The Challenge of a Computer Representation of Sign Language:
Capturing a “Visual-Spatial” Language Electronically
Signed languages are not simply another means of communicating a spoken language. Individual signed languages are linguistically unique forms of communication, with their own grammatical constructs, word order, sensibility, and rules. American Sign Language, used in the United States and parts of Canada, is not the same as English. (Fox 2002).
Like many people who share common beliefs, customs, and behavior, the Deaf community has developed a coherent culture. At its most basic, culture is a means of adapting to one’s environment. For the deaf, the environment is one with a distinct orientation to sound, especially in human communications. Withstanding years of oppression, disparagement, lack of understand, and inequitable services and access, deaf people have often been forced to rely on each other. Their shared experiences and struggle have created a distinct way of life that goes beyond a common physical impairment or language (Valios, 2002). Sign language is a unifying element of this culture.
Because of its complex, visual-spatial nature, signed language-communication has been a special challenge to preserve. Written English is a two-dimensional representation of spoken sound; each letter represents a sound (or sounds). When letters are strung together, words are formed — words that conjure up specific objects or concepts. The written form of English allows for the preservation and sharing of speech or thought, in widely-ranging formats such as books, e-mail, film, and newspapers. Signed languages incorporate complex, three-dimensional elements that include hand shape, movement, position, and facial expression (Fox, 2002).
The challenge of electronic representation of signed languages relates to their visual-spatial nature. This alone does not present a limitation for the electronic environment, but until recently, there was no means of representing signs in a practical way. In 1974, Valerie Sutton created a system of graphic symbols to represent the hand gestures of sign language, a system independent of any particular signed language. She did this by focusing her attentions to body movement, rather than the meaning or sound of a particular word. “SignWriting” is a formal system for communicating any signed language (i.e., signed languages used in any nation). The current form was perfected in 1985 (Center For Sutton Movement Writing, Inc., n.d.). Sutton says, “It is an ‘alphabet’ — a list of symbols used to write any signed language in the world.” (Han, 1999, Nov.). With SignWriting, all aspects of a signed expression are represented utilizing graphic symbols: the movement and position of body elements employed in expressing the sign and facial expression.
Efforts soon turned to the electronic expression of SignWriting. A software program would need to be developed, as well as platform-neutral support for...