Date: Sat, 21 Dec 2002 01:43:06 +0000 (GMT)
From: Martha Tyrone
Subject: The Hands are the Head of the Mouth: The Mouth as Articulator in Sign Languages
Boyes Braem, Penny and Rachel Sutton-Spence, eds. (2001) The Hands are the
Head of the Mouth: The Mouth as Articulator in Sign Languages, Signum
GmBH, paperback ISBN 3-927731-83-8, International Studies on Sign Language
and Communication of the Deaf 39.
Martha E. Tyrone, Department of Language and Communication Science, City
This book comprises papers presented at a workshop on the use of the mouth
in European sign languages, held at the University of Leiden in 1998, with
contributions made by two additional research groups. It is the first
edited volume on the topic, and as such should be of interest to most sign
language researchers. The book not only contains descriptions of several
languages, but also represents a variety of theoretical, methodological,
and analytical approaches to the subject. The range of subjects and
approaches makes it a useful book for both undergraduate and graduate
courses in Sign Language and Deaf Studies, all the more so because it
highlights the specific challenges of doing linguistic research on sign
languages. Also, because it is a relatively unexplored research area, a
lot of time is spent discussing terminology, methodology, and data
transcription. For these reasons, the book is worthwhile reading for
anyone interested in issues surrounding lexicography, field linguistics,
or linguistic methodology in general.
To give some background, it is generally agreed that the hands are the
primary sign language articulators, as the title of the book suggests, but
there are other articulators (e.g. eyebrows, mouth) whose movements or
configurations, often referred to as non-manuals, are used by all sign
languages studied to date. There have been many studies on head movements,
eyebrow raising and furrowing, and shoulder tilts in sign language, and
their role in syntax and discourse (Bergman, 1984; Neidle et al., 1996;
Antzakas & Woll, 2002). Nonetheless, the focus in sign language research,
particularly in sign phonology, has traditionally been on the hands
(Friedman, 1976; Uyechi, 1994). Even within the subdomain of non-manuals,
very little work has been done on the mouth specifically. Some
researchers (including some in this volume) have suggested that the lack
of research on mouth patterns may stem from the fact that most early
research was on American Sign Language, which uses the mouth less than
many other sign languages (Sasaki, 2000; Boyes-Braem, this volume). Also,
because early research aimed to show that sign languages have their own
structures and grammars independent of spoken language, emphasis was
placed largely on what made sign languages distinct from majority spoken
languages, and potential similarities between the two modalities received
Despite the range of approaches and theories represented in the book,
there are some points of consensus. The authors agree that
extralinguistic factors, such as age, educational background and age of
acquisition, can influence mouth patterns in signing. Additionally, it is
agreed that there are two types of mouth patterns, which are referred to
as mouthings and mouth gestures. Mouthings are formationally related to
the words of the majority spoken language that a sign language contacts,
but are not usually identical to them. In addition to not being
vocalized, a mouthing does not exactly replicate a word's physical shape.
The difference between the physical form of mouthings and of spoken words
is a question touched on by a few articles in the book (Schermer, Ajello
et al.) By contrast, mouth gestures bear no apparent relationship to
spoken language but seem to be generated from within the sign language.
Some represent a semantic component of the accompanying sign, while others
are just related formationally (Woll, this volume). Many of the articles
seek to explain the differences in function, form, and distribution of
these two categories of mouth patterns. Central questions running
throughout the book include: which syntactic categories of signs are
accompanied by mouthings versus mouth gestures; in what ways do different
groups of signers use the mouth differently; and what is the functional
and grammatical role of mouthings and/or mouth gestures. While most of the
articles are primarily descriptive, others incorporate mouth patterns into
their theoretical models of sign language structure. In particular, the
articles on German Sign Language continue an ongoing debate on the
linguistic status of mouthings, with one research group arguing that
mouthings are peripheral to the language and only a performance feature
(Hohenberger & Happ), another arguing that they are intrinsic to the
language (Ebbinghaus & Hessmann), and the third taking an intermediate
The aforementioned novelty of the field is probably both the book's
strongest and its weakest point. On the positive side, the discussions of
data analysis and transcription are perceptive and well argued. In my
opinion, the amount of time spent on questions of methodology is probably
the book's best feature. Several articles discuss the difficulty of
accurately perceiving and transcribing the physical form of mouthings or
mouth gestures without being influenced by the spoken words they resemble.
Transcription in particular is an ongoing issue in sign language research,
since sign languages typically do not have written forms, and the
International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) cannot be applied to them as it can
to spoken languages. On first glance, it may seem that the IPA could
easily be applied to mouthings, but as several articles point out, the audible
portion of mouthings is irrelevant to Deaf signers; and multiple spoken phones
look identical, while others are not visible at all.
Of course, the motivation for the discussion of methodology and
transcription is the fact that there is no established methodology for
collecting or analyzing these types of data. On the one hand, this means
that data are collected from various sources, contexts and languages and
can thus be more powerful. But at the same time, comparisons made across
studies or research groups can be misleading, because the nature of the
data often vary so much in terms of linguistic and experimental context as
well as actual subject populations. Though many of the authors acknowledge
the variability of data within and across studies, they often describe the
data as if that variability were not there.
Along similar lines, though most of the articles are good about including
descriptions of subjects -- age, gender, and linguistic and educational
backgrounds -- not much attempt is made to control for these variables. To
some extent, this can scarcely be helped. One of the biggest challenges
in doing sign language research is the small number of native sign
language users in any given community. Plus the fact that most signers
learn sign language at school or from peers rather than from their parents
makes the Deaf community an inherently more heterogeneous population.
Beyond this, however, researchers do not adjust analytical methods to
allow for the nature of the data, in many cases. As one of the articles
(Keller) points out, the number of subjects in many studies is too small
for quantitative analyses of the data to be meaningful. This does not
mean that small studies should not be done, but rather that they might
benefit from using alternative analytical frameworks, perhaps more
If the book's best feature is its emphasis on methodology, then its second
best is certainly the number of languages represented. It is useful for
anyone interested in the topic to have descriptions of so many different
languages in one volume. And the authors do an impressive job of
negotiating terminology and subject matter given the range of views they
represent. That said, however, what strikes me as the most noticeable
omission from the book is any discussion of language contact between sign
languages. It is all the more striking because language contact between
signed and spoken language is so central to discussions of mouthing, and
yet the idea that European sign languages might influence each other, with
respect to either mouthings or mouth gestures, never seems to arise. If
as Woll (this volume) suggests, the structure of mouth gestures is
determined by the structure of signs, we first need to establish that
frequently occurring mouth gestures are not cultural phenomena passed
within interacting linguistic communities. While it is tempting to
explain mouth patterns in terms of motor constraints or visually-motivated
semantic representations, such an explanation is unconvincing until simple
cross-linguistic borrowing has been ruled out as a factor.
Despite its shortcomings, the book is an important addition to the field,
if for no other reason than that it is the first of its kind. As such, it
opens the way for future researchers by providing insight into
methodological and theoretical pitfalls and advances, as well as
presenting interesting research questions to be pursued. By and large,
the shortcomings of the book simply reflect the preliminary nature of the
research area itself which is in a crucial and exciting stage.
Ajello, R, Mazzoni, L., & Nicolai, F. 2001. Linguistic gestures: Mouthing
in Italian Sign Language (LIS). In this volume.
Antzakas, K. & Woll, B. 2002. Head movements and negation in Greek Sign
Language. In I. Wachsmuth & T. Sowa (eds.). Gesture and Sign Language in
Human Computer Interaction. Proceedings of the International Gesture
Workshop, 2001, London. Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence Series
2298. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
Bergman, B. 1984. Non-manual components in signed language: Some sentence
types in Swedish Sign Language. In F. Loncke, P. Boyes Braem, & Y. Lebrun
(eds.). Recent Research on European Sign Languages. Proceedings of the
European Meeting of Sign Language Research, 1982, Brusssels. Lisse : Swets
Boyes Braem, P. 2001. The function of the mouthings in the signing of Deaf
early and late learners of Swiss German Sign Language (DSGS). In this volume.
Ebbinghaus, H. & Hessmann, J. 2001. Sign language as multidimensional
communication: Why manual signs, mouthings, and mouth gestures are three
different things. In this volume.
Friedman, L. A. 1976. Phonology of a soundless language: Phonological
structure of ASL. Ann Arbor : U.MI Press. Univ. of California, Berkeley
Hohenberger, A. & Happ, D. 2001. The linguistic primacy of signs and mouth
gestures over mouthings: Evidence from language production in German Sign
Language (DGS). In P. Boyes Braem & R. Sutton-Spence (eds.). The Hands are
the Head of the Mouth: The Mouth as Articulator in Sign Languages.
Hamburg: Signum-Verlag. International Studies on Sign Language and
Communication of the Deaf 39.
Keller, J. 2001. Multimodal representations and the linguistic status of
mouthings in German Sign Language (DGS). In this volume.
Neidle, C., Kegl, J., Bahan, B., MacLaughlin, D. & Lee, R.G. 1996.
Non-manual grammatical marking as evidence for hierarchical relations in
American Sign Language. Paper presented at the Fifth International
Conference on Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research. September
Sasaki, D. 2000. The role of Japanese mouthing in Japanese Sign Language.
Paper presented at the Texas Linguistics Society Conference "The Effects
of Modality on Language and Linguistic Theory," February 25-27. Austin,
Schermer, T. 2001. The role of mouthings in Sign Language of the
Netherlands: Some implications for the production of sign language
dictionaries. This volume.
Uyechi, L. 1996. The Geometry of Visual Phonology. Stanford, CA: CSLI
Publications. (Dissertations in Linguistics)
Woll, B. 2001. Echo phonology: The sign that dares to speak its name. In
P. Boyes Braem & R. Sutton-Spence (eds.). The Hands are the Head of the
Mouth: The Mouth as Articulator in Sign Languages. Hamburg: Signum-Verlag.
International Studies on Sign Language and Communication of the Deaf 39.