Date: Thu Jan 7, 1999 3:52
SignWriting List Forum
Thank you Bill! I was hoping somebody would jump on that Chinese thing. A
question is--can you write Sign languae in Chinese characters? (I know,
its a weird question, but linguists are like that)
**WARNING! Linguistic talk babbles up beyond this point. You have been
First of all, let's dispel the myth that Chinese writing is independent of
phonology. Although it is true that there are some Hanzi that are like
that, about 80%--the vast majority--are combinations of a semantic
determinative and a phonetic radical.
For example, the character for [ma], the sentence final particle, consists
of the symbol for particle (a little square) and the symbol for horse.
Horses don't have anything to do with it, it's just there to let you know
that this particular symbol is pronounced like the word for horse--[ma].
It's purely phonetic.
This is important. Without such a method, learning the Chinese script
would involve memorizing, purely by rote, whatever thousands of words one
had in one's vocabulary. Whether such a cognitive load is humanly
possible is an open question--I suspect it wouldn't.
Impossible or not, this is just exactly the task set by those who
espouse teaching the deaf English through the medium of print. Let me
In choosing an English word to represent an ASL sign, a choice must be
made amongst many possible synonyms (same with any two L's) The English
word /run/ can refer to a nose, a person, a machine, nylons, etc. The ASL
sign /RUN/ likewise has a host of meanings, especially without its
So the person chooses one from each set of words,--more or
less arbitrarily---and pronounces them "equivalent." From that point, we
have one word, and one symbol. We have to repeat this process for EVERY
SINGLE WORD in the language. The only alternative is the inaccurate,
polysemous glossing that is so inadequate now.
So...even though using english words, a person has to memorize not
just the word and the sign, but which meaning of each goes together; for
each of the two languages involved. This is just what is popularly
believed to happen with Chinese, but as we saw above, the Chinese
themselves have found this unworkable, and introduced phonetic elements.
This is one big reason why glossing doesn't work. And one reason
SignWriting is workable is that it is not based on random
memorization, but on phonetic features.