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Written Forms of Sign Language

By: Joanne Walker BA (hons) - Updated: 30 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
Sign Language Written Page Spoken See

Sign language is fundamentally different to spoken language in almost every single way. This means that when people think of sign language, they do not think about writing it down. In fact, they wonder how it could even be possible to easily represent sign language on a page. But, giving it some thought, spoken languages had to evolve into written ones at some point as well so there must be a sensible way of making a signed language into one which can be represented in a written form as well.

But is it Needed?

This is the main question which most people ask when the question of written sign language rears its head. After all, sign language is used, in the developed world, as a form of communication for deaf people. But the vast majority of deaf people can read and write the language of the country they live in and therefore have no need to learn a separate written language. So people are well within their rights to ask why there would even be a need for people to form a written version of sign language.

So Why is it Harder?

The reason that it can be harder to represent sign language as a written language has nothing to do with the way it is represented by hands and everything to do with the way it is formed. Sign language is based on hand signals which in themselves represent several phonemes. A phoneme is smaller than a syllable and represents every movement your mouth makes when speaking. Because each sign represents several phonemes, it can be very hard to make sure they are all represented in written form, when one sign can make several phonemes.


But there are ways of representing sign language as a written language and chief amongst these are pictograms. These are, as the name suggests, a picture which looks like the sign which they are meant to represent. But at its most basic, this is the ideal way of showing what signs look like on the page - far more so than the written forms of spoken languages, which, due to their lack of visuals, are far harder to represent, had we no prior experience of written language.

Stokoe Notation

Stokoe notation is a far harder concept to get to grips with. It is basically a way of using the Latin alphabet which all of us English speakers are familiar with, to represent fingerspelling. In this way, each letter comes to mean a fingerspelling letter but a different depiction of a letter also is used to represent things such as the trunk of the body, being signed at the same time.

So, it can be seen that there are many ways of making sign language work as a written language. The question is for the individual, where are they going to use it? If you can think of a valid reason to make people use written sign language, then the options are there to be used. Really, if you have a way of depicting it, then it can be classed as written sign language.

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