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Native American Written Sign Language

Native American Written Sign Language

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Published by Cliff

A paper that attempts to show how logical Native American written sign language was in it rules and compositional organization.

A paper that attempts to show how logical Native American written sign language was in it rules and compositional organization.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Cliff on Mar 14, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The Known Rules ForNative American Written Sign Language.
Clifford C. Richey
March 2012Revised March 18, 2012
Written sign language was a skeletal language and therefore could be used by people speaking avariety of different languages with different grammars. The eloquence of any translation wouldhave been dependent on the reader and the manner in which the signs were paraphrased. It should bementioned here that any paraphrased composition might use very different signs and the resultingmessage could look very different yet the two themes could be very similar.At this time it is unknown whether there was more than one system of written sign language. Whilemany of the compositions of different cultures may, initially, appear quite different these differencesseem to be mainly of style and artistic taste. These stylistic differences may have been intentional,as a matter of pride, such as a means of “branding” a culture. Because Imagery and form were basedin, and composed of, the gesture signs this allowed much leeway for the above stylistic differences. From the above one may immediately sense how well organized a system it was. Written signlanguage was just as logical as the system used in hand signing. The basic concepts are easilylearned. Of course, the system gets more complicated when it involves Form and Imagery as thesehave their own meaning and associations. Often one can figure out the meaning of the Form andImagery through the sign elements combined with the context of the overall message. One area ofdifficulty is that some Forms and Images may not be shown in their totality because they are eithermerged into the other signs or, at times, seem to have parts hidden behind other signs. Then thereader has to use some imagination to complete the known Form.The question of when the compositional system was invented is quite debatable. As far back in timeas these signs have been found they seem to have already been part of a complete system This maymean that the system was brought with the various cultures when they migrated to the Americas. Thecosmology that was commonly recorded with the compositional system may be very ancient indeedand seems to have been widespread among the various cultures in the Americas. The multiplemigrations of groups to the Americas and their subsequent isolation from events in the rest of the worldmay well have preserved one of the oldest examples of a prehistoric system of belief. Changes withinthe Americas could have been rapidly spread along trade routes and through both gestures signs and thewritten signs giving the historic impression of greater cultural or cosmological greater cohesion thanthere actually was during any specific period of time. For more information related to the historicalprocesses as to when and where this compositional system evolved we may need to look toward Asia,Africa, and perhaps even to Europe.The scientific basis for a written form of sign language is fairly solid as hundreds of the basic handsigns are quite well documented historically. We are of course on less solid ground when we attempt tounderstand the meaning of form and imagery. For this we have to look for hints in historical textswhere any documentation is quite lean. Our case has been built up from what hints are available aswell as build upon what is learned about form and imagery from the context provided by the basic signelements. Many trial and error substitutions were involved in defining Form and Imagery. Proof of theirmeaning basically rests upon each sign remaining consistent in a large variety of contexts. In earlystudies compositions were translated first and only then was there any search for historicaldocumentation as to content. The extent of the use of written sign language was only learned whenthe existence of the same, elemental, signs were found over great geographical distances. SomeImagery such as the feline or jaguar in Central and South America was also found in areas of NorthAmerica due to the presence of mountain lions. On the other hand, some associational imagery, forspecific concepts, was different due to differences in regional flora and fauna. An example of thiswould be the representations for a storm. Monkey imagery was used in Central and South Americabut a bird, a Thunderbird, was used as the storm sign in North America.
Because of the subtlety of the compositional system it is unlikely that all the principles used in the,ancient, Native American, compositions have been determined. The actual associations and the extentof these associations is also somewhat problematical. It would be difficult to assert that we know all thecosmological associations, as well as the depth of associations made with nature. Hopefully we haveuncovered enough of the main rules for the reader to gain a general idea of about various composition'smeaning. For the present it appears that the following rules were used in organizing and composing thecompositions. The compositional system was non linear and could be read beginning at any given pointas long as the logical order was rearranged mentally.
 Layered Organization
. Gesture signs were depicted by hand motions made in the air and relied onthe reader's memory to retain the message from one sign to the other. The same system could nothave been used in written sign language because writing signs on top of one another would haveresulted in a hopeless tangle of signs. Thus signs were separated by organizing them spatially suchas grouping the Forms and Imagery into patterns. For our purposes Form, Imagery, and Gestureelements are all considered Signs. Generally the signs appear to have been read from the largest signto the smallest.
The Initial or Total Form (shape)
. This could be considered the title or subject of the composition.It has not yet been learned how one should determine Total Form. At times it seems that one should just visually trace the outline to gain the Form. At other times this seems to result in an incoherentshape or perhaps it is just we are not able to recognize a shape that was well known among the cultures.
Found within other Forms or Forms with a comparative reduction in size. Also smallgroupings of Forms separate from the Major Form.
. Usually imagery was composed of elementary gesture signs that held an associational(what was, anciently, considered the essence of the depicted subject) value. Such imagery was oftenthe equivalent of a phrase in English. An example would be an Image of a Frog to represent theconcept of,
the one that leaps upward.Basic Gesture Signs.
Literally hundreds of such signs have been historically documented, in texts
on Native American sign language, and can be used to assist in learning the meaning of theassociational imagery through context. These signs were drawn leaving out the depiction of thehands so one should concentrate only on the lines or motions made by the hands. The resultantlines and the form they took was what was considered important. For example, a large “X” shapedsign was based on the gesture of two arms crossing each others in the act of a trade. This sign wasalso used for an
, or a
depending on its context.
 The compositional system was very logical as will be seen from the illustrations below.We will begin with the straight line sign for
a surface
.If we wished to write, on the surface we would simply position a vertical line
on the surface line.
1 Tomkins, William. Indian Sign Language, Dover Publications, Inc. New York 1969.2 http://www.inquiry.net/outdoor/native/sign/index.htm (a compilation of basic gesture signs)

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