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ASL Linguistics: "Mouthing in ASL: Remnants of English?"
 Also see: Mouthing in ASL (discussion)


Becky Icken

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, 21). 

          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:

1.     Reflection of emotional state (face)

2.     Constructed action ( body)

3.     Conversation regulators (eyes)

4.     Lexical markers (mouth)

5.     Grammatical markers (eyebrows)

6.     Modifiers (intonation, stress and pitch)

As each 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 pictures."    

          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):

1.     Lexical Mouthing AF-FO

Explanation: "mouth starts open and wide, then bottom lip touches bottom the top row o f the front teeth.  Finally, the lips are rounded"

Use:  sign HAVE-TO

English argument:  the mouth movement for this sign is the same as when in spoken English one would say "have to"

2. Lexical Mouthing SAM

Explanation:  "front teeth together with lips parted then, lips pressed together"


English argument:  the mouth movements for the English word "same" is identical to the one used to convey the message in ASL

Although 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):

1.     Lexical Mouthing PAH

Explanation:  "mouth closed, and then mouth opens"

Use:  sign FINALLY

ASL argument:  This sign in no way relates to the spoken word "finally."   It was created simply to convey a message in ASL.

This 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 different meaning.    



Bridges & Metzger (1996). Deaf Tend Your: Non-Manual Signals in ASL. Silver Spring, MD: Calliope Press.

Davis, J. (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.

Valli & Lucas (2000). Linguistics of American Sign Language. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

Also see: Facial Expressions: "If You Are Not Using Facial Expressions You Are Not Using ASL"


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