You may be familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, the global standard for representing speech sounds, ideally independent of the way those speech sounds may be represented in a writing system. Did you know that sign languages have similar standards for representing hand and body gestures?
Unfortunately, we haven’t settled on a single notation system for sign languages the way linguists have mostly chosen the IPA for speech. There are compelling arguments that none of the existing systems are complete enough for all sign languages, and different systems have different strengths.
Another difference is that signers, by and large, do not read and write their languages. Several writing systems have been developed and promoted, but to my knowledge, there is no community that sends written messages to each other in any sign language, or that writes works of fiction or nonfiction for other signers to read.
One of the oldest and best-known notation system is the one developed by Gallaudet University professor William Stokoe (u5"tx) for his pioneering analysis of American Sign Language in the 1960s, which succeeded in convincing many people that ASL is, in ways that matter, a language like English or Japanese or Navajo. Among other things, with his co-authors Dorothy Casterline and Carl Cronenberg Stokoe used this system for the entries in their 1965 Dictionary of American Sign Language (available from SignMedia). In the dictonary entry above, the sign CbCbr~ is given the English translation of “type.”
Stokoe notation is incomplete in a number of ways. Chiefly, it is optimized for the lexical signs of American Sign Language. It does not account for the wide range of handshapes used in American fingerspelling, or the wide range of locations, orientations and movements used in ASL depicting gestures. It only describes what a signer’s hands are doing, with none of the face and body gestures that have come to be recognized as essential to the grammar of sign languages. Some researchers have produced modifications for other languages, but those are not always well-documented.
Stokoe created a number of symbols, some of which bore a general resemblance to Roman letters, and some that didn’t. This made it impossible to type with existing technology; I believe all the transcriptions in the Dictionary of ASL were written by hand. In 1993 another linguist, Mark Mandel, developed a system for encoding Stokoe notation into the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) character set, which by then could be used on almost all American computers.
In September 1995 I was in the middle of a year-long course in ASL at the ASL Institute in Manhattan. I used some Stokoe notation for my notes, but I wanted to be able to type it on the computer, not just using Mandel’s ASCII encoding. I also happened to be working as a trainer at Userfriendly, a small chain of computer labs with a variety of software available, including Altsys Fontographer, and as an employee I could use the workstations whenever customers weren’t paying for them.
One day I sat down in a Userfriendly lab and started modifying an existing public domain TrueType font (Tempo by David Rakowski) to make the Stokoe symbols. The symbols were not in Unicode, and still are not, despite a proposal to that effect on file. I arranged it so that the symbols used the ASCII-Stokoe mappings: if you typed something in ASCII-Stokoe and applied my font, the appropriate Stokoe symbols would appear. StokoeTempo was born. It wasn’t elegant, but it worked.
I made the font available for download from my website, where it’s been for the past 26-plus years. I wound up not using it for much, other than to create materials for the linguistics courses I taught at Saint John’s University, but others have downloaded it and put it to use. It is linked from the Wikipedia article on Stokoe notation.
A few years later I developed SignSynth, a web-based prototype sign language synthesis application. At the time web browsers did not offer much flexibility in terms of fonts, so I could not use Stokoe symbols and had to rely on ASCII-Stokoe, and later Don Newkirk’s (1986) Literal Orthography, along with custom extensions for fingerspelling and nonmanual gestures.
Recently, as part of a project to bring SignSynth (another project of mine) into the 21st Century I decided to explore using fonts on the Web. I discovered a free service, FontSquirrel, that creates Web Open Font Format (WOFF and WOFF2) wrappers for TrueType fonts. I created WOFF and WOFF2 files for StokoeTempo and posted them on my site.
I also discovered a different standard, Typeface.js, which actually uses a JSON format. This is of particular relevance to SignSynth, because it can be used with the 3D web library Three.js. There’s another free service, Facetype.js, that converts TrueType fonts to Typeface.js fonts.
To demonstrate the use of StokoeTempo web fonts, above is a scan of the definition of CbCbr~ from page 51 of the Dictionary of American Sign Language. Below I have reproduced it using HTML and StokoeTempo:
CbCbr~ (imit.: dez may be slightly bent spread 5) v type, r typewriter, typist with or without suffix _____ ?[BBv.
StokoeTempo is free to download and use by individuals and educational institutions.