forum SignWriting List Forum
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From:  Steve and Dianne Parkhurst
Date:  Mon Dec 3, 2001  9:51 pm
Subject:  Re: Phonemes and Body Movement?

Warm greetings from Spain.

I started this message a few days ago and it got stuck in my draft box for a
while, sorry. Let me briefly introduce ourselves: We are Steve and Dianne
Parkhurst, linguists with SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) working in
Spain. We've been here now almost 7 years. I (Steve) took my first SL
classes at SCCC a number of years ago. We will be back in the Seattle area
sometime in the spring so maybe we can meet you, Leigh.

Anyway, as Karen mentioned, there is a difference between phonetics and
phonemes. Phonetics typically refers to the study of the inventory of sounds
that are used to make up languages. Now the term phonetics has broadened to
mean the inventory of the most basic elements of a language, whether they
are sounds or handshapes (etc.).

There is a universal set of these elements. Let's talk about spoken
languages first. There is a way to write all these possible sounds--it is a
notation system called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Each
language decides to use only a small portion of the overall list. Some
African languages use clicks and things that would never occur in English,
and the R sound in English is used very rarely in other languages around the
world. Once you have narrowed down the inventory of sounds to those that are
used in a language like English, you need to decide which of those sounds
you really want, or need, to write. Now we are getting into phonemics--those
elements that make a difference in meaning.

For example, there is a difference between the TH sound in "this" and
"thing". For the first one you use your voice, while for the second one you
don't. This is the same difference between "bat" and "pat"--the B has
voicing and the P doesn't. In English we decide to write B and P differently
because if you didn't you would have a hard time telling words like "bat"
and "pat" apart. P and B are different phonemes--the use of one or the other
changes the meaning of the word. The two THs are technically different
phonemes but we treat them like phonetic differences because they rarely
make a difference in meaning. In IPA it is possible to write the two
different THs but we choose not to when we write in every day use. There is
probably a better example but this at least gives you a general idea.

Now for SignWriting, I can look at a video and write down every detail about
how the sign is done. This is notation. This originally is what Valerie
developed--a way to write down any type of movement (and handshape,
orientation, location, facial expression, etc.). Now, those of us who are
using SW as a writing system take all the possible symbols and make
decisions about what is necessary to write and what isn't. I can choose to
write every last little detail (phonetic information), or I can choose to
leave off some of the detail and yet the fluent signer and reader can still
understand the meaning of the sign. Not all the detail is necessary (not all
is phonemic--some is just phonetic) The more unnecessary detail I leave off,
the faster it is to read (fewer symbols to look at and interpret). But if I
leave off important information (phonemic information) then the reader may
misunderstand the meaning of the signs and communication breaks down.

So, Valerie has developed an international alphabet of symbols that can be
used to write any SL. And those of us who use SW as a writing system weed
out the phonetic and focus on the phonemic--we take out the unnecessary
detail and focus on those things that make communication clearest.

A few years ago we visited Valerie in her home and showed her some of the
stories in Spanish SL. She could read them without much problem. But every
once in a while we would tell her, "actually it is signed like this...". She
didn't have the intuition about Spanish SL to know that the way she signed
it had no meaning in Spanish SL. A native Spanish SL signer would look at
the sign and fill in the missing information and come up with the sign that
fit the context of the phrase. Not only that, they wouldn't even realize tha
t I had left out some of the detail because the option that Valerie
suggested doesn't even exist in their language.

Now, there are other notation systems for signed languages: Stokoe,
HamNoSys, and dozen or so others. Most of these were developed by linguists
who were looking for an IPA for signed languages. To the linguist all the
details are important. To the everyday writer and reader those details are
less important. Stokoe System and HamNoSys were never intended to be written
and read by Deaf people in everyday communication. SW (and DanceWriting), on
the other hand, was developed to be written quickly and read quickly and
therefore it is ideal for everyday use. Somewhere on the SW web site there
is a comparison of SW, Stokoe and HamNoSys.

Well, that's my two pesetas' (soon to be two Euros') worth on that topic. If
you want to contact us directly you may. I don't often get around to
commenting on the list. Hope this helps. If Barbara Bernstein still works at
SCCC, give her a warm hello from me.

Have a great day,
Steve :-)

Steve and Dianne Parkhurst

  Replies Author Date
5996 Spanish Textbook on SignWriting Posted Valerie Sutton Tue  12/4/2001
6008 NEW POSTING: Colombia Valerie Sutton Thu  12/6/2001

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