Nothing New Under the Sign

Hippotext is a writing system for sign languages which I’ve developed over a number of years. In the BSL version at least, it uses only the 26 letters of the English alphabet, punctuation as in English, and sometimes numerals. It may seem odd writing numerals as letters, but this approach is natural to sign languages. A sign may involve a handshape with three fingers, the shape of a camel with two humps, or the two dangling ends of a student’s scarf, in which case the number is likely to be written into the words of the text.

Restricting ourselves to the same letters, numerals and punctuation of the associated spoken language means that there are no new characters to learn, children only need to learn one alphabet and their numbers for both the signed and the spoken language, and you can use social media to communicate in sign languages without any special software. The wheel is not reinvented.

Signs were written down long before Stokoe put forward his compelling arguments in favour of sign languages being real languages. In ‘Indian Sign Language’ (fifth edition, 1931) William Tomkins lists the signs of Plains Talk with illustrations and a textual description. For example:

MULE: Hold extended hands alongside of the ears, palms to front, fingers pointing upwards; by wrist action move hands forwards and back to represent their motion.

This description (and the illustration) is missing only one thing: do the hands move alternately or in unison? I’ll assume in unison.

The descriptions used by Tomkins are very like the descriptions that students write down in sign classes today to remind them of the signs. These are written without prior training, as if such descriptions were somehow obvious or natural, and this is the sort of thing that Hippotext spellings are made of.

In Hippotext, an apostrophe at the start of a word means that the hands move in unison, the sign perfectly symmetrical as if there were a mirror running down the middle of the body. Other things we can write in Hippotext are:

  • b flat hand with fingers together;
  • t thumb side of hand;
  • n brow or temples;
  • o forwards;
  • s backwards;
  • p wrist fixed in space.

So we can write Tomkins’s description as:


This is how we write MULE, as described by Tomkins, though we’ve used temples where he writes ears as this seems more like the sign illustrated.

Notice that while Tomkins is careful to describe the direction in which the palms and fingers point, the sign seems clear enough without it, although we can write such information in Hippotext when we want to.

I hope I’ve been able to show that Hippotext doesn’t make a lot of demands on those learning it. It uses a familiar alphabet to turn familiar descriptions of signs into words that never get too long compared to those written for spoken languages. So if you wanted to write a whole book in sign or translate a whole novel, it would use no more paper (or screen space) than the same thing in English.

— Sandy Fleming