Monday, May 26, 2008

The Question of Space and Other Things In Writing ASL

The question of ASL writing has popped up with a few recurrent areas of concern: spatial referencing, the use of NMS (Non-Manual Signals, or facial/body expressions) and Palm Orientation.

The three, as far as I can address as a writer and reader, has been confronted and worked out in this proposal I have for the community.

Spatial usage: As many have questioned the foremost issue of the use of space in sign language, how can this be applied to writing?

Answer in a three-letter word: map. The map of the world, of the country, of the state, of the town, of the region, of a building, a microcosm, the atomic structure…has been used for centuries. Is the world flat, the atoms flat? The map says so. No. We already know the world and atoms aren’t flat. Therefore, we apply this pre-existing knowledge to map land and objects as we navigate across the land by sea, land or air; or in the science lab. The usage of symbols for the maps to represent three dimensional space are the compass, the longitude and latitude and altitude. In writing, we use diacritics to address those three dimensional mapping of writing symbols. Readers use contextual interpretation in reading messages the way pilots read the map. It's a two-way relationship where authors writing novels has come to become related with readers. Like pilots, readers navigate through the bodies of passages.

The question of Non-Manual Signals in writing:

Simple. We establish a common pattern of NMS for wh question expressions, yes/no question expressions, topical expressions, classifiers expressions and head nodding/shaking diacritics to punctuate in the sentences of the sentence similar to quotation marks. They help guide the sentence the same way signers move their hands in the areas below their eyebrows. Since NMS guides the whole expression of sign language inasmuch as voice inflection guide aural conversations (and sometimes are used as italics in writing) this writing system has the NMS to guide inflections in signing. And, how it has been made simple is the use of patterns in establishing the charts of ASL parameters. Those and the parameter charts can be easily taught.

The question of palm orientation: Like voice inflections and contextual interpretation, the palm orientation--however contrary to popular opinion, is not that crucial for writing. There are other ways to hint at palm orientation. It is the same with the lack of tongue positions in the mouth for spoken/aural languages. Writing is not to explain how to pronounce words but to recognize words to understand the message.

I also have included the left-handed and right-handed Digibet charts. This helps establish the dominant/support hand digibets. An example, left-handed signers “Southpaws” use the left-handed dominant Digibets in writing. This is a new dimension we can bring into the world of writing. Readers can then detect that the author is a left-handed signer or right-handed signer. As seen in the trials of writing during my study, the left-handed signer relates to the left hand digibets better than the right hand digibets. Should I argue with the Southpaw?

This adds to the three dimensional writing. The possibilities are endless. That’s what writing does. Right?

Here, we write because we want to convey thoughts. We don't write to explain how we produce/pronounce words. Other sign writing systems are bogged down with this notational expression.

More rules (not notational but expressive rules) makes for better language discipline and word-play. This elevates the language to the higher level of double interpretations enjoyed so much in puns, idioms and word play in the spoken language. It is because there are rules. Without rules language is simply to function as servants of thoughts. Robert Frost once said that poetry without rules is like playing tennis without a net. I believe that writing will greatly enhance the qualities of ASL, that it will bring upon linguistic rules and study, and elevate ASL to a new realm of consciousness. With the net up, we will have idioms, puns, word play, genres, and quotes-on-the-classroom-walls popping up.

This is not the writing to call my own; this belongs to our ASL/Deaf community and to our youth of tomorrow. They deserve this L1 (first language) acquisition in writing as well as in manual lessons. This will help record their thoughts at home and any place other than the classroom, that this will help teachers of ASL to understand and study the language development progress that will reflect the language cognitive process. Above all, this will bridge the young ASL users to the English language in writing, that they can bridge and compare the two on pages outside of the classroom, and in the homes where the majority of their parents are English users. Parents can also learn some of the ASL in writing.

All begins in the home. What is more literate pervasive in a home than written forms? Parents can finally magnetize their child’s writings on the refrigerators.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sign writing in ASL

Sign writing in ASL

Up for anything new? How about writing in ASL? Can ASL become a written language on paper? Should ASL have a written form? I don't mean GLOSS or anything that uses the Alphabet belonging to the aural language. I mean a written system entirely for sign language in the USA. Sign writing in ASL. How about it? If you are interested in that sort of thing, continue below. :-)

This blog (in English, of course) is an opportunity to discuss the need for a written system for American Sign Language (ASL). My MA Thesis under the Deaf Studies Department at Gallaudet University is titled, "A Proposal Of the Written System For ASL". I hope I have placed properly the references below and have not fallen short any protocol to recall the sources. Here's the excerpt from the opening statement of my thesis:

"This proposal answers the often overlooked need for a written system for American Sign Language (ASL), and how that need leads to the creation of a new ASL writing industry. The proposal also justifies the claim for such a need by showing how, historically, writing systems have come to build cities and societies, roads and opportunities, literature and the entertainment industry. Above all, this proposal demonstrates how all written forms have become wholly phonetic-based systems representing phonetic language, thus leaving sign language, which is visually based, without a written form. This begs the question: in a world where there are over 3,000 languages, with a third having a written version (“Writing Systems of the World,” 2003.), where is the written system for a language of visual modality? This lack of a written system for ASL is a calling to establish one. Furthermore, this proposal examines past and current attempts at establishing a written system for sign language, in addition to elements of writing, and explores why this new system is ideal compared to past attempts."

The thesis discusses lingual colonialism in the mind and education of deaf people and how many see no need for a written system since there is one already out, the English writing system, for the American deaf people. This sort of 'already out there' is an unconscious act of dependency on the language having been taught, thus this became a colonizing pedagogy not of and by ASL and not deaf centered, through the curriculum written by society at large.

Also at issue is the identity created and maintained from writing. As a writer I often sat down to write stories with one troubling question that hung in my mind, back and front, besides me and on the screen...if I cannot write in my own language, then who am I?

More excerpts from the thesis below:

What this (the question of Who am I?) means is that when writing a novel or story, "I search for a word to better fit the message I had in mind. The message was an image, an idea, a thought, yet it was without language. There were two languages I knew: ASL and English. ASL was my main language; therefore, the thought was picked up by ASL. Since ASL has no formalized written system, English took the reins and became the vehicle of passage from thought to written word. As old practice went, I searched for an English word to best fit the idea so eloquently expressed in ASL. More often than not I had to rethink the idea as I stripped it of its ASL version, manipulating it under the influence of English, before I could put the thought on paper. I was continuously doing translation work, careful to not compromise the message.

"This developed an acquiescent purpose of ASL, which allowed a dangerous precedence to emerge: linguistic colonialism."

Recipe for linguistic colonialism

"To possess none a written form of one’s native language is a perfect recipe for linguistic colonialism. Linguistic colonialism is the result of several forces, most notably the education policy as written in English, therefore becoming a language policy as well. This policy dictates a curriculum where English is the language of education, reading, writing, and so on, which creates a dilemma for ASL users. Until Stokoe published his findings that ASL was indeed a language, ASL was not placed in the curriculum as a study or as the language of the classroom, a practice that continues even to this day. Only upon the discretion of each school – often within deaf teachers’ classrooms – has ASL been the language of instruction.

"It is important to note regarding the lack of the written system for ASL is concerned: For those who cannot read and write (English, for example) a book or any other written document this becomes a clear indicator of “their own ignorance and powerlessness; of which fact the educated few can and, of course, do take advantage.” One of the most important consequences of writing is that it is “a powerful instrument of social control (Coulmas, 2003).”

"Remarkably, I wasn’t alone in this struggle in my writing. In 1962, an author in South Africa echoed this sentiment. In his essay, The Language of African Literature, Ngugi Wa Thiong’O wrote that he was invited to a historic meeting of African writers at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda. To his dismay, the conference – ‘A Conference of African Writers of English Expression’ – excluded Africans who wrote only in African languages—Swahili, Zulu, Yoruba, Arabic, Amharic and others. With the “exclusion of writers and literature in African languages (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffins, 2006),” the writers of English expression conferees sat down to begin discussing the opening item on the agenda: “What is African Literature?”

Literature greatly reflects a culture and language, beliefs and philosophy, politics and economy. What better way to preserve all of this, our own identity in print, and forever? By that, all of this will then spawn greater studies in literature, economics, politics, and so on in academic setting by the hundreds in a short time--that all of this was written by deaf hands anywhere across the US and the world.

The thesis has 4 chapters. Chapter 3 discusses the construct and structure of the written system and introduces the Digibet. The Digibet is a set of written symbols of hand shapes. The Digibet's counterpart is the Alphabet for the spoken language's written system. It is important to acknowledge the purpose, properties and structure of the language of visual modality, and how it differs from that of the aural modality.

As I begin my quest for the written system for ASL, I hope you readers shall join me in this endeavor to make this a possibility. Your ideas on how to make this possible are welcomed. I cannot do this alone, for this language belongs to our deaf/ASL community, and we alone can write ourselves into the pages of society.

R W Arnold