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SLIPA vs Gesture spelling

From:Gary Shannon <fiziwig@...>
Date:Sunday, February 20, 2005, 17:30
While studying the SLIPA site that David Peterson
provided here, there was something nagging at the back
of my mind.  There was some important difference
between SLIPA and what I was trying to do.  Then it
dawned on me.  It was so obvious I should have noticed
it at once.

There is a fundamental difference between ordinary
English spelling and IPA.  IPA is meant to describe
the exact sound of a word to someone who has never
heard that pronunciation of the word, whereas English
spelling is meant only to approximate the sound and
evoke that word in the mind of the person already
familiar with the word.

It is meaningless to ask what is the sound of "o" in
English because it can take on so many different
sounds depending on its context.  Similarly, is "th"
voiced or unvoiced in English? These are things that
must be specified in IPA but not in English
orthography.  The beginning reader sounding out an
unfamiliar combination of letters struggles with
alternate ways to pronounce "th" and "o" until the
right combination is stumbled upon and the light of
recognition dawns.  "Oh, it's 'Thomas'.  I know that
word."  And from then on the conventionalized, but
phonetically less-than-accurate spelling is recognized
as represnting that particular set of spoken sounds.

Now consider symbols in a gestural language.  Does the
"open hand" symbol mean that the fingers are relaxed,
or that they are held tightly together, or spread
widely apart?  SLIPA must specifiy that parameter.  It
needs to be able to describe this gesture to someone
who has never seen it, while gesture spelling needs
only to bring to mind a gesture the reader is already
intimately familiar with.

Whether the fingers are held together or spread apart
is something, which like the voiced or unvoiced "th",
need not be specified in the spelling.  It will be
clear from the context.  The beginning reader of this
language, who already "speaks" it fluently, might
struggle with "sounding out" an unfamiliar spelling,
but while trying out the alternative ways of holding
the fingers with the "open hand" symbol the right
combination will be stumbled upon and the reader will
gesture "Aha! That's 'hello', which has the fingers
together. I know that word."  And from then on the
conventionalized, but gesturally less-than-accurate
spelling is recognized as representing that particular
set of gestures.

I'm putting together a set of symbols and designing a
font for them.  They will be based on the Roman and
Greek alphabets (with possibly some Cyrillic
borrowings) but will use distinctly different letter
forms so that the reader is not tempted to assign
phonetic values where none exist.  It is, after all, a
silent language.  The "open hand" symbol, for example,
will look similar to the lower case Greek "psi" but
without the flair at the top of the trident points.
The tops will be more like the Roman "u" and the
descender in the middle will have a hook like the
Roman lower case "j".

Basic motions will also have their symbols.  But,
again, these will be pretty generalized and the
context will be necessary to know precisely which
motion they indicate.  For example the symbol for
"open" if it follows a fist symbol might mean to open
the fist into a flat hand.  If it follows a double
"flat hand" it might mean that the hands are placed
togther "prayer fashion", and then folded open like a
book.  A double "finger" symbol might mean to hold up
the index and middle fingers while a double hook
symbol (lower case 'n' with a descender on the left,
like a lower case 'p' with the bottom of the loop
removed) would mean to hold those two fingers in some
sort of hook fashion made clear by the context.

So the goal of my gesture spelling silent conlang is
not to accurately represent each gesture in writing,
but to have an easy-to-read, conventionalized spelling
for each gesture in the language.  It might even be
the case that the spelling retains remnants of an
archaic way of making the gesture, just like English
retains the archaic "gh" in "light".  And some
spellings might bear no resemblance at all to the
actual gesture as performed today, but hark back to
how the gesture was performed a thousand years ago,
thus driving school children batty as they try to
memorize these irregular spellings.


David J. Peterson <dedalvs@...>