SignWriting: The Written Form of ASL and Other Sign Languages

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A good many languages have a written form in addition to the spoken form. The main benefit of having a written form is that the users of that language can express, share, and record their ideas and thoughts more widely. A written form of language makes it easier for the speakers of that the language to learn new things and skills outside of oral communication. It also helps them develop a pride in their culture and bring about an increase in self-esteem and self-reliance.

For a long time, sign languages had only a visual form, This is still true to a large extent, and, in the days before video technology became so readily available, there was little scope of recording anything anyone signed. People were creating stories and poems and songs in sign languages, but these could only be performed live and, consequently, got limited exposure. A few researchers then attempted to create written forms of sign languages, and two of the successful ones were William Stokoe and Valerie Sutton.

Valerie Sutton, a dance teacher with the Royal Danish Ballet, had invented Dance Writing in 1972. Her work interested a sign language researcher from Copenhagen University and, on his suggestion, she created SignWriting in 1974. It was not immediately embraced by the deaf community, but Sutton was persistent in her efforts to publicize and propagate her invention. She wrote about it, gave lectures on it, and published newsletters in it. SignWriting is now used in many countries, used in many sign language newsletters and publications, and for video and TV captions.

Features of SignWriting

SignWriting uses various iconic symbols for different sign language parameters like handshapes, finger movements, hand movements, palm orientations, hand locations, body movements, and facial expressions to convey signed letters, words, phrases, and sentences.

Let’s look at some of the features of SignWriting:

  • It is an easy-to-learn pictographic writing form that does not require phonemic language analysis.
  • It is written in vertical columns and written and read from the point of view of the signer. It can also be written from the viewpoint of the viewer, but that is less common.
  • It has over six hundred symbols.
  • It can easily indicate facial expressions, body movements, long speech segments, and morphological inflections.
  • It can be written on a computer using special software. Sutton has brought out the International SignWriting Alphabet 2008 under the SIL Open Font Licence.
  • SignWriting is used in thirty-eight countries around the world.

SignWriting Parameters

Now let’s look at some of these sign language parameters conveyed by SignWriting.

Palm Orientation is shown by a handshape glyph:

  • A hollow, white glyph indicates one is seeing the palm.
  • A filled, black glyph indicates one is seeing the back of the hand.
  • A split shaded glyph indicates one is seeing the side of the hand.
  • An unbroken glyph indicates the hand is being held in a vertical plane.
  • A broken glyph indicates the hand is being held in a horizontal plane.

Handshapes are represented by over a one hundred symbols that are derived from the following basic shapes, and these basic shapes are modified with straight, curved, hooked, angled, or crossed lines to represent different finger positioning:

  • A square represents a closed fist, formed by folding fingers into the palm and placing the thumb over the bent fingers. If there’s a line halfway across the square, it means the thumb is bent over the palm.
  • A pentagon represents a flat hand, formed with the fingers held straight and close together. If there’s a line halfway across the pentagon, it means the thumb is bent over the palm.
  • A circle represents an open fist formed by touching the tips of close held together fingers and the thumb.
  • A letter C represents curved, non-touching fingers and thumb.
  • An angle represents close-held fingers bent at right angles to the palm, with the thumb either held outstretched or touching the fingertips.

Hand movements:

  • Hollow, white arrowheads represent left hand movements.
  • Solid, black arrowheads represent right hand movements.
  • Open arrowheads represent both hands moving together.
  • Double-stem arrows represent up and down hand movements.
  • Single-stem arrows represent side to side and front to back hand movements.

You can find more information on signwriting at the SignWriting: Read & Write Sign Languages site.

For examples of SignWriting, please read ASL Numbers 0-10 and ASL Colors.