Re: Writing a proposal for an unusual script: SignWriting

From: Stephen Slevinski (
Date: Sun Jun 13 2010 - 19:05:56 CDT

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    Hi Van,

    I think the paradigm shift needed here is that SignWriting is not
    HamNoSys. We write symbols is space. The writer decides what symbols
    to use and where they go. The script does not include the semantic
    information you want it to include because it is not part of the writing
    system. The font designer has very limited choices regarding glyph size
    and shape. This is one of the rules that SignWriting knowingly breaks.

    Many sign language avatars are using HamNoSys as a base notation to
    generate their signing animations. I'm sure someone could use HamNoSys
    to create SignWriting images and give the font designer much more freedom.

    The point of my proposal will be to encode how we write today. When
    people write, they choose symbols and placements. They do not encode
    semantic language information. The spatial relation between the symbols
    is meaningful to the writer. You can decide that it is a poor choice for
    a writing system, but it is the writing system.

    > What is the salience of a hand being 5 cooordinate points low of center vs. 10? If two people encoded a particular sign, would they necessarily use the same coordinates? How do I search for a given sign when the coordinates can be different? Does the /search/ algorithm need to know that there is about 10 coordinate points variation for a hand touching the side of the torso, but only 2 when it's touching a part of the face (lips/chin/cheek)? If your coordinate system has to incorporate "fine" adjustments to look right, how can I do a search of the dictionary to find all of the signs where the eyes are closed and the hand or fingers brush the chin?
    Eyes closed can be searched for as BaseSymbol 535. A single brush
    contact can be searched for as BaseSymbol 526. Fingers brush chin is
    not part of the writing system. HamNoSys has this type of information,
    but this is not part of SignWriting.

    You could further limit the search if you included the appropriate
    handshape. As an example, let's use BaseSymbol 22: Index and middle
    fingers together as a unit.

    Searching for a sign with these 3 BaseSymbols would be the initial
    search. Next, we'd need to analyze the symbol placement. We'd be
    looking for the brush and handshape to be slightly below the center of
    the sign. Our search results would sort by a percentage match.

    > If you can define any element as having any coordinate, how do you normalize text when someone defines the left hand before the right?
    Text normalization can occur as the text is written or after. While
    writing, a dictionary can be accessed and previously made signs can be
    used. After the writing, a dictionary can be accessed and signs can be
    searched and matched. If two signs are close enough, the sign in the
    text can be replaced by the sign in the dictionary. If the two signs
    are distinct enough, the sign in the text can be marked as a possible
    variant to the sign in the dictionary.

    > These are basic text tasks that the coordinate system makes insanely complex.
    A unique challenge yes, but a unique writing system.

    > Element: [HandR], [HandL]. Position Modifiers: [HeadTop], [HeadCheek], [HeadOppositeCheek], [HeadChin], [HeadNose], [HeadTemple], [BodyHigh], [BodyLow], [BodyCenterHigh], [BodyCenterLow], [BodyCenterMid], [BodyWideHigh],[BodyWideLow], [BodyWideMid], Default: [BodyMid].
    I see HamNoSys, not SignWriting. That's not how we write.

    > A character encoding does not define them by their precise position, it specifies a /meaning/. The font designer has to figure out exactly how best to graphically represent that.
    A character encoding pairs a character from a given repertoire with a
    code point in order to facilitate transmission and storage.

    The current way that we write puts all of the flexibility to the
    writer. The spatial relation between the symbols is meaningful and was
    specifically chosen by the writer. The font designer does not get to
    decide how to position the symbols.

    In the future, when we have a large corpus of independently verified
    excellent writing, we can analyze that writing to see if we can create
    rules of attachment that can reproduce the writing without coordinates.

    That corpus will exist in the future and it will be encoded in Binary
    SignWriting with the ISWA 2010. However, the problems of encoding
    SignWriting for Unicode goes beyond the coordinate based system all the
    way to the alphabet. To properly follow all of the rules, the alphabet
    itself will need to be analyzed and refactored.

    The length and breadth of trying to apply all of the rules of Unicode to
    SignWriting would require starting from ground zero and rebuilding the
    whole system. This work will take years and may or may not produce a
    usable system.

    I believe a slightly modified version of Binary SignWriting will add
    tremendous value to Unicode. It only makes sense for the universal
    character set to be able to encode the sign languages of the world. If
    Unicode includes simplified and traditional Chinese, why can't it
    include Binary SignWriting and Normalized SignWriting?


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