Prior to the early 1970s, educational programs for children with a hearing loss were “oral-only” (i.e. adults did not sign when speaking to students with hearing loss) (Stedt & Moores, 1990) and teachers of the deaf did not sign at school. About that time, when the first author was a student teacher, sign slowly seeped into use as an educational tool in “total communication” classrooms. American Sign Language (ASL) was beginning to be offered at the college level for credit, and the concept of “educational interpreter” had not been developed as yet. In most programs, the sign used was not specifically delineated as a particular language or system, as ASL had only recently been recognized as a language and forms of manually-coded English had just been invented (Gustason, 1990).
As an outgrowth of “the continuing concern about low levels of literacy and other academic skills attained by most deaf students” and “an attempt to teach deaf children the language that would be used in schools” (Marschark, Schick, & Spencer, 2006, p.9) manually-coded invented sign systems were developed. Signing Exact English (Gustason, Pfetzing, & Zawolkow,1973), the sign system of focus in this paper is one such system. The first manual English system, Seeing Essential English or SEE 1, (referred to today as Morphemic Sign Systems or MSS) was designed by David Anthony, a deaf teacher of deaf adults, with input from a team of deaf educators and the parents of deaf children (Gustason, 1990). The other members of the team viewed SEE 1 (MSS) as inadequate. As a result, Gerilee Gustason, a deaf woman and educator, and other members of the original SEE 1 (MSS) team developed Signing Exact English (Gustason, Pfetzing, & Zawolkow, 1973), initially referred to as SEE 2, but now simply as SEE. Gustason (1990) delineated the rationale for the invention of SEE as not only due to dissatisfaction with the educational achievement of children with a hearing loss and a desire to use the English language used educationally, but also due to the increasing knowledge of English language development of hearing children as well as research as to the inability of speechreading to access the grammar of spoken English. At the time of the creation of SEE, research documented that deaf children acquired a smaller vocabulary than their hearing peers and that “deaf students’ grasp of the morphological and syntactical rules of English was weak and without a clear pattern of development, in contrast to that of hearing children” (p. 108). Gustason explained that “many word endings were not visible (e.g., interest, interesting, interests, and interested are nearly impossible to distinguish) and “some involve hard to hear sounds” an issue that cannot be resolved through speech reading since according to the research she reviewed, “many bright and otherwise capable deaf children caught only 5 percent of what was said through speechreading” (p. 109). To address the need to visually represent words fully and accurately, SEE was designed to correspond with the number of morphemes of English (Luetke-Stahlman, 1998). Signs are provided for root words and affix markers (e.g., re-, un-, -ing, -ity, -ness, and so forth). Different signs exist for different words such that it is possible to sign electric, electrical, electrician, electricity and nonelectrical. Both the root word and all affixes are made visually obvious. The hope for this system was that signing English would increase the language, reading, and writing abilities of children who were deaf or hard of hearing (Luetke-Stahlman, 1990). The same author expanded on this concept in the forward of the revised SEE dictionary (Gustason & Zawolkow, 1993) saying, “SEE unlocks for deaf children what PSE [Pidgin Signed English] cannot: figurative English, authentic English, genuine English, exact English.” (p. I).
The basic similarities and differences between SEE and other invented sign systems and ASL are outlined in Table 1. MSS, SEE and the third manually-coded system, Signed English (SE) (Bornstein, 1974) are both similar and dissimilar in ways that warrant clarification. Users of all three systems speak while they sign. They also represent English semantics and syntax via signs, but to different degrees. MSS users attempt to sign almost every syllable of every word that they say. For example, a word such as motorcycle has four sign parts in MSS. Users of the SE system can sign some of the morphology of English, but to a limited degree since it SE represents only 14 signed morphological markers. For example, to say and sign the word unworkable, the user is constrained in SE and can only sign, “not work,” because SE does not have a sign for the morpheme: un. In contrast, users of SEE can chose among 94 morphological markers to make English morphology visual to a deaf student. Since SEE users base the signed component of their utterances on the number of morphemes (i.e., the smallest unit of meaning) of a word, a SEE user would manually use three signs for unworkable, one for each morpheme: un, work, and able. As Schick and Moeller (1992) explained, SEE “attempts to represent English literally and it purports to follow a strict criterion of one sign for one English free morpheme or ‘word’” (p. 319). They went on to note that SEE
follows English semantics and does not borrow from ASL semantics, unlike some other MCE [manually-coded English] systems. For example, the English word run would appear as the same sign in the following phrases even through a different sign would be used in ASL for each one: “a home run”; “a runny nose”; “run for office”; and “a run on the bank” (p. 319).
Both MSS and SEE are based on a “two out of three” rule: If a word is spelled with the same letters and sounds the same, it is signed in the same way even if the meaning of the two words differ. Thus, the word run is signed consistently in SEE no matter the meaning. The SEE uses the manual features common to all sign languages and systems as was first explained by the authors in the first edition of the SEE dictionary (Gustason, Phetzing, & Zawolkow, 1973). The “two out of three” rule is not utilized in SE or Pidgin Signed English (PSE). Instead, when English words have different meanings, they are usually signed in different ways. For more detailed information as to the commonalities and differences of signed language and systems see Stewart and Luetke-Stahlman (1998).