College of LAS « Illinois


Writing For a Visual World

When Brenda Farnell first came to Montana's Fort Belknap Reservation 20 years ago to research that community's language practices, she thought she actually saw two distinct forms of communication: Plains Indian Sign Language and the spoken Nakota. But she soon realized that these were not two separate systems.

"They're completely integrated. And people use the sign language within their own community as well as using it as a convenient way to talk to people from other tribes."

To record the sign language gestures Farnell used "Labanotation," a script for writing body movement. The 96-character alphabet, invented by Rudolph Laban in the 1920s, represents all the different parts of the body and is able to represent three dimensions of space and those parts moving through space.

As a former dancer, Farnell is interested in gesture as an integral part of language and communication. And that's the first thing she learned at Fort Belknap. "I saw people who spoke Nakota well were also gesturing with Plains Indian Sign Language. Whether it's talking with sounds or with your hands, it's all part of the language, they told me."

Labanotation is now recognized at the U. of I. as an official research tool. Farnell teaches it to doctoral students in her "Movement Literacy" class. Students use Labanotation to record such diverse movement systems as disabilities due to Parkinson's Disease,  American Military drill, the Brazilian martial art Capoeira, and Okinawan dances. Labanotation is also used in Illinois' Department of Dance.

Farnell says Labanotation provides a writing system for a dynamic visual world.

"The advantage, anthropologically, is you don't have to go through English words and concepts. You go straight to the movement to learn how people use different concepts of space, time, dynamics, and the body itself. That's why it's so important. Once you have understood this, you don't have to do a translation through words and then back to movement."

Back to Mother Tongue

By Stephen J. Lyons
Fall/Winter 2006-07