ASL writing

Surface Space in Sign Language Writing

Translating 3-dimensional language (plus time dimension) into a 2-dimensional surface of writing has been a fascinating process and experience. Challenging but not impossible.

The current planar systems and future ideas for sign language writing offer possible solutions to sign-language writing in ASL or other signed languages.

Two important factors for consideration in sign language writing space are: perspective and writing plane.

Perspective (voice) and planar perspective

The first step in developing a sign language writing sytem was: Should writing sign language from a writer's voice or a listener's perspective?

The writing systems (e.g. ASLwrite and si5s) use a writer's perspective -- a writer's voice, just like we all read a spoken-based language from a writer's inner voice.

What it means is that when reading a written piece in ASL, the digits and lines are from the signer's inner eye, not listening a signer in front of you. Watching a video of the signer does not present the same planar perspective as reading digits. E.g. You see the right hand on the left side in the video but in writing, you see the right hand on the right side on the screen.

Secondly, how a writing plane should be set? Is up-down surface or forward-backward surface? This is where interesting approaches are to be considered.

Writing space/surface

In writing systems, there are two possible surface-space systems that we will explore.

Surface dimension version 1

This writing space appeared in the writing systems such as ASLwrite. We will look at the illustration in ASLwrite.

3d space in sign language writing
3D space in sign language writing

It uses a few planes: frontal, top-view and side-view. Here are some samples of the digits.

ASL written for SCARED
Written ASL word for SCARED

Use the frontal plane when ASL signs are on the torso or head, such as SCARED, FORGET, HAPPY, etc. If you notice reversed hands in the written piece compared to the photograph, remember the written digit is from the signer's perspective, not yourself as a listener. As a reader, you're the signer.

ASL written for SCARED
Written ASL word for SILLY

The side-view plane is used to show the signs from the side of the signer such as SILLY, RACE, WILL, FUTURE, etc. The digits in the side-view plane usually contain a head or a torso, depending on the words.

ASL written for SCARED
Written ASL word for SERVE/SERVICE

The top-view plane is generally a point of view for the signs that are in the space (e.g. not in contact with the body or head). As you look at the top view, you can see that the hands are moving in the same plane.

ASL written for SCARED

Top view again but the hands are moving in the upward-downward plane while the hands remain in the top-view plane. To indicate the movement upward/downward, a dash is added to the movement line.

Without the dash on the top of the movement line, it means that the movement is in the forward-backward plane rather than upward-downward plane.

Surface dimension version II

Based on the previously described system, the proposed version (September and December 2020) developed by Jolanta Lapiak (myself) looked at some further possible solutions to some challenges, especially the orientations of the palm, movement, and location.

350degree 3d space in sign language writing
3D space in sign language writing

With a few minor modifications, this other approach opens up more solutions to the complexities of some ASL signs based on four interlinked planar 3D principles:

1) Signer's perspective. This hasn't changed in the writing system.

2) Front-based Plane. This principle has no flip between frontal plane and top-view plane. All signs are based on the frontal plane. This also works on the side-view as long as it's the vertical plane. This is based on the eyes that look forward towards the XY plane. It emphasizes a Deaf experience of the eye rather than the hearing experience of book reading. This XY plane is significant since that a physical screen (smartphone, monitor, book, etc.) can be in the top-view or front-view positions. Regardless of these positions, it will be always the XY plane in front of your eyes.

3) Depth with | and __. The dash line indicates the z-depth that runs on the forward-backward plane. This dash lines consists of two dashes: | and __. This approach opens up possibilities for indicating the z-depth of not only handshape's palm orientation but also the orientation of a movement simultaneously. This approach allows a single word or even a double word to show multiple views of the handshapes, palm orientations, and movements at the same time.

4) Movement. This movement principle uses the same other three principles. As for an orientation of the movement lines, a dash line is added to the top of the line. Like the handshape orientation, it uses the horizontal dash __ to indicate the movement in the top-view movement and the vertical dash | is used to indicate the movement in the upward-downward plane.

All the four principles are united in a singular whole and they are inter-affected, which means that one change in principle can impact on the writing approach as a whole.


The next ones show some examples in ASL writing, using this "handspeak 3D" (for the lack of a better term) approach. Source #1:

You can skip this video below and move to the next text and images if time is limited. This video explains the same what is written in this section.

Because classifier phrases are commonly used in signing where there are multiple orientations of the two-handed handshapes, movements, and locations at the same time, the eye-view approach makes it easier to write on the 2D surface or screen. And, sometimes individual ASL words/signs with multiple orientations.

SATISFIED illustration

To explore this approach, let's start with the ASL sign SATISFIED.

ASL written for SATISFIED

In the written ASL word SATISFIED (image updated), the horizontal dash on the movement line and handshape (both hands) signifies the Z depth on the frontal XY view. The dash and the dot of the movement line shows the movement from the farther toward the body.

ASL written for HELP
Written ASL for HELP (non-inflected)

In the written ASL non-inflected verb HELP, the movement line shows the movement of the hands on the frontal XY view.

ASL written for HELP-YOU
Written ASL for HELP-YOU (inflected)

Now with the inflected verb HELP-you, the movement line with the dash signifies the Z-depth movement of the hands on the frontal XY view.

Version 1 and 2 illustrations

In summary, to quickly help you see the difference between two versions side by side to help you understand how the systems work.

ASL writing for MAYBE

ASL writing for MAYBE in versions 1 and 2.

ASL writing for STREET

ASL writing for STREET in version 1 and version 2.

ASL writing for HOUR

ASL writing for HOUR in version 1 and version 2.

ASL writing for AGAINST

In the written ASL word for AGAINST, the version 2 shows two ways of the two possible signs, depending on how the direction and location of the handshape of AGAINST may be modified (e.g. a verb agreement with the subject/object) in a sentence.


ASL writing is fun and learnable. Go ahead and experiment with different approaches and digits in your writing. It's a your personal exploration.

Posted 2020.

New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be a useful review for intermediate-level learners and ASL students as well.

Some tutorial pages are a mix of free and premium versions. Access to premium content and links below are available in the PatronPlus subscription. More links/posts will be added from time to time.

Expressing needs and wants

  1. Making commands or requests

Talking about activities

  1. Frequency of time: how often?

Are you able to carry everyday conversations in ASL? Are you a student in the intermediate levels and beyond, who wishes to boost up your signing skills? You've come to the selected tutorial series. (Some premium content are available to PatronPlus membership.)

Stories, poems, performance arts, etc. in sign language.

This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.