Mouthing in ASL: Is it remnants of spoken English
or is it solely related to ASL?
The use of American Sign
Language requires more than just simple hand movements to convey a message.
Without the use of proper facial expressions and other non manual signals (NMS),
a message could be greatly misunderstood. Involved in these non manual
signals are one's eyes, eyebrows, cheeks and mouth. These must be used to
communicate clearly and effectively in daily conversations (Valli & Lucas,
In the 1960's William Stokoe proved that American Sign Language is
an organized, structured linguistic system and people then began to further
look at the many aspects involved in the use of this language. Early in the
1970's researchers studied varying ways non manual markers, facial
expressions and body movements, could alter a message in ASL. They found
that NMS function as modifiers, grammatical structures to distinguish clause
structure and possibly as a form of visual intonation similar to vocal pitch
used in spoken languages. More specifically, Bridges and Metzger (1996)
suggest 6 roles of NMS. They are as follows:
emotional state (face)
action ( body)
(intonation, stress and pitch)
of these holds importance in ASL, many argue over the origins of #4, lexical
markers. A lexical NMS is when a specific facial expression or mouth
movement is linked with a specific sign (Bridges and Metzger 1996). This
topic has caused much controversy within the deaf community and those who
have researched it. Those native to American Sign Language will argue that
the mouth movements associated with a specific sign are wholly related to
the sign itself and are in no way connected to spoken English. The opposing
viewpoint states that mouth movements are remnants from spoken language used
in this country. They are often referred to as "mouthing" or word
Davis (1989) found that English-like mouthing seems to accompany
certain nouns, numbers, question words and fingerspelling signs. He
believes that these function as adverbs, verbs and modifiers in ASL. His
research concluded that although the origin may relate back to spoken
English, they have been used so long to accompany certain signs that now
they have become an integral part of American Sign Language. And because of
this, native signers do not recognize them as stemming from the English
language but rather as a fundamental aspect of ASL.
The opposing viewpoint on this looks at the specific mouth
movements used and argues that ASL simply combines spoken English with signs
for the purpose of clarification. Many of these mouth movements strongly
resemble their spoken English counterpart. Two examples these are (Bridges
& Metzger, 1996):
"mouth starts open and wide, then bottom lip touches bottom the top row o f
the front teeth. Finally, the lips are rounded"
the mouth movement for this sign is the same as when in spoken English one
would say "have to"
2. Lexical Mouthing SAM
"front teeth together with lips parted then, lips pressed together"
the mouth movements for the English word "same" is identical to the one used
to convey the message in ASL
these two examples seem to demonstrate a strong resemblance to spoken
English, other NMS mouth movements seem to show no correlation at all. One
example of this is (Bridges & Metzger, 1996):
"mouth closed, and then mouth opens"
This sign in no way relates to the spoken word "finally." It was created
simply to convey a message in ASL.
controversy continues and until there is more research done in the area of
NMS, the argument will probably persist. The truth is that mouthing in ASL
is probably a combination of the two, remnants of spoken English and wholly
related to ASL signs. Some signs show an obvious English base while others
seem to show no resemblance at all. One thing can be determined though,
mouthing along with other NMS is integral in conveyance of a message using
American Sign Language. Without its use, a message can take on a completely
Metzger (1996). Deaf Tend Your: Non-Manual Signals in ASL. Silver
Spring, MD: Calliope Press.
(1989). Distinguishing language contact phenomena in ASL interpretation. In
C. Lucas (ed) The sociolinguistics of the deaf community. San Diego,
CA: Academic Press, 85-102.
Lucas (2000). Linguistics of American Sign Language. Washington,
D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.
Facial Expressions: "If
You Are Not Using Facial Expressions You Are Not Using ASL"