One of my contacts in the Pagan Community is an individual who first introduced me to the concept of signwriting.
For those of you who are not familiar with this, signwriting is
a writing system which uses visual symbols to represent the handshapes, movements, and facial expressions of signed languages. It is an “alphabet” – a list of symbols used to write any signed language in the world.
Basically signwriting uses different symbols to represent the hands and the face in order to show signs in a written format. I think of it as being similar to the concept of hieroglyphs or logograms, as used by the ancient Egyptians, and which can still be found in modern day languages such as Chinese characters or Japanese kanji.
Below are some examples of signwriting:
The circles represent the head/face, the bars/squares represent the hands, and the arrows and dots represent the movement made by the hands.
As you can see, this is rather different from illustrating the sign with a picture of a person as shown below:
According to the information I have read, signwriting dictionaries have been published, as well as lesson books for learning signwriting. In addition, there are children’s books and religious books.
In fact, I have been approached about the possibility of utilizing signwriting as a format for creating translations of Pagan vocabulary and prose into American Sign Language.
However, I have mixed feelings on this whole signwriting concept. Personally, I don’t know anyone other than this individual (who is a hearing sign language user) who knows signwriting. I have not met any Deaf individuals who have indicated they know and use it. I’m curious just how popular signwriting is in the Deaf Community here in the United States. It does appear to be more popular and more accepted in other countries than it is here.
From what I have seen, it seems both the Deaf Community and the signing community (Interpreters, ASL students, Interpreter Training Programs, etc.) utilize video much more than they do a written form of ASL. I’m curious if in fact any Schools for the Deaf or ITPs do in fact use signwriting to teach their deaf students or their ASL/Interpreting students.
Can American Sign Language (or any sign language as used by the Deaf Community) truly be written? Can signwriting really pick up all the nuances of the language – the facial expressions, mouth movements, body positions, gestures and the like that are incorporated into ASL? Can it accurately describe classifiers?
Although the signwriting website states that signwriting can be used to teach sign language to those wishing to learn the language, I question its true ability to do so. I have always stated that one cannot learn sign language from reading a book, and I think this is as true for a signwriting book as it is for an illustrated sign language book, such as The Joy of Signing. Sign Language is a visual language with its own grammar and syntax, and to truly learn it properly one needs to take a class and see it demonstrated by a qualified teacher. This allows for the development not only of expressive, but also receptive skills. At the very least…one needs to be watching videos, not studying a book. While books can be helpful resource tools, they cannot and should not be the instructor.
Indeed…I’m not convinced that I could properly teach someone how to sign The Charge of the Goddess from utilizing the signwriting format. I receive many emails/comments from Pagans wanting to learn how to sign various words and phrases related to our spirituality… but these individuals ask if I will make videos (or at the very least provide English descriptions of the signs I use). I doubt any of them know signwriting, and would question their ability to understand it. Even with my fluency in ASL, I have problems reading signwriting. Granted, I’ve never taken lessons in order to learn this particular medium…but that’s the point – it seems that it would really be mainly effective to those who already know ASL or at least have a basic understanding of it.
I think one really needs to see ASL (or any sign language) actually expressed by a flesh and blood individual – whether in-person or via a video – to truly grasp the intricacies of the language and the concepts that are being conveyed. The Charge of the Goddess is a beautiful piece of prose, and I’m not sure that signwriting could accurately do justice to a translation of it.
On the other hand – in order to be fair…am I (and the Deaf Community in general) dismissing signwriting as just being “nonsense” without giving it the consideration it deserves? Is there a place in the Deaf Community for signwriting? Does it have any true value as a medium for the expression of our language? Could Deaf newsletters and the like be written in signwriting for easier comprehension by the community?
Could signwriting be used in Schools for the Deaf as a method for teaching Deaf children how to read and write English? Are there any schools out there that in fact do incorporate signwriting into their curriculums?
Has the Deaf Community made a true effort to learn more about signwriting and its possible usage? For example, has a workshop on signwriting ever been offered at a National Association of the Deaf conference, or some similar event? Should it be, or is it generally agreed to be “a waste of time; an ineffective faulty tool not worth pursuing?”
I’m not taking sides here – I’m merely asking the questions. I’m still on the fence about this. My big question is the fact that as I stated, I am not aware of anyone who knows and utilizes signwriting…and I am curious why that is the case. Is it because this format has been legitimately studied and determined not to be a valuable asset for further development and usage…or has it just been dismissed out of hand by those who would argue that sign language is not a written language, cannot be written in any form, and thus any attempt to do so is just plain stupid? Or for that matter…am I just “out of the loop” here and not familiar with those who do in fact use it?
Hmmm. Something to think about.
Sooo…what do YOU think, readers? Do any of you know and use signwriting? Would you be interested in learning it? Do you think it does have a place in the Deaf Community? If so, how?
Do you think attempting to create ASL translations of Pagan prose in signwriting would be effective, or would I be better off developing such a project utilizing video instead?
Please share your thoughts…I’m really curious to get feedback on any of these questions. Thank you.