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Non-manual Markers in ASL / NMM's

Also see: Non-manual Signals

Non-manual markers consist of the various facial expressions, head tilting, shoulder raising, mouthing, and similar signals that we add to "signs" (such as are used in American Sign Language) to create or influence meaning.

The sign for non-manual markers is to fingerspell "NMM" but people often do the sign for "expressions" to mean NMM's.

An examples of a non-manual marker:

1.  Bringing your cheek and your shoulder closer together while tightening the muscles in your cheek (as if you were smiling with half your face).  This is often abbreviated as "c-s" meaning "cheek to shoulder."  This non-manual marker is used with signs like, "RECENT" and "THERE" to mean, "very recent" and "right there (close)."

Speakers of English tend to inflect their voices to indicate they are asking a question. Signers of ASL also inflect their questions, but instead of using voice inflection we use non-manual markers. 

For example:

YES/NO Question Expression:
 When signing a question that can be answered "yes or no" you raise your eyebrows and tilt your head forward a bit.

"WH-Q" Question Expression
When signing a question involving "who, what, when, where, how, how much, how many, which, or why" you use what is called a "wh" question facial expression. The "wh" facial expression "furrows" the eyebrows a bit and may tilt the head back a bit--while the body might lean forward a bit.

Here are some examples of "wh" question expression:




Nonmanual markers (NMMs) in American Sign Language (ASL) are essential facial expressions, head movements, and other body language cues that convey grammatical information. Here is a list of common nonmanual markers and their descriptions:

  1. Eyebrows Raised:
    • Yes/No Questions: Raised eyebrows are used when asking yes/no questions.
    • Conditional Clauses: Raised eyebrows are used to indicate the conditional part of a sentence.
  2. Eyebrows Furrowed:
    • Wh-Questions: Furrowed eyebrows are used when asking questions that begin with words like who, what, where, when, why, and how.
    • Negation and Doubt: Furrowed eyebrows can indicate negation or doubt.
  3. Head Nods:
    • Affirmation: A nodding head indicates agreement or affirmation.
  4. Head Shakes:
    • Negation: A shaking head indicates negation or disagreement.
  5. Mouth Shapes:
    • "oo": Indicates something small or diminutive.
    • "mm": Indicates something regular, normal, or moderate.
    • "cha": Indicates something large or big.
    • "puffed cheeks": Can indicate something is very large, bulky, or intense.
    • "th": Indicates carelessness or a lack of precision.
    • "pursed lips": Can indicate intensity or seriousness.
    • "gritted / barred teeth": Can indicate effort under pressure, pain, or intensity.
  6. Eye Gaze:
    • Directional Verbs: The direction of the gaze can indicate the direction of an action or the subject of the conversation.
    • Focus and Attention: Eye gaze can show where the signer is directing their attention.
  7. Cheek Puffing:
    • Indicates intensity, size, or effort.
  8. Nose Wrinkling:
    • Can indicate distaste or disapproval.
  9. Shoulder Raising:
    • Indicates uncertainty or questioning.
    • single cheek-to-shoulder indicates "very" or "just" as in "very recent" or "just happened"
  10. Head Tilting:
    • Used to emphasize a point or to indicate a question.

These nonmanual markers are crucial for understanding and conveying the full meaning of ASL signs, as they add grammatical and emotional context to the manual signs.





In a message dated 7/10/2005 6:15:27 PM Pacific Daylight Time, ______ writes:
Dear Dr. Bill:
I used your website to help deaf friends with vocabulary. I am an ASL/Deaf Studies Specialist. I also do computer graphics. I need to know where non-manuals came from? Who gave that idea as a developments.  Are there any resources on history of non-manuals signals?
Thank you, smile
Non-manual Markers (I'm very sure) developed naturally as part of the language in the same way they did with spoken English.  For example, "Why do you nod your head to mean yes and shake it to mean no?" It just started happening that way over time. It could have gone the other way:  Bulgarians shake their head to mean yes and nod their head to mean no.
If you wish to study "non-manual markers" in more depth you will likely find more resources by first researching "facial expressions," and "gestures."
Dr. Bill

Over at Youtube as part of the "Signs" channel (a sign clip repository mainly used to embed sign examples into I have a clip of the following sentence:

In the comments section under that video an ASL Hero commented:  You forgot the, "What."

To which I replied:  "I absolutely did "not" forget "what." In addition to signs done by the hands ASL also uses "non-manual markers" (facial expressions, shoulder raises, body shifts, head tilts, etc.) to create meaning. Look at my head position and eyebrows as I do the sign glossed (written) as "what-NAME?" Notice how my eyebrows are furrowed? That lowering of the eyebrows functions to create a "WH"-type question and turns "NAME" into "what-NAME?" That is why I specifically put the word "what" in lowercase and hyphenated it to the uppercase word NAME -- to indicate that the concept is being shown as one sign."

(Source: )


Are all non-manual aspects of signing considered "markers?"

If you use a strict definition of a marker as something that adds grammatical information to some other linguistic unit -- then perhaps there are indeed various facial expressions or body movements that do not add "grammatical" information and instead simply add articulatory information.  For example the mouth position in NOT-YET may only be adding articulatory information and as such it wouldn't be a non-manual marker -- intead it would be a non-manual signal that helps distinguish this sign from the sign for LATE.

Let me put it this way:
Doing the sign NOT-YET with a slightly open mouth doesn't mark the sign with an inflected meaning.  It cause the sign to change from meaning "not yet" to instead mean something like "not-quite-yet."  The mouth configuration is "just how the sign is done."

Slightly opening the mouth and placing the tongue over the bottom teeth so that it touches the lower lip.  This non-manual signal is used with the sign, "NOT-YET."  Using the non-manual signal helps distinguish the sign NOT-YET from the sign LATE.



However -- this is absolutely NOT worth arguing about.
If some folks want to call that mouth position an NMM will your life really be benefited by trying to convince them it isn't?
Or maybe you should go do something nice for a stranger or homeless person instead eh?





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