forum SignWriting List Forum
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From:  Valerie Sutton
Date:  Wed Dec 2, 1998  2:42 pm

> 3) Does SignWriting still face continuing controversy, ridicule,
>etc even today? From what sources, usually? (i.e., Deaf people/leaders,
>hearing people, administrators of deaf schools, etc). What is(are) the most
>common argument(s) against SignWriting?

Yes. But things are changing now. People are much more positive than
before. Here is some history behind the controversy:

SignWriting was controversial from the moment it was introduced in 1974.
Historically, new ideas that create "social change" are always met with
resistance in the beginning, and SignWriting is no exception.

Back in 1974, people were still getting used to the idea that signed
languages were real languages, and that idea was a major social change too.
Believe it or not, there were Deaf people who did not believe their native
signed language was a real language, and they resisted that idea in the
beginning too. They had been taught that their own language was inferior,
so it took them time to adjust to the fact that they could be proud of
their own language now. And reading and writing it was just one more thing,
piled on top of all the changes in thinking, and it was overwhelming for

And then there is the issue of the school systems, and the arguments and
theories that abound in the field of Deaf education. We have all heard
about the "war between the oralists and manualists". SignWriting certainly
has nothing to do with that "war", but many people were wary of any new
idea in Deaf education, because they were steeped in controversay between
oralism and Sign Language already. Obvisouly SignWriting is only useful if
a person chooses to use a signed language.

And then there is the issue of hearing people "fiddling" with the language
and "changing it". A lot of people assumed that SignWriting was a new form
of "SEE SIGNS". They were skeptical that a hearing person might respect and
want to preserve American Sign Language and other signed languages. The
fact that SignWriting can record any human movement, of course, makes it
possible to record any kind of signing, but the DAC, the organization
behind SignWriting, chooses to write true signed languages, such as
American Sign Language, Danish Sign Language and others. So it is not SEE
SIGNS - but that accusation happened fairly frequently. People who made the
accusation had never learned SignWriting - they just assumed that.

Although the controversy continues from people who have never learned
SignWriting, in the past few years, the tide began to change toward more
open-minded thinking. This is partly because SignWriting "hung in there"
and continued for 25 years, and through time it improved, as more and more
people used the writing system. But there is another reason that the
controversy became less extreme. People became "ready" to read and write
their own language. It took 25 years for them to get used to ASL and other
signed languages as "true languages", and once that idea became
established, the need for writing the language became greater.

The invention of SignWriting is at times compared to the invention of the
written alphabet for the Cherokee Indian language. The Cherokee Indian
chief Sequoyah, who invented the written form for his native spoken
language, was also surrounded by controversy for 25 years. His own people
burned his books and threatened his life. They actually put him on trial
for being a witch, but then he taught the jurors at the trial how to read
and write (I am not kidding, that is the story!) and they decided it was
pretty terrific!! So instead of executing him, they decided to use
Sequoyah's alphabet, and now the Cherokee Indian language is preserved for
future generations.

Most written forms are not used by a whole society for centuries. English
was very slow to be written, and it is only in recent centuries that
everyone learns to read and write English.

What are some of the comments people make, who are against SignWriting?
Here are a few:

1. signed languages are not "meant" to be written
2. hearing people will think I am stupid
3. Deaf people will become isolated and never learn to read and write English
4. you have no right to write our language if you are a hearing person
5. if I learn it, no one else can read it, so why bother?
6. I had trouble enough learning to read and write English, why should I
learn something new now?
7. isn't it another form of SEE SIGNS?
8. are you trying to "save" the Deaf?
9. English gloss works very well, thank you! We don't need those funny symbols!
10. I refuse to learn SignWriting unless other Deaf people back it first

> 4) What do you usually say in response to their argument(s) against

All new ideas take time. No one is asking you to use SignWriting. But
others like to use it, so that is their choice. All languages deserve to be
preserved, and I personally love to write signs.

No, it is not SEE Signs, we are trying to write the best ASL we know how.
No I don't want to save the Deaf - I have enough problems saving myself!

No - English glosses are definitely not accurate. There are multiple signs
for each English word - so which sign are you choosing when you place an
English word on the page? It is wrong to try to write one language with
another - if I wrote Danish grammar with English words, the Danes would
kill me - ha!

If you don't take a risk with learning something new, how do you expect the
human race to improve? Deaf people can't back something, if they have never
heard of it before. So as more and more people try to write signs, and as
it is introduced in the schools, more and more Deaf people will back it. It
is a natural process.

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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