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From:  "Angus B. Grieve-Smith"
Date:  Wed Oct 28, 1998  6:01 am
Subject:  Re: Iconicity (was Re: Frequently-Asked Questions)

Well, this cranky old (I've just been informed that I'm now in my
LATE twenties) linguist would like to take a minute to crank about some of
this discussion of iconicity. I usually refrain from criticizing
SignWriting on the SignWriting List, but since Valerie asked the question
I figured I would give an answer from my perspective.

First of all, Karen Van Hoek's point about the iconicity of
English letter ordering may be true (most of the time), but it's only
useful in figuring out how to read and spell new words. There's a reason
why we don't notice this iconicity: because we don't use it very much!
Studies have shown that fluent readers, even of alphabets like English
process words whole, by recognizing the shape of the whole word. In other
words, once you're familiar with a word, iconicity doesn't help you at

Second, Saussure's point about the arbitrariness of the "sign" was
very useful when he said it almost a hundred years ago. But he could just
as easily have said "SOME signs are arbitrary," and made his point.

I'm not one of the linguists who feel that a writing system can be
"too iconic." But I am concerned when people place too much importance on
iconicity. The fact is that the iconic nature of SignWriting comes with a
number of significant costs:

1) medium. There's a reason why this list is conducted in English using
the Roman alphabet. The reason is that SignWriting messages are too much
of a bother to email with most of the computers in use today. It's not
impossible, but the procedural cost is too high. This is also why the
SignWriting Web site uses GIF images, rather than some other encoding.

Another aspect of this is that SignWriting can never be sent via TTY, the
most common long-distance medium used by the Deaf in the US. Newkirk '86,
and possibly some of the other systems, can be sent via TTY.

2) searchability. A friend pointed out to me that SignWriter's use of
non-standardized coordinates (as well as using GIF images) means that text
in SignWriting can never be indexed and searched. Unless significant
changes are made to the software-internal representation of SignWriting
and some system is in place for displaying them on the Web, we'll never
see AltaVista in SignWriting, and you'll never be able to so much as look
up a name in an address book in SignWriting.

3) size. I haven't seen SignWriting in hard copy, but one thing that
strikes me on the screen is how much space it takes up compared to any
other writing system I've seen. This is not a big deal, since Braille
also takes up a lot of space, but it's an added drawback.

I hope people don't feel attacked when I point out some of these
problems. I think it's great that there's such a large group of people
who care about writing signed languages, and that's the main thing. I'm
just concerned that if SignWriting becomes THE system for writing, say,
ASL, signers would not have all the advantages of a writing system due to
the problems I mentioned above.

I'm not here to cause problems, and I won't keep posting about
this. I just wanted to let people know the traps that they can get into
by valuing iconicity above its true worth.

-Angus B. Grieve-Smith
Linguistics Department
The University of New Mexico

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