Writing and Language, Both Signed and Spoken

Last week’s post featured a video log in which the person who posted the vlog stated that ASL is written with English words.

While it is true that ASL (and JSL) are often represented with English words, that raised a question that I have been meaning to address here on this blog for a while:

Can English truly capture the essence of JSL?

This is a question for more than just signed languages, but for the majority of spoken languages used worldwide, especially creole languages. Why do I single out creole languages? Well, my country’s national language is a Creole, so maybe I’m biased. 🙂

Anyway, people often contend that Jamaican Creole/Patois “cannot be written and read easily” (a comment on “Patois Not the Enemy of English”, Jamaica Gleaner). Part of the problem is that there is no widespread writing system designed to capture the sounds of the language; most of us use English words and writing rules and apply it to Patois with varying levels of success.

Let’s take for example the word “hand”; in Patois, the ‘d’ sound is absent, and, usually, so is the ‘h’. So, writing the word as ‘hand’ in Patois makes little sense. But people still do. And then, think about word pairs like “pot” and “hat” (same vowel sound), and “three” and “tree” (pronounced the same way).  Having a writing system that represents the nuances of the language rather than imposing English rules on it just makes sense. And we haven’t even gone into syntax.

For this blog post, I make an assertion: All languages can be written. But not all writing systems work for all languages.

Let’s take, for example, the Chinese way of writing and apply it to English. Chinese characters are largely meaning-based, with some sound components. So, if we wanted, we could take one of the thousands of characters, and apply them to specific words/morphemes:

I – 我
am – 是
past tense marker -了
a – 啊 (chosen just because of the sound [a])
teacher – 老师

I was a teacher.

So, it can be done, if you’re creative enough. But… does this really fit English? I’d say no. First of all, English verb conjugation is very different from Chinese.  “To be” becomes is/am/are/was/were depending on the subject. It’s more practical to have a sound-based letter system, like that English has.

Similarly, Patois, because of how different it is from English, is awkward when written with English rules. In Patois, “voice” (vais) and “ice” (ais) rhyme. Patois has nasal vowels (vowels produced through the nose), that distinguish words: ihn (“here”/”I am giving you this”) vs i (a direct article, “the”, as in, “Kech i baal no!”,”Catch the ball!”)

I don’t think English/words rules can faithfully capture those nuances. That’s why I believe the writing system that I’ve learnt for writing Patois makes the most sense. And I think it is likely the same for other creole languages

Now, for signed languages.

Signed languages have a completely different modality than spoken languages. They use hand gestures, facial expressions, body movements… Representing sign languages with English words is like forcing a deaf person to remember a phone number for every word/sign. It’s insane.

While a writing system does not make a language a language, giving a person the gift of being able to write in their native language is a form of empowerment.

That is why I believe in writing systems for sign languages that capture the handshapes, etc of the languages, rather than depending on the writing systems of spoken languages for their representation. There is already more than one for ASL:


One ASL writing system found on aslwrite.com


SignWriting, which is used for ASL, Danish Sign Language, and others

Having a way to write JSL that corresponds directly to JSL’s modality would allow the Deaf to write without having to translate into English every time they have to/want to write. And, as the Patwa writing system did for me, I believe it would help them to differentiate between JSL and English. Writing in one’s native language is a great stepping stone to learning to write in another.

I hope that one day, I’ll live to see a culturally Deaf person bring true JSL writing to the Deaf.

About Ken Kwame

Jamaican writer and aspiring fantasy novelist.
This entry was posted in JSL, Languages, Linguistics, Patwa, 汉语 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Writing and Language, Both Signed and Spoken

  1. I’ve always loved learning languages, but only recently started taking an interest in sign languages (at the moment I am studying Brazilian sign language but plan to learn British Sign too) I have just discovered your blog and wanted to tell you that I think it is so so interesting! Everything you write about fascinates me, and I like the way you write too, you explain complex concepts in a way that is easy to understand 🙂


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