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From:  Ulrike Zeshan
Date:  Mon Nov 2, 1998  11:21 am
Subject:  Re: iconicity

Dear list members,
I have followed the discussion about iconicity in sign writing and want to put
in my opinion. Please forgive me that I have
so far only a very dim idea about sign writing and no practical skills, but I do
have a point of view that hasn't come up
yet. So let me make my point here and forgive me if I am talking about a problem
that has already been resolved
(long introduction...)
First of all, I totally agree with Karen van Hoek about the readability of
linear transcription systems. I have never been
able to read any of it be it Sign Font or HamNoSys or whatever, and I did feel -
looking at sign writing for the first time -
that its iconicity is a good base for readability. I also agree with Angus
Grieve-Smith that fluent readers of English (or any
other spoken language script) process whole words and don't use iconicity. But I
am somehow convinced that fluent readers
of sign writing will do the same, i.e. they will process the whole sign at once
without bothering very much about the
iconicity of the individual components. Maybe the fluent sign writing readers
among you can tell me.
But here comes my real issue now. I don't think that more or less iconicity in
sign writing is an issue that challenges
anything. What *is* the real issue in my opinion is in how far any sign language
writing system is phonetic or phonemic.
Let me explain what I mean by this: my point of view is based on my research on
sign languages in India and Pakistan, which
have so far not been researched at all as far as their grammar is concerned. If
I wanted to apply sign writing to this 'new'
sign language, what would I have to do? I could of course start right away and
use the symbols to describe the sign as I see
it (maybe I would need a few more particular handshapes etc). But wouldn't I put
in too much information that is, strictly
speaking, unnecessary? For example, I wouldn't really need to specify that some
signs are made with a B handshape with the
thumb folded on the palm because this handshape only occurs in signs with
contact made on the side of the hand along the index
finger (the thumb would be 'in the way' then). So if I write everything, this
writing is called phonetic. However, I would only
want to write as much as necessary to indentify every sign unambiguously, i.e. I
would like to write phonemically. In English,
you don't write down that the 'p' in words such as 'speech' is unaspirated (not
produced with a puff of air) in contrast with
words such as 'poor', and you don't need to write it down because there is a
phonological rule that tells you how to pronounce
the two. Similarly, there is a rule that tells me about the B handshape with
folded thumb so that I don't need to write it
down. But I only know this because I have analysed the phonological structure of
the sign language. In the course of
development of a writing system, I would like to eliminate all these aspects of
the sign that can be deduced by phonological
rules in order to make the writing system more concise and easy to handle. Of
course no writing system in the world is
totally phonemic in this sense but, if I am not mistaken, this is the direction
that linguists prefer for writing an unknown
language. Now my suggestion is that maybe some linguists feel that sign writing
is too iconic because there is a greater
danger to use it in a way that is more phonetic than phonemic. There may be a
feeling that sign writing doesn't necessitate
much phonological analysis and is therefore inferior or 'too iconic'. I don't
think so myself but I would still like
to know whether sign writing has evolved in this sense, i.e. in the direction of
writing more phonemically instead of
phonetically. Surely you must have known, for example, which handshapes to
choose from the maybe 150 or so phonetically
occurring handshapes. I am sure you didn't use all. So how did it happen?
Comments about this may help me to think about the
application of sign writing to Indopakistan Sign Language. Thanks for any hints.
Ulrike Zeshan
University of Cologne

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