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American Sign Language: Nonmanual Signals (NMSs)

In a message dated 10/20/2012 7:28:49 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, an student writes:

Dr. Vicars,
Can you explain the difference between nonmanual markers (NMM) and nonmanual signals (NMS).
Thank you,
-  Sarah
 

Dear Sarah,
Hello :)
 
The term nonmanual signal is a gesture or action such as change of your facial expression; the tilt, shake, or nod of your head; and/or the hunching of one or both shoulders -- that is used convey information.
 
If such movements are not used to convey information then they are not "signals" -- instead we would simply call them twitches.

The term "non-manual marker" refers to a type of non-manual signal (that you do without using your hands) that influences (marks) the meaning of something else that you are signing.
 
A non-manual marker is always a non-manual signal.

But a non-manual signal is not always a nonmanual marker.

If we used a nonmanual signal as an independent sign then we wouldn't (or at least in my opinion we shouldn't) call it a marker. For example, if you ask me a question and I shake my head "no" then I'm not marking some other sign, I'm simply signaling (signing) to you the meaning of "no." In that case, the nonmanual signal is not a marker, it is a nonmanual "sign."

Consider the sentence "He arrived very recently."
If we sign that sentence in a somewhat English manner: "HE ARRIVE VERY RECENT" using the initialized form of VERY that looks like "BIG" done with "V" hands then we are not "marking" the sign RECENT with the sign VERY. We are simply using two different signs to create meaning.

However, if we sign in an ASL fashion, "HE ARRIVE RECENT-(CS)" wherein the "CS" means "move your cheek and shoulder together" then we can say that the "CS" (cheek to shoulder movement) is being used to mark the sign RECENT. By "mark" we mean "change or influence the meaning of." We changed the meaning from "recent" to instead be "very recent." Thus the "CS" movement is a nonmanual signal that was used as a non-manual marker.

If you have other questions on this (or any other) topic, do let me know.
Cordially,
Dr. Bill

 




Topic: NMS vs NMM:

What is the difference between "non-manual signals" and "non-manual markers?"

Warning:

If you have not passed an ASL Linguistics course (or the equivalent) you should not expect to understand much of what I write about below.

It doesn't mean you are stupid. Nor does it mean I don't know how to explain stuff. It just means that the following discussion "isn't for beginners."

Thought questions to get your mind warmed up. Ask yourself:

When discussing "visual languages," what is a good definition of the word "sign?" What is "a sign?" "What are signs?"

Next ask yourself:

What is the difference between a "sign" and a "non-manual" marker?

And finally, ask yourself:

What is the difference between a "sign," a "signal," and a "marker" (all in the linguistic sense)?

"Someone" (not me) could argue that for a visual language signal to be considered “a sign" it must be done with the hands. (I disagree.)

“Someone” (not me) could claim that anything other than a hand-based sign is a "non-manual something" -- typically a "non-manual marker (NMM).”

We can think of ASL as having two broad categories:

1. Manual signals expressed via manual signs. These are what we typically think of signs: Think “MOM” “APPLE”

2. Non-manual signals (NMS). These are all the various signals we send with our body without using our hands.

You can further divide (number 2) non-manual signals into:

1. Non-manual signals that function as articulatory phonemes. Those big words (articulatory phoneme) simply mean that if you do something with your body that helps clarify which sign you are doing but not actually influence the meaning of that sign one way or another. For example think of the difference between NOT-YET (which typically uses a phonemic non-manual signal) and LATE (which doesn’t use a non-manual signal). Does the slightly open mouth and tongue over the teeth actually have independent “meaning” in the sign for “NOT-YET?” Or is the mouth (in this case) simply used to distinguish NOT-YET from LATE? If the mouth configuration in NOT-YET does not actually have meaning (which I’m claiming that it doesn’t) it is simply articulatory and therefore a phoneme and not a morpheme. Test it: Walk up to your Deaf friend, sign “what-MEAN THIS?” then stand there with your mouth slightly open and your tongue over your lower teeth and do no other signals for three seconds. (Do not give any clues. Do not ask “which sign does this typically go with.” Do not shake your head; do not move your arms or hands -- just show that particular mouth configuration.) Then see what your Deaf friend responds. Then try it with nine more friends. If the typical response is “You are weird” or something like “Oh yah -- that means to do something thoughtlessly or carelessly”* – then you have proven my point: The “tongue over the bottom teeth” in the sign NOT-YET serves to distinguish it from LATE but doesn’t actually carry any independent meaning and therefore is “not” a morpheme. It is just “how” the sign is done. A non-manual signal that functions as an articulatory phoneme is simply one more meaningless parameter that has to be combined with other phonemes (handshapes, palm orientations, locations, movements, holds, etc.) to add up to up to a sign that has meaning.

[Side note: Actually the “thoughtlessly / carelessly” morpheme requires more than just the mouth – it needs to include the whole face. I just went and did this little “mouth only” experiment with Bee (my wife) and she came up with zip – which was totally my point. Oh sure, after about three minutes she made the connection to “NOT-YET” but by then totally agreed with me that the tongue-over mouth done independently did not carry meaning and that further involvement of the eye-area of the face was necessary to create the “thoughtlessly / carelessly” morpheme.]

2. Non-manual signals that function as inflective markers (think: “bound morpheme”). For example the raising of one shoulder and the movement of your cheek toward the shoulder. This “signal” has meaning of “very” or “acute” but is typically only used by binding it to a sign such as RECENT or PAST.

3. Non-manual signals that function as independent signs. For example nodding to mean “yes” or shaking your head to mean “no.” You can even observe people doing the “PAH!” morpheme (without the sign SUCCEED) independently to mean “At last! Finally!” and the “CHA!” morpheme to mean “big, massive, or imposing!” (“CHA!” as an independent morpheme seems to even be evolving to mean “very” as in “sooooo…” – but that is a discussion for some other time).

Since the above info is “CHA!” thick and full of big words you might have lost track of my point so I’ll back up and review:

Non-manual signals include:

1. Phonemic NMS (don't have independent meaning but are good for distinguishing signs)

2. Morphemic bound NMS (Have meaning but are almost always combined with "a sign") (This is where NMM's can be found).

3. Morphemic unbound NMS (Function as "signs")

When referring to "all" non-hand-based signals (as part of a visual language) we can / should be use the term “non-manual signals” rather than “non-manual markers.”

Why? Technically not all “NMS” “mark” (inflect or change the meaning of) an accompanying sign. (If a signal doesn't "mark" something -- it isn't a marker.)

For example, in ASL we don’t consider a closed mouth rendition of NOT-YET as being the “unmarked” form of NOT-YET. No. Instead we consider that closed-mouth version be a different sign that means “LATE.” The sign LATE is not an unmarked version of NOT-YET. LATE is a different sign with a different meaning.

(But hey, feel free to argue and tell me that "not yet" means you are "not yet late" and therefore they basically mean the same and so one is a marked version ot the other. Uh huh. Sure. Try that on your next ASL test. Write LATE on the "NOT-YET" sign and see if your Deaf ASL (tenured so they don't give a crap about your end of semester teacher evaluation) instructor gives it to you.) At some point inflecting stops and deriving begins. (Inflecting creates nuanced meanings of the same work. Deriving creates a new word. A "runner" is not an inflected form of running. A runner is a person. "RUN-[fast] is an inflected form of running.

Inflected: RUN-[fast]

Derived: RUNNER

A nonmanual signal is a change of your facial expression; the tilt, shake, or nod of your head; the hunching of one or both shoulders, the turning or leaning of your torso, and/or any other similar body moves -- when used to indicate meaning.

If such movements are not used independently or in combination with other bodily articulations to create meaning or to help distinguish a sign that has meaning -- they are not "signals" -- instead we would simply call them twitches.

The term "nonmanual marker" refers to a type of nonmanual signal (that you do without using your hands) that influences (marks) the meaning of something else that you are signing.

A non-manual marker is always a non-manual signal.

But a non-manual signal is not always a nonmanual marker.

If we used a nonmanual signal as an independent sign then we wouldn't (or at least in my opinion we shouldn't) call it a marker. For example, if you ask me a question and I shake my head "no" then I'm not marking some other sign, I'm simply signaling (signing) to you the meaning of "no." In that case, the nonmanual signal is not a marker, it is a nonmanual "sign."

Consider the sentence "He arrived very recently."

If we sign that sentence in a somewhat English manner: "HE ARRIVE VERY RECENT" using the initialized form of VERY that looks like "BIG" done with "V" hands then we are not "marking" the sign RECENT with the sign VERY. We are simply using two different signs to create meaning.

However, if we sign in an ASL fashion, "HE ARRIVE RECENT-(CS)" wherein the "CS" means "move your cheek and shoulder together" then we can say that the "CS" (cheek to shoulder movement) is being used to mark the sign RECENT. By "mark" we mean "change or influence the meaning of." We changed the meaning from "recent" to instead be "very recent." Thus the "CS" movement is a nonmanual signal that was used as a non-manual marker.

 


Question:
When teaching a high school class about nonmanual features should I refer to them as NMS or NMM? 

Response:
In general I would advise just using the term "NMM" (or NMM's) not because it is necessarily / technically accurate but rather because when in Rome you should do as the Romans -- and lots of ASL teachers use the term "NMM."

I suppose you could sidestep the whole issue and just use the term "nonmanuals." 

Check it out:

1. handshape
2. movement
3. orientation
4. location
5. nonmanuals

Sort of has a nice flow eh?
Much better than the nasty and enigmatic:

"5. NMMs"

Blech!

Plus, both NMS and NMM are "nonmanuals" so the issue is solved. Heh.

___________________________
Definition: "enigmatic"
- difficult to interpret or understand; mysterious.
(Source: Oxford)

Definition: "blech"
- used to express disgust or distaste.
(Source: Oxford)

 

Also see: Nonmanual Markers