Posted by: learnsignlanguage | June 21, 2010

Written forms of sign languages

“Sign language differs from oral language in its relation to writing. The phonemic systems of oral languages are primarily sequential: that is, the majority of phonemes are produced in a sequence one after another, although many languages also have non-sequential aspects such as tone. As a consequence, traditional phonemic writing systems are also sequential, with at best diacritics for non-sequential aspects such as stress and tone.

Sign languages have a higher non-sequential component, with many “phonemes” produced simultaneously. For example, signs may involve fingers, hands, and face moving simultaneously, or the two hands moving in different directions. Traditional writing systems are not designed to deal with this level of complexity.

Partially because of this, sign languages are not often written. In those few countries with good educational opportunities available to the deaf, many deaf signers can read and write the oral language of their country at a level sufficient to consider them as “functionally literate.” However, in many countries, deaf education is very poor and / or very limited. As a consequence, most deaf people have very little to no literacy in their country’s spoken language.

However, there have been several attempts at developing scripts for sign language. These have included both “phonetic” systems, such as HamNoSys (the Hamburg Notational System) and SignWriting, which can be used for any sign language, and “phonemic” systems such as the one used by William Stokoe in his 1965 Dictionary of American Sign Language, which are designed for a specific language.

These systems are based on iconic symbols. Some, such as SignWriting and HamNoSys, are pictographic, being conventionalized pictures of the hands, face, and body; others, such as the Stokoe notation, are more iconic. Stokoe used letters of the Latin alphabet and Arabic numerals to indicate the handshapes used in fingerspelling, such as ‘A’ for a closed fist, ‘B’ for a flat hand, and ‘5’ for a spread hand; but non-alphabetic symbols for location and movement, such as ‘[]’ for the trunk of the body, ‘×’ for contact, and ‘^’ for an upward movement. David J. Peterson has attempted to create a phonetic transcription system for signing that is ASCII-friendly known as the Sign Language International Phonetic Alphabet (SLIPA).

SignWriting, being pictographic, is able to represent simultaneous elements in a single sign. The Stokoe notation, on the other hand, is sequential, with a conventionalized order of a symbol for the location of the sign, then one for the hand shape, and finally one (or more) for the movement. The orientation of the hand is indicated with an optional diacritic before the hand shape. When two movements occur simultaneously, they are written one atop the other; when sequential, they are written one after the other. Neither the Stokoe nor HamNoSys scripts are designed to represent facial expressions or non-manual movements, both of which SignWriting accommodates easily, although this is being gradually corrected in HamNoSys.”

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