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Learn American Sign Language: Stokoe Notation

By Sonal Panse

Stokoe Notation was invented by the Gallaudet College Professor Dr. William Stokoe. As the first phonemic script in the history of the American Sign Language, it caused quite a stir. It proved that ASL sign language was a language by itself, on par with oral languages.

Stokoe Notation

The American Sign Language, since its invention, has found widespread use within the deaf community as well as with researchers and linguists. For quite a long time, though, language researchers and linguists did not consider ASL sign language as an actual language with a proper linguistic structure and phonemic characteristics. Then, in 1960, Dr. William Stokoe, an American linguist and teacher of English at Gallaudet College, created Stokoe Notation and proved that ASL sign language does indeed have the linguistic features to make it as much a proper language as oral languages.

The curious part was that Dr. Stokoe, before he joined the hearing-impaired school Gallaudet in 1955, knew practically nothing about sign language or Deaf culture. His language theory was based on his observations of the way his students signed at each other, and, when put forward, it was met with skepticism initially from both the deaf community and the linguists. It was only after he invented the Stokoe notation that they came around to agree with his view that a language didn't have to be verbal to be a language. Having sign language acknowledged as an actual language was a momentous step for the deaf community. It strengthened the feeling that Deaf cultural identity didn't have to be dictated by and didn't have to depend on limits set by spoken languages.

Stokoe Notation was the first phonemic script in the history of American Sign Language. Dr. Stokoe detailed it in his 1960 book Sign Language Structure and later, in 1964, published A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles. He devised fifty-five symbols and showed that each sign operated on the parameters of location, movement, and hand shape.

These original fifty-five symbols were later found to be insufficient to meet all sign language requirements, and subsequent researchers have modified and added to these symbols to suit particular needs. With all this adding and modifying, we now have many different systems of Stokoe Notation rather than one standard system.

Features of Stokoe Notation

Let's look at some of the features of the Stokoe Notation:

  • Stokoe Notation makes use of the Latin alphabet and numerals to represent finger-spelling shapes.
  • Stokoe Notation makes use of glyph icons to represent hand positions and hand movements.
  • Stokoe Notation is written in a horizontal way, from left to right, like written English does with the Latin alphabet.
  • Stokoe Notation symbols are arranged in a decided sequence: first the location symbol, then the hand shape symbol, and then the movement symbol.
  • Stokoe Notation can be written on a computer that has Stokoe Notation fonts installed in it. You can find the StokoeTempo font at

Drawbacks of Stokoe Notation

  • Stokoe Notation does not cover non-manual grammatical signals (NMGS). It does not take into account facial expressions, eye and eyebrow expressions, mouth shapes, and body posture.
  • Stokoe Notation is not as easy to read as SignWriting.
  • Stokoe Notation is not equipped to handle ASL pronouns.

Uses of Stokoe Notation

Apart from ASL, Stokoe Notation has been adapted for use in British Sign Language, the Australian Aboriginal Sign Language, and other sign languages. However, Stokoe Notation has not evolved into a popular sign language script in the way that SignWriting has. Most people who learn American Sign Language learn SignWriting rather than Stokoe Notation. Stokoe Notation is mainly used for language research purposes, not for everyday regular use by the Deaf community.