Sunday, May 20, 2007

More on scripts, fonts and SignWriting

There were two bits of interesting news this week on scripts and fonts;
  • The Chinese script is much older, it is some 8000 years old. This makes the Chinese script some 3500 years older that previously thought.
  • Redhat made available the "Liberarion fonts", they are fonts that allow for the replacement of the proprietary Microsoft fonts. This is one of the impediments of adopting Linux. It is also one of the more visual aspects where Microsoft shows not to care about interoperability.
The Chinese script is old, it has had a long evolution and it is a living script. It is very much being used and one of the important aspects is that it brings together who speak different languages. The script is very much what unites the Chinese. It is not realistic to change Chinese for the Latin script because it, being based on sounds, will not serve in a same way.

The SignWriting script is young, it represents a revolution in the signing world and it has to be adopted by many signing communities. It is different from other written representations of signing languages because it is actually used for day to day use. As a script, it is different from Chinese because it represent movements like the Latin script represents sounds while a Chinese character represents in essence a concept. For this reason the SignWriting characters will mean different things in different sign languages.

The Liberation fonts make it possible to replace the Microsoft fonts without a need for reformatting the text. When you analyse this, it means that Unicode characters are now available in two interchangeable sets of fonts.

SignWriting does not have Unicode characters and it does not have fonts. The symbols that it uses are complete for most sign languages and some missing characters for the Ethiopian Sign Language are being added at the moment.

One really powerful argument why SignWriting is so important is because it helps deaf people to learn a written language that is foreign to them. English is in essence foreign to a person who grew up with American Sign Language; the written English language is not connected to the every day language of the student. When you learn a second language, you learn the shared concepts quickly. Now in order to know what these shared concepts are, you use a dictionary. Without a dictionary, without a written representation of the primary language, it is extremely hard to learn. It requires a really well trained memory.

It is exactly because of deaf people having to live in a world based on sounds that the bridge that the written word is so important. There is anecdotal evidence that kids who learned to write their sign language are better able to learn the written language of the spoken language that surrounds them.

It is for all these reasons that SignWriting emancipate the deaf. It will emancipate them because as a group they will become better able to communicate in their own world. A world that is both signing and speaking.



Anonymous said...

As a script, it is different from Chinese because it represent movements like the Latin script represents sounds while a Chinese character represents in essence a concept.

SignWriting is more like Korean script than Latin characters. It's made up of little "building blocks" which represent single cheremic elements - this makes Unicode encoding more difficult.

GerardM said...

Comparisons are never straightforward, SignWriting has with the Chinese script in common the large number of glyphs.

Like Latin it is based on the active manifestation of the language.

You use the word "cheremic", according to Wikipedia the chereme is supposed to be functionally identical to a phoneme. I do not understand this as the differences are so big.


MovGP0 said...

Chinese characters are also built based on primitives called Radicals. There are about 200 Radicals in Chinese, but some of them can be built out of more basic Radicals.

A Chinese Letter is a combination of some of these Radicals. The Radicals become partly stylized dependend on the location where they appear.

This is also how a chinese keyboard works: type in the combination of Radicals in the right order and you get the correct sign.

Hangul (Korean Script) doesn't represent Concepts like Chinese does, but the way how to speak. Interestingly, the sound that primitives represent dependand partially on other primitives. This is similar like the german "ä" (IPA: "ɛ" or "æ") is spoken like the german "e" (IPA: "eː") rather than the german "a" (IPA: "aː"). ASL is more straightforward in that manner.

The problem wich scripts, where a single sign is built as a combination of Primitive arranged in 2D, is that support for such languages is much harder to code that the Roman Script. Roman Script is arranged in simple 1D-Row.
It gets even harder to code for Chinese, because you need to respect the stylization.

I think that TrueType/Unicode has bad support for such scripts, because it got designed for Letters that are arranged in one Row. This means that you need a separate letter-sign for each possible combination of the primitives.

In that sense OpenType is better to use, because it supports the replacement of two or more letters with another letter. This is currently used for calligraphic scripts, but it doesn't avoid the problem of needing to code each possible combination of Primitives separate.

I think that there is lack of a real good parametric typesetting system that allows programmed 2D arrangement of Primitives.

David Gerard said...

What is the copyright, etc. status of SignWriting? Is it public domain? Is an organisation or person claiming ownership of it in any regard?