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SignWriting is a system of writing sign languages. It is highly featural and visually iconic, both in the shapes of the characters—which are abstract pictures of the hands, face, and body—, and in their spatial arrangement on the page, which does not follow a sequential order like the letters that make up written English words. It was developed in 1974 by Valerie Sutton, a dancer who had two years earlier developed DanceWriting.

Although not the first writing system for sign languages (see Stokoe notation), SignWriting is the first to adequately represent facial expressions and shifts in posture, or to accommodate segments of speech longer than compound words and short phrases. It is the only system in regular use, used for example to publish college newsletters in American Sign Language, and has been used for captioning of YouTube videos. Sutton notes that SignWriting has been used or investigated in over 40 countries on every inhabited continent. However, it is not clear in how many of these countries it has been actually adopted by the Deaf community.

Some initial studies claim that Deaf communities prefer video or writing systems for the dominant language, however this claim has been disputed within SIL with the work of Steve and Dianne Parkhurst in Spain where they found initial resistance, later renewed interest, and finally pride. "If Deaf people learn to read and write in their own signing system, that increases their self-esteem", says Dianne Parkhurst.


As Sutton was teaching DanceWriting to the Royal Danish Ballet, Lars von der Lieth, who was doing research on sign language at the University of Copenhagenmarker, thought it would be useful to use a similar notation for the recording of sign languages. Sutton based SignWriting on DanceWriting, and finally expanded the system to the complete repertoire of MovementWriting. However, only SignWriting and DanceWriting have been widely used.


The advantage of SignWriting is that its iconicity makes it easy to learn, and it has proven to be popular in at least the ASL community. However, it has a few drawbacks:
  • The spatial layout of SignWriting requires special software for it to be used with a word processor for simple text, and presently there is limited software support.
  • The lack of overt phonemic structure or standardized orthography makes alphabetization difficult. For example, the hand used to sign a word makes no difference to the meaning, but it does change the spelling.


In SignWriting, a combination of iconic symbols for handshapes, body locations, facial expressions, contacts, and movement are used to represent words in sign language. Since SignWriting is pictographic, in the unusual sense of being an iconic featural script, no phonemic analysis of a language is required to write it with SignWriting. A person who has learned the system can "feel out" unfamiliar signs in the same way an English speaking person can "sound out" unfamiliar words written in the Latin alphabet.

Words may be written from the point of view of the signer or the viewer. However, almost all publications use the point of view of the signer. Sutton designed the script to be written horizontally, like English, and from the point of view of the observer, but changed it to vertical and from the point of view of the signer, to conform to the wishes of Deaf writers.


Palm orientation in SignWriting.
The orientation of the palm is indicated by filling in the glyph for the hand shape. A hollow outline (white) glyph indicates that one is facing the palm of the hand, a filled (black) glyph indicates that one is facing the back of the hand, and split shading indicates that one is seeing the hand from the side. Although in reality the wrist may turn to intermediate positions, only the four orientations of palm, back, and either side are represented in SignWriting, as they are enough to represent sign languages.

If an unbroken glyph is used, then the hand is placed in the vertical (wall or face) plane in front of the signer, as occurs when finger spelling. A band erased across the glyph through the knuckles shows that the hand lies in the horizontal plane, parallel to the floor. (If one of the basic hand-shape glyphs is used, such as the simple square or circle, this band breaks it in two; however, if there are lines for fingers extended from the base, then they become detached from the base, but the base itself remains intact.)

The diagram to the left shows a B-hand (flat hand) in six orientations. For the three vertical orientations on the left side, the hand is held in front of the signer, fingers pointing upward. All three glyphs can be rotated, like the hands of a clock, to show the fingers pointing at an angle, to the side, or downward. For the three horizontal orientations on the right side of the diagram, the hand is held outward, with the fingers pointing away from the signer, and presumably toward the viewer. They can also be rotated to show the fingers pointing to the side or toward the signer. Although an indefinite number of orientations can be represented this way, in practice only eight are used for each plane—that is, only multiples of 45° are found.

Hand shapes

Handshapes and their equivalent in SignWriting
There are over a hundred glyphs for hand shapes, but all the ones used in ASL are based on five basic elements:
  • A square represents a closed fist, with the knuckles of the flexed fingers bent 90° so that the fingers touch the palm and the thumb lies over the fingers. Unadorned, this square represents the S hand of fingerspelling. Modified as described below, it indicates that at least one of the four fingers touches the palm of the hand.
  • A circle represents an "open fist", a hand where the thumb and fingers are flexed so as to touch at their tips. Unadorned, this is the O hand of fingerspelling. Modified, it indicates that at least one finger touches the thumb this way.
  • A pentagon (triangle atop a rectangle), as in the illustration used for the Orientation section above, represents a flat hand, where all fingers are straight and in contact. This is similar to the B hand of fingerspelling, though without the thumb crossing over the palm.
  • A 'C' shape represents a hand where the thumb and fingers are curved, but not enough to touch. This is used for the C hand of fingerspelling, and can be modified to show that the fingers are spread apart.
  • An angled shape, like a fat L, shows that the four fingers are flat (straight and in contact), but bent at 90° from the plane of the palm. It does not occur as a simple shape, but must include an indication of where the thumb is, either out to the side or touching the tips of the fingers.

A line halfway across the square or pentagon shows the thumb across the palm. These are the E, B, and (with spread fingers) 4 hands of fingerspelling.

These basic shapes are modified with lines jutting from their faces and corners to represent fingers that are not positioned as described above. Straight lines represent straight fingers (these may be at an angle to indicate that they are not in line with the palm; if they point toward or away from the signer, they have a diamond shape at the tip); curved lines for curved (cupped) fingers; hooked lines for hooked fingers; right-angle lines, for fingers bent at only one joint; and crossed lines, for crossed fingers, as shown in the chart at right. The pentagon and C are only modified to show that the fingers are spread rather than in contact; the angle is only modified to show whether the thumb touches the finger tips or juts out to the side. Although there are some generalizations which can be made for the dozens of other glyphs, which are based on the circle and square, the details are somewhat idiosyncratic and each needs to be memorized.

Finger movement

There are only a few symbols for finger movement. They may be doubled to show that the movement is repeated.

A solid bullet represents flexing the middle joint of a finger or fingers, and a hollow bullet represents straightening a flexed finger. That is, a 'D' hand with a solid bullet means that it becomes an 'X' hand, while an 'X' hand with a hollow bullet means that it becomes a 'D' hand. If the fingers are already flexed, then a solid bullet shows that they squeeze. For example, a square (closed fist, 'S' hand) with double solid bullets is the sign for 'milk' (iconically squeezing an udder).

A downward-pointing chevron represents flexing at the knuckles, while an upward-pointing chevron (^) shows that the knuckles straighten. That is, a 'U' hand with a down chevron becomes an 'N' hand, while and 'N' hand with an up chevron becomes a 'U' hand.

A zigzag like two chevrons (^^) joined together means that the fingers flex repeatedly and in sync. A double-line zigzag means that the fingers wriggle or flutter out of sync.

Hand movement

Hundreds of arrows of various sorts are used to indicate movement of the hands through space. Movement notation gets quite complex, and because it is more exact than it needs to be for any one sign language, different people may choose to write the same sign in different ways.

For movement with the left hand, the Δ-shaped arrowhead is hollow (white); for movement with the right hand, it is solid (black). When both hands move as one, an open (Λ-shaped) arrowhead is used.

As with orientation, movement arrows distinguish two planes: Movement in the vertical plane (up & down) is represented by arrows with double stems, as at the bottom of the diagram at left, while single-stemmed arrows represent movement parallel to the floor (to & fro). In addition, movement in a diagonal plane uses modified double-stemmed arrows: A cross bar on the stem indicates that the motion is away as well up or down, and a solid dot indicates approaching motion. To & fro movement that also goes over or under something uses modified single-stemmed arrows, with the part of the arrow representing near motion thicker than the rest. These are iconic, but conventionalized, and so need to be learned individually.

Straight movements are in one of eight directions for either plane, as in the eight principal directions of a compass. A long straight arrow indicates movement from the elbow, a short arrow with a cross bar behind it indicates motion from the wrist, and a simple short arrow indicates a small movement. (Doubled, in opposite directions, these can show nodding from the wrist.) A secondary curved arrow crossing the main arrow shows that the arm twists while it moves. (Doubled, in opposite directions, these can show shaking of the hand.) Arrows can turn, curve, zigzag, and loop-the-loop.

Shoulder, head, and eye movement

Arrows on the face at the eyes show the direction of gaze.


Six contact glyphs show hand contact with the location of the sign. That is, a handshape glyph located at the side of the face, together with a contact glyph, indicates that the hand touches the side of the face. The choice of the contact glyph indicates the manner of the contact:
  • An asterisk (star) for simply touching the place;
  • a circle with a dot inside for brushing along the place and then leaving it;
  • a spiral for rubbing the place and not leaving; if there is no additional arrow, this is understood to be in circles;
  • a pound sign for striking the place;
  • a plus sign for grasping the place (usually the other hand); and
  • two bars on either side of the asterisk indicates that the contact happens between elements of the place of contact; usually between fingers, or inside a circular hand shape. (The other symbols, such as the one for brushing contact, are only rarely used between these bars.)


If the signing hand is located at the other hand, the symbol for it is one of the hand shapes above. In practice, only a subset of the more simple hand shapes occurs.

Additional symbols are used to represent sign locations at the face or body parts other than the hands. A circle shows the head.


There are symbols to represent facial movements that are used in various signed languages, including eyes, eyebrows, nose movements, cheeks, mouth movements, and breathing changes. The direction of head movement and eyegaze can also be shown.

Body movement

Shoulders are shown with a horizontal line. Small arrows can be added to show shoulder and torso movement. Arms and even legs can be added if necessary.


There are also symbols that indicate speed of movement, whether movement is simultaneous or alternating, and punctuation.


Signs are written in vertical columns. Within a column, signs may be written down the center or to either side. These are referred to as 'lanes,' and are used to indicate role shifting and body movement.


Sutton orders signs in ten groups based on which fingers are extended on the dominant hand. These are equivalent to the numerals one through ten in ASL. Each group is then subdivided according to the actual hand shape, and then subdivided again according to the plane the hand is in (vertical, then horizontal), then again according to the basic orientation of the hand (palm, side, back). An ordering system has been proposed using this beginning and examples from both American Sign Language and Brazilian Sign Language (LIBRAS). The current system of ordering for SignWriting is called the Sign Symbol Sequence which is parsed by the creator of each sign as recorded into the on-line dictionary. This system allows for internal ordering by features including handshape, orientation, speed, location, and other clustered features not found in spoken dictionaries.


Sutton has released the International SignWriting Alphabet 2008 under the SIL Open Font License. Steve Slevinski has a demo of the SignWriting MediaWiki Plugin alpha release available online for reading and writing SignWriting. The extension will be released under the GNU General Public License.


  2. Hopkins, Jason. 2008. Choosing how to write sign language: a sociolinguistic perspective. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 192:75-90.
  3. That is, the glyphs are pictographs of the speech organs, not of the objects the signs represent. Hangul is widely believed to be such a system as well, with its letters being iconic for the shapes of the tongue and mouth, but this may be a folk etymology; historically it may be a minimal abstract alphabet expanded with featural elements.
  4. ttp://

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