SignWriting List
November 6, 2013

Hello Honza and everyone -
Thank you for starting this interesting thread, about the “genesis” or the background and history not only to SignWriting, but to writing sign languages throughout history. There is a lot to discuss.

Regarding Roch-Ambroise Auguste Bébian…
I first heard about Bébian’s system in September 2007, when my friend Shane Gilchrist (hi Shane!) suggested that I purchase a book called “I See a Voice” by Jonathan Rée. I ordered it from and then enjoyed skimming the chapters related to writing sign languages, from page 293-324. It was there that I first learned about Bébian, but I was immediately attracted to his system and his feelings about writing sign languages and felt a “connection” (you know what I mean - almost a spiritual feeling that we were on the same plane, so to speak). And there are many other interesting stories and information in the book which makes me think I should read the book more carefully - I confess I have only skimmed the book.

But yes, Honza, I see the connection, but no, I did not know about Bébian at the time of my first writing Danish Sign Language and a South Pacific Sign Language back in Denmark in 1974, 1975 and 1976.

I was a little different than the other developers of writing systems, in that I did not come from a knowledge of any sign language, nor did I have a desire to learn linguistics. I loved languages in general, but that is not a linguistic interest. I was already writing the dances of the Bournonville tradition at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen with my invention in 1974, and when I started writing the movement of both hearing people and Danish Sign Language from a video at the University of Copenhagen starting in 1974, I was sharing my time between writing dance at the Royal theater and writing sign language movement and hearing-person’s gestures at the University - I saw myself as a movement notator and not a sign language writer at the time…but overtime, as I wrote more of Danish Sign Language on the video, I became aware it was a real language…I self-published two booklets on writing sign languages - one on writing Danish Sign Language, and the other on writing signs from a South Pacific Island with Rolf Kuschel. These two booklets are mentioned on this web page, and I could scan them and post them on the web if you wish…would you like to see these old historic documents?

My influence was definitely Friedrich Albert Zorn ( ), and Walt Disney’s animation that places movement in drawings frame by frame by frame from left to right on a five-lined staff that can fit under music… That was my starting point…

Then I started writing sign language in stick figures at the University go Copenhagen… Later I learned about Dr.Stokoe and his research…

I think starting visual with stick figures, with no linguistic judgements, had great value, and I still believe in the visual, but it is the writers we work with, like yourself, Honza, and in my case, the Deaf Action Committee, that had the greatest influence on our writing expressively, in vertical columns, without full stick figures…the way we write today…and the internet had a big influence…where I and others meet people like yourself - as we write we influence each other...

I bet there were many other writing systems for sign languages before and after Bébian, that we have not heard of, because everyone needs a way to write signs… Adam tells me that most signers have developed their own way of writing their language from time to time…Adam developed his own system too, before starting to work with SignWriting, and I have also met other Deaf signers who have done the same - Bernard Bragg is one -

If Bébian had done his work during the age of the internet, we might be writing his system worldwide now - smile -

Val ;-)


On Nov 6, 2013, at 7:18 AM, Honza <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

Hello Valerie,

recently I researched history if writing sign languages and I realized that the very first writing system developed by Roch-Ambroise Auguste Bébian (French) is in some way similar to SignWriting.
Did you know about Bebian's writing system by the time you developed SignWriting on the basis of DanceWriting and were you inspired by his system or not?
It is known that Stokoe created his notation system on the basis of Bebian's.. 
It is very interesting fact.

It interests me because I teach about writing sign languages at University, but I haven't found enought detail about this.

Thank you.



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