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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Hands are the Head of the Mouth: The Mouth as Articulator in Sign Languages

Penny Boyes Braem and Rachel Sutton-Spence, Editors


This book stems from a workshop on the use of the mouth in European sign languages held at the University of Leiden, in The Netherlands, in December 1998. Presentations and discussion there covered a wide range of issues at the heart of research on mouth patterns. At the end of the meeting, participants agreed that the papers should be collected and published in order to reach a wider audience. This is the book. Most of the participants at that workshop have been able to contribute to this collection [1] . We are also fortunate to have contributions here from two groups of researchers who were not able to attend the workshop: Roberto Ajello, Laura Mazzoni, and Florida Nicolai with data from Italian Sign Language and Ulrike Zeshan whose research on Indo-Pakistani Sign Language gives important insights into mouth patterns used in a non-European sign language.

There is a broad agreement among the contributors that there are at least two clearly identifiable types of mouth patterns in sign languages. Mouth patterns used in a sign language may be derived from a spoken language or they may have formed from within the sign languages and bear no relation at all to the mouth movement of a spoken language. Issues of terminology in this area are still not resolved (see below). For the purposes of this collection, however, most authors refer to patterns related to spoken languages as “mouthings” and patterns from within sign languages as “mouth gestures”.

Some of the Issues Involved

The papers in this collection reflect several areas of particular interest with respect to mouth patterns in sign languages. The meaning of terms such as “loan”, “borrowing” and even “word” is not always immediately obvious in this respect. Notation systems for mouth patterns used by different researchers need to be described and their relative uses considered. Another major area of interest centres on the consistency of mouthings and mouth gestures, especially in relation to the methodology used as well as situational, regional and social variation and the linguistic biography of the informants. Not all the papers here discuss all of these issues but they crop up repeatedly throughout descriptions of research in mouth patterns in the different countries’ sign languages.

For one important area, the status of the mouth patterns that come from spoken languages, there is no clear consensus. Some researchers claim that mouthings are coincidental to sign languages, rather than a part of them. This question is debated in several of the papers, for example Happ & Hohenberger and Ebbinghaus & Hessmann. In connection to this issue, it is necessary to consider the effect of cultural suppression of sign languages especially by an oral education system that has been–and in many countries still is–widespread throughout Europe.

On the matter of mouth gestures, research from several countries more clearly supports the suggestion that the movements of the hand and body drive the movements of the mouth (see especially Woll and Bergman & Wallin).

1. Participants who gave presentations at the workshop but were not able to contribute to this book were the following: Jane Coerts (University of Amsterdam) What is the linguistic status of non-manual features accompanying single signs?; Susanne Kaiser (University of Geneva) Facial Action Coding System (FACS); Christopher Miller (University of Quebec) Mouthings, Syntax & Discourse in Quebec Sign Language (LSQ).