SignWriting emerged from DanceWriting, a movement writing notation invented by Valerie Sutton in 1966 to record ballet dance steps. Sutton trained as a ballet dancer at the Royal Danish Ballet, and while there used DanceWriting to record the classic Danish ballet dances. DanceWriting was adopted by the Royal Danish Ballet company, and Sutton formally taught the system to the company dancers.

In 1974, sign language researchers at the University of Copenhagen needed a way to record signs and gestures. They learned about DanceWriting, and asked Sutton to use it to write the movements of signers recorded on videotape. This led to a four-year collaboration between Sutton and the university researchers to develop SignWriting, a movement writing system specifically for sign language.

From 1975 to 1980, Sutton worked in the United States, further developing SignWriting in collaboration with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, the National Theatre of the Deaf, and sign language researchers.

In the early 1980's, Sutton began publishing a quarterly newsletter titled "The SignWriter Newspaper". The articles were written in sign language and English, and the newsletter journalists were Deaf people skilled in SignWriting. The newsletter was distributed free of charge to Deaf people in 41 countries. The experience of publishing the newsletter and receiving feedback from Deaf readers led to significant changes in SignWriting as it evolved into a general purpose writing system.

In 1988 the Deaf Action Committee for SignWriting was founded by Deaf people skilled in SignWriting. The Committee members worked with Sutton to publish SignWriting books, dictionaries, videos, and software. Their experience with using SignWriting in these projects led to another round of changes in SignWriting, bringing it to its current form.

Beginning in 1986, Sutton worked with software developers to create several word processor programs for SignWriting. The distribution of these programs over the internet was crucial to the worldwide adoption of SignWriting, and led to it being included in the Unicode standard for the world's writing systems.

Today SignWriting is used in schools around the world, with the most extensive use in Brazil, where it is used nationwide to teach Deaf literacy in the state Deaf schools.

For more information on the history of SignWriting see "History" in the Library section of this website.

Library > History