Open Standards for Sign Languages

Looking at accessibility for video includes sign language. It is a most fascinating area to get into and an area that still leaves a lot to formalise and standardise. A lot has happened in recent years and a lot still needs to be done.

Sign languages are different languages to spoken languages: they emerged in parallel to spoken languages in communities whose boundaries may not overlap with the boundaries of spoken languages. However, most developed means to translate spoken language artifacts (i.e. letters) into sign language artifacts (i.e. signs). So, a typical signer will speak/write at least 3-4 “languages”: the spoken language of their hearing peers, lip reading of that spoken language, letter signs of the spoken language, and finally the native sign language of the community they live in.

Encoding sign language in the computer is a real challenge. Firstly, there is the problem of enumerating all available languages. Then there is the challenge to find an alphabet to represent all “characters” that can be used in sign across many (preferably all) sign languages. Then there is the need to encode these characters in a way that computers can deal with. And finally, there is the need to find a screen representation of the characters. In this blog post, I want to describe the status for all of these.

Currently, sign language can only be represented as a video track by recording sign speakers. Once a sign character list together with an encoding and representation means for them and a specification of the different sign languages is available, it is possible to encode sign sentences in computer-readable form. Further, programs can be written that can present sign sentences on screen, that translate between different sign languages, and between sign and spoken languages. Also, avatars can be programmed that actually present animated sign sentences.

Imagine a computer that instead of presenting letters in your spoken language uses sign language characters and has keys with signs on them instead of letters. To a sign speaker this would be a lot more natural, since for most sign is their mother tongue.

Listing all existing sign languages
It was a challenge to create codes for all existing spoken languages – the current list of language codes has only been finalised in 1998.

Until the 1980s, scientists assumed that it is impossible to develop as rich a language with signs as with writing and speaking. Thus, the native languages of deaf people were often regarded as inferior to spoken languages. In many countries it was even prohibited to teach the language in schools for the deaf and instead they were taught to speak an oral language and read lips. In France this prohibition was only lifted in 1991! Only in about 1985 was it proven that sign languages are indeed as rich as spoken languages and deserve the right to be called a “language” and be treated as a fully capable means of communication.

So, there hasn’t actually been much time to map out a list of all sign languages. The best list I was able to find is in Wikipedia. It lists 28 N/S American, 38 European, 34 Asia-Pacific-AU/NZ, 30 African, and 13 Middle Eastern sign languages – in summary 143 sign languages. This list contains 177 sign languages.

Interestingly, there is also a new International Sign Language in development called Gestuno which is in use in international events (Olympics, conferences etc.) but has only a limited vocabulary.

In 1999 the Irish National Body, Deaf Action Committee for SignWriting, proposed the addition of sign language codes to ISO-639-2. Instead, a single code entered the list: sgn for sign language. In 2001, this led to the development of IETF language extension codes in RFC 3066 for 22 sign languages. In September 2006, this standard was replaced by RFC 4646, which defines 135 subtags for sign languages, including one for the International Sign Language and a generic “sgn” one.

While not complete, the current IANA subtag language registry now regards sign languages as valid derivatives of a country’s languages and therefore handles them identically to spoken languages. It’s also extensible such that any sign language not yet registered can still be specified.

Characters for sign languages
The written word is very powerful for preserving and sharing information. For a very long time there has been no written representation of sign languages. This is not surprising considering that there are still indigenous spoken languages that have no written representation. Also, the written representation of the spoken language around the community of a sign language would have served the sign community sufficiently for most purposes – except for the accurate capture of their thoughts and sign communications. It would always be a foreign language.

To move sign languages into the 20th century, the invention of characters for signs was necessary.

It is relatively easy to map the alphabets of spoken languages to signs (e.g. American (ASL) manual alphabet, British, Australian and NZ (AUSLAN) manual alphabet, or German manual finger alphabet, also see fingerspelling). Interesting the AUSLAN manual alphabet is a two-handed one while the ASL one is single-handed.

Fonts are available for these alphabets, too, e.g. British Sign Font, American Sign Font, French Sign Font and more.

The real challenge lies in capturing the proper signs deaf people use to communicate amongst themselves.

This is rather challenging, since sign languages uses the hands, head and body, with constantly changing movements and orientations for communication. Thus, while spoken language only has one dimension (sound) over time, sign languages have “three dimensions” and capturing this in characters is difficult. Many sign languages to this date don’t have a widely used written form, e.g. AUSLAN. Mostly in use nowadays are sequences of photos or videos – which of course cannot be computer processed easily.

Two main writing systems have been developed: the phonemic Stokoe notation and the iconic SignWriting.

Stokoe notation was created by William Stokoe for ASL in 1960, with Latin letters and numbers used for the shapes they have in fingerspelling, and iconic glyphs to transcribe the position, movement, and orientation of the hands. Adaptations were made to other sign languages to include further phonemes not found in ASL. Stokoe notation is written left-to-right on a page and can be typed with the proper font installed. It has a Unicode/ASCII mapping, but does not easily apply to other sign languages than ASL since it does not capture all possible signs. It has no representation for facial and body expressions and is therefore a relatively poor representation for sign.

SignWriting was created by Valerie Sutton in 1974, a dancer who had two years earlier developed DanceWriting and later developed MimeWriting, SportsWriting, and ScienceWriting. SignWriting is a writing system which uses visual symbols to represent the handshapes, movements, and facial expressions of sign languages. It is a generic sign alphabet with a list of symbols that can be used to write any sign language in the world.

SignWriting can be easily learnt by signers and is more popular now than Stokoe. Signers compose the symbols together in a spatial way to represent their signs. They then write the composed symbols from top to bottom on a page, similar to other iconic character sets. SignWriting currently supports 73 different sign languages, whose dictionaries and encyclopedias are captured in SignPuddle. This will eventually allow the creation of complete corpora for all sign languages.

Unicode encoding of SignWriting and visual representation
Because of its unique challenges of having to cover the spatial combination of symbols as a new symbol rather than just the sequential combination of symbols, it took a while to get a Unicode representation of SignWriting.

About a year ago, on 19th September 2008, Valerie Sutton released the International SignWriting Alphabet (ISWA 2008).

A binary representation of SignWriting is defined in ISWA 2008. It is based on a representing 639 base symbols and their potential 6 fill and 16 rotation variants in 61,343 code points, that completely cover the subset of 35023 valid symbol codes. The spatial aspect of SignWriting are encoded in a 2-dimensional coordinate system. The dimensions go from -1919 through 1919 to place the top left corner of the symbol.

SignWriting base symbols are encoded in plane 4 of Unicode, which provides 65,536 code points, easily covering the defined 61,343 Binary SignWriting code points. Further special control and number characters are used to encode the spatial layout.

Visual Representation of SignWriting
Valerie Sutton created over 35k individual PNG images for ISWA 2008, which have been reformatted for standard color & reduced file size, and renamed to the character code. They are a font used to represent the signs. The images can be accessed on Valerie’s server.

Closing
After learning all this today, I have to say that Valerie Sutton has just turned into a new idol of mine. The achievements with SignWriting and the possibilities it will enable are massive.

Now I just have to figure out what to do when we hit on a sign language track that has been encoded in SignWriting and it represents captions. Maybe it is possible to display sign as overlay but on the left side of the video. This would be similar to some other languages that go from top to bottom rather than left to right.