Why Has SignWriting Been Controversial?
....discussing issues on the SignWriting List.....


October 23, 1999

Valerie Sutton

Hello SW List Members...
As you know, I get lots of private messages and sometimes people write to me and ask me questions that may be of interest to the group as a whole. So I am posting an answer to a recent question about controversy over SignWriting.

There was a time when SignWriting was very controversial...in fact I bet a lot of you have already experienced this yourselves. All kinds of people have been against it in the past. That is normal for new ideas, historically, but it is confusing too. Sooo...I went through my old files and I found this old article. I thought I would share it with you:

written in 1997

Let me tell you about something that is starting to happen with respect to SignWriting here. It's surprising. The general mood is favorable in every ambiance, but there is an unexpected contradictory movement.

All this seems very strange to me. Why should anybody who talks a language resist to learn, or even to try to learn, a way of writing it? It doens't make sense. Or is there a sense that I can't grasp?

You talked many times about the resistance to SignWriting, about the major cultural and social change that it implies. Do you think those people here are reacting against social change? Even Deaf people?!

Answer fromValerie:
Yes. Social change is occurring. Social change is always greeted with fear by the very people who shall be benefitted, because they are the ones that have to make the change, and change is frightening. The burden for change is on two groups...the educators and the Deaf...and of those two groups...the Deaf have it the hardest...because it hits them at the root of their identity. The hearing educators can go home and continue to live the same...but the Deaf people have to change their "very image" of themselves.

This pattern repeats itself in every country that starts using SignWriting. Here in the United States..after 23 years ...finally the truly educated Deaf adults, who are the leaders within the Deaf Community, are finally saying "It is time to write our language". I am not saying it is perfect yet...no ..there are still a lot of people who have not "caught up" with the social change...but that will happen automatically when they see other Deaf people accept it. This takes a lot of patience.

Of course I understand your feelings, and I always have to explain this to everyone who first starts using SignWriting. When they meet with the resistance, they are always surprised and confused by it. But history has repeated this in several instances. So this appears to be a normal human tendency.

The pattern is this: The majority language rules, not because people want to hurt each other, but because most people speak the majority language. It is only natural. That is the language of commerce.

The minority group feels insecure. They are afraid they won't be accepted by the majority. They are afraid that if they "make waves" that is "if they bring attention to their differences" that the majority will not approve.

Technically the minority language is supressed...in this case Sign Language, without people even realizing it. The users of this minority language, in this case Deaf people, have noticed that they do better if they learn the majority language. It is not that they have directly been abused by the majority...it is more subtle than that. And so the fear spreads amongst themselves. Fear is catching.

Historic Example One: This story already happened in the 1800's with the Cherokee Indian Language, here in the North American region called Oklahoma. The Cherokee Indian chief, named Sequoyah, was a brilliant man who decided it was time that their language become a written language. Their traditions would be lost if they didn't write them down. His own people hated him for this and thought it was the work of the devil. They even burned his books! When asked why they felt that way...one answer was: "Only the "white man" is "allowed" to read and write. Indians were never meant to do that". It took Sequoyah 25 years or so, before the writing system was accepted, and because of him, their traditions were preserved. Now the Cherokees are proud of Sequoyah. The little book telling the story is entitled "Sequoyah - Biography of the Inventor of the Cherokee Syllabary" by Grant Forman. Another book is "Sequoyah: The Cherokee Genius"by Stan Hoig.

Historic Example Two: When Dr. Stokoe proved scientifically that ASL is a true language, you would have thought the Deaf people would be thrilled to finally have a hearing person prove that their language was a good one. Before that time they were told their language was a bad form of English. But no...even native signers who came from whole families of Deaf people had accepted that their language was no good. And they had been so endoctrinated in the school system that English was good and ASL was bad, that when Dr. Stokoe said ASL was good they protested and were angry at him. Why? Because they had worked so hard to learn English...it was such a struggle...and now they were afraid the hearing public would not accept them further...if they are "officially" different. It took twenty years before the Deaf Community was truly proud of ASL. And SignWriting started writing ASL back when all that was going on...so reading and writing ASL was even more controversial. When we started writing ASL, we were about 20 years ahead of our time - but that was the way it should be. New ideas always take time...

Try to imagine living to adulthood with no written form for your own native language. You speak your native language fluently, but because there is no written form for it, reading and writing is not a part of your self-image. And then imagine suddenly someone tells you that you "must read and write". It would be so new you wouldn't know what to think! And when you sat down to try to learn it, you would find that you didn't realize you said things that way. You had no idea your language did that...and that...and that. And suddenly you feel overwhelmed. And others around you feel the same way. So you gather in groups and say - "We don't want to learn this because it is too hard. It brings confusion to our lives. Let's leave things as they were".

That is why teaching young children in school is the only way to make true social change for the next generation. But the present generation of Deaf adults did not learn SignWriting as children, and it is hard to teach adults. I am afraid this will go on for some time.

Please don't let the social change get you down...it is a good sign...it shows that you are succeeding. I hope you can explain all this to your co-workers. It will help them to get a perspective on history. Best -

Valerie Sutton



Please feel free to write if you have questions.

Valerie Sutton


Deaf Action Committee for SignWriting
Center For Sutton Movement Writing
an educational nonprofit organization
P.O. Box 517, La Jolla, CA, 92038-0517, USA

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