as 6 years old are
typing signs. Linguists, researchers, educators and Deaf people in 16
countries are using the current version. Children in Nicaragua, Albuquerque
and Germany are typing by computer. Dictionary files in Spanish Sign
Language (Madrid dialect), Norway, Ireland and Taiwan are growing quickly,
with over 5000 signs in some of their dictionary files. See the following

(19) Nicaragua
(20) Brazil
(21) Denmark
(22) Germany
(23) Ireland
(24) Italy
(25) Mexico
(26) Norway
(27) Spain
(28) UK
(29) USA

3.1. SignWriting in research

Several dissertations are now being written either about SignWriting, or
using SignWriting to illustrate signs throughout documents. Nicaragua is an
example of how SignWriting has played an important role in Sign Language
Research. Two master's degree theses about SignWriting are posted in their
entirety on the web:

(30) Literacy In Nicaraguan Sign Language

(31) Writing Signed Languages; In Support of Adopting an ASL Writing System

3.2. SignWriting in deaf education
Being tested in the schools to teach Deaf children in several countries
with success, the SignWriting Literacy Project began in 1998 to assist
schools in experimenting with SignWriting. The Literacy Project is
pioneering a new concept: that deaf children who use a signed language
might benefit from learning to read and write their native language. This
may in turn help understanding of other written languages, such as English
or other spoken languages. The results are published on the SignWriting Web
Site and in an annual SignWriting Literacy Project Report, distributed to
educators. The Teacher's Forum on the web, posts information about each
class. For information about the project in Albuquerque, see:

(32) Albuquerque Public Schools; SignWriting Literacy Project

(33) Teacher's Reports, Albuquerque

(34) Classroom Experiences, Albuquerque

(35) Interviews with Deaf Students, Albuquerque

(36) Samples Of Student's SignWriting, Albuquerque

(37) Silent News Article About The Albuquerque Literacy Project

For more information, contact:

Deaf Action Committee for SignWriting
Center For Sutton Movement Writing
P.O. Box 517, La Jolla, CA, 92038-0517, USA


SignWriting Web Site
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