Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

J. Albert Bickford


Signed languages have not enjoyed the benefits of writing for lack of an effective writing system. Writing systems designed for spoken languages are not easily adaptable to signed languages because signed languages are not based on sound. A successful writing system for sign languages must convey a different set of articulators, namely the configurations and movements of the hands, head, and body to convey meaning. This necessarily means that writing systems for signed languages must find a way to express those articulators, reducing a three-dimensional event to a written representation.

One such writing system is SignWriting, a system developed by Valerie Sutton based on her earlier DanceWriting system. Unlike other attempts at writing sign languages such as Stokoe, HamNoSys, or SignFont which imitate spoken language writing conventions with a largely linear sequence of symbols, SignWriting makes use of the spatial relationships of symbols in a two-dimensional "sign box" to represent a sign. These signs are then written vertically down the page to represent signing.

The selection and placement of these symbols is not unpredictable. Analysis shows that SignWriting has a "grammar", that is, rules that govern how symbols function and how they combine to form whole written signs. The approximately 35,000 symbols are variations of 639 base symbols. I analyzed these symbols to determine the different categories and subcategories, analogous to analyzing the lexicon and grammatical categories of a natural language. Available data in publicly available dictionaries and online SignWriting lessons provided rules governing how symbols combine to form the representations of whole signs as well as the internal structure of individual symbols, analogous to the syntactic and morphological rules of a natural language.

All symbols fit into a set of seven major categories: hand symbols, movement symbols, a head circle with a set of modifiers, torso and limb symbols, dynamic symbols, punctuation, and SignSpelling notation. Symbols for the hands, head, torso, and limbs represent the active and passive articulators utilized by sign languages. The movement symbols describe how those articulators move and interact with other articulators. The dynamic symbols provide additional information to indicate the manner of the movement or how two-handed signs move. Unlike the other symbols which are composed inside a sign box, punctuation symbols are placed in their own sign box and function much like spoken language punctuation. SignSpelling symbols are not used in everyday writing but are used to store a representation of a sign in a dictionary for collating purposes. Because of the analysis required on the symbol inventory, only preliminary research was possible on the structure and relationships within a sign. The last two chapters present some preliminary rules that govern the placement of symbols and what work remains to determine more specific rules.

Further research along these lines will hopefully open the way for this system to be more easily used with general-purpose software applications and open the possibility for sign languages to take advantage of written forms in an effective and useful fashion. While the decision to use SignWriting (or any written system for sign languages) remains a sociolinguistic matter to be decided by each Deaf community, it is my hope that this research contributes toward the resolution of the technological barriers so that it is no longer a factor in their decision-making processes.