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From:  John Albert Bickford
Date:  Tue Jul 7, 1998  1:33 am
Subject:  Re: Is SignWriting an Alphabet?

Joe Martin has some very good points, and has explained the situation well
about whether
SignWriting is an alphabet or not. I think he's right; SignWriting is more
finely-analyzed even than an alphabet.

Albert Bickford

(my contribution gets thicker here, but some may be interested in the points
of similarities and differences in what Joe and I were talking about, and
why I think his understanding is better than mine was. If you're one of
these, read on...)
I hadn't heard of the concept of a 'featural' orthography before (not
knowing that any spoken language orthographies analyzed things that finely),
but that does seem to be the right way to characterize SignWriting, better
than calling it "alphabetic" (=segmental). By comparison, the roman alphabet
is mostly segmental, although when applied in some languages there are extra
symbols called 'diacritics' or 'accent marks' that represent individual
features. But, in SignWriting, almost every feature (movement, orientation,
handshape, even position of individual fingers and different parts of the
face) has its own symbol. This makes it possible to write down a HUGE number
of possible signs with relatively few symbols.

Now, whether a featural writing system is "better" than an alphabetic one,
or both better than a syllabic one, or vice versa--I'm not prepared to say.
There are advantages to each. Plus, even the best writing systems have
problems, usually because they represent compromises among many different
factors. (The members of the D.A.C. could probably tell us a LOT about
that!) But, SignWriting seems to work reasonably well, and that's what's

There are some themes that are in common between Joes' posting and mine
(although he expressed them better), and some other recent postings. Let me
try and summarize some of them, and I'll take the liberty to add a couple
more too, that I think most readers of this list will agree with. (If I'm
wrong, let us see what you think!)
- SignWriting is not pictographic; thus, it is not like the Chinese writing
system. SignWriting represents the way that a word is signed in a particular
language, not its meaning.
- The classification of a writing system is independent of whether the
language being represented is signed or oral. Thus, SignWriting is BOTH
cheirographic AND featural. The Roman alphabet used for English is both
phonographic AND alphabetic.
- Signed languages are different from spoken languages, and special in their
own right. They require a special writing system, not just an attempt to
adapt the roman alphabet to work with signed languages (like some earlier
attempts at writing signed languages).
- SignWriting is designed so that it is practical as a writing system for
everyday use, not just research
- Ultimately, SignWriting will be shaped by the people who use it most. I
applaud everyone who is doing so!


-----Original Message-----
From: Joe Martin
To: SignWriting List
Date: Thursday, July 02, 1998 10:49 AM
Subject: Re: Nixograms

>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?

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