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From:  Valerie Sutton
Date:  Wed Nov 4, 1998  3:29 am
Subject:  Re: Iconicity

On Mon, 2 Nov 1998, Ulrike Zeshan wrote:
>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.
>Ulrike Zeshan
>University of Cologne

November 3 1998

Hello Ulrike -
Thank you for your very interesting message. I will be answering it in
three parts.

I notice you are at the University of Cologne, in Germany. I love the city
of Cologne. I used to live in Denmark, and I have been to Cologne, Germany
several times, two times working with DanceWriting back in 1972 and 1974,
and one time I recorded the movements of physical therapy there. It has
been a long time, and I want to go back to find my notes from that
work...but live in a lovely city. I love the Cathedral and the
square nearby, and the Cologne Opera House where I have seen many an opera
and dance performance.

You are correct that we read signs as "units". I think that is what Michele
Lewis was saying, when she reported that her children learned whole signs
and sentences better than breaking them down. So there is no question about
that...I think the question is how do we define the term "iconic"? I can
see there are several interpretations of that word. I know one thing -
SignWriting is learned quickly because the "units of symbols" represent a
"complete picture" and your eye and brain grasp it all at once.

We all know that SignWriting is visual. But the symbols of SignWriting have
no meaning by themselves. They are just visual representations of parts of
the body. Obviously, if you know a signed language already, then you can
"attach" meaning to the movements written on the page, but the symbols
themselves carry no meaning.

The sign for "cook" in ASL could be called "iconic" because it shows the
"image" of a person turning a hamburger over in a frying pan. The "symbol
of cooking" is in the sign.

Meanwhile, the sign "to translate language" in Danish Sign Language (DSL)
is the exact same movement. It too is "iconic" because it is showing the
"picture" of turning pages over and over, which represents the "changing of
languages". That works in DSL because the sign for language itself is
similar - it is hard to explain this in becomes iconic once you
know other signs in DSL.

I wrote both those signs before I knew either DSL or ASL...I could not know
their meaning because I knew no signed language at that time. I wrote them
exactly the same, because they are the same. So as a neutral observer, the
signs were not iconic to me, because I could not attach meaning to them.

Later I found out that the same sign had two different meanings - one in
DSL and one in ASL - and I found that fascinating! I have used that example
in speeches to demonstrate the neutrality of the writing system, and how
reading it becomes iconic, once you know the signed language being written.

Valerie :-)

Valerie Sutton at the DAC
Deaf Action Committee for SW


Center For Sutton Movement Writing
an educational nonprofit organization
Box 517, La Jolla, CA, 92038-0517, USA

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