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The Myth of (required) Inflection:

Truth:  Sometimes a parameter error isn't a parameter error.
Discussion topic: (supposedly)-NMM-requisite signs

Myth: To be done correctly the sign [insert the label of the sign here] must be done with a facial expression.

The above statement could be phrased as:  To be done correctly the sign [insert the label for the sign here] must be inflected with a facial expression. 

Jargon help:  The word "inflection" (in this situation) is just a fancy way of saying "change the way you do a sign to create a somewhat different meaning." 


Truth:  In real life, signs that are traditionally taught as or claimed to be accompanied by facial expressions are sometimes done without those facial expressions.

Consider the sign that involves a "C"-hand at the chest that moves down and may repeat the movement and/or add facial expression depending on your intended meaning.

Some variations include:
HORNY, desire, in-heat, in the throes of passion, etc. (inflected)
HORNY, desire, in-heat, in the throes of passion, etc. (uninflected)
HUNGRY (uninflected)
HUNGRY (inflected) (done with a strong movement and facial expression)

HUNGRY (with a parameter error consisting of a second movement -- which just happens to cause the sign to look a lot like the uninflected version of desire).

For example, if giving a speech to a group of young people regarding dealing with feelings of intimacy -- a lecturer might choose to sign HORNY without the inflected facial expression.*  (Note: The English gloss or label isn't the point.  The ["C"-hand at the chest moves down, repeats] sign is sometimes labeled as HORNY and/is is sometimes labeled euphemistically as DESIRE. 

Why then do we often observe ASL instructors teaching their students that certain signs "must" be done with a facial expression when quite often in real life -- skilled native signers drop the added facial expression?

Because ASL teachers often teach out of context. 


Certain signs like HORNY or NOT-YET when done out of context and without facial expression may be confused with other signs.

Thus there are two solutions:
1.  Do the sign in context
2.  Add facial expression

Since "context" is of an infinite nature -- ASL teachers default to "add facial expression" (as a way of clarifying meaning) and tend to ignore the fact that "context" in real life conversations makes the meaning clear and often removes the need for the facial expression. 

So, a myth is born:  "This sign uses facial expression."
When the reality is:  "This sign often but not always uses facial expression depending on the context, the signer's intent, and the familiarity of the viewer with the topic."

Curriculum designers are faced with a hard choice when designing a lesson that includes signs that will default to being considered "nonsense" (or rather do not make sense) without context.

The choice is: 
1.  Include a significant amount of additional information describing the use of the sign and providing examples of context.

2.  Just tell students to do a certain facial expression while doing the sign so that the sign will make sense if viewed out of context.

Some signs, if signed without context, must be paired with a specific non-manual-markers (such as a facial expression) to remove doubt from the viewer's mind as to the specific meaning of that sign.

Such signs,  if signed without non-manual-markers and without context will be considered to be errors (by many people -- including a significant number of ASL teachers.  However, if such signs were to occur in context they would probably be accepted without a second thought. For example, two people discussing a dog -- one of them might warn the other to make sure to keep the dog inside because it is "in heat" (using the HORNY sign). The sign might very well be done with little or no facial expression.

Just something for all of us to put on our radar to start noticing real world examples of signs that are typically taught as requiring facial expression but that also in real life are often done without that (so called) required facial expression.




*  Inflection vs. derivation:  This article isn't going to dive into the difference between inflection and derivation other than to point out that if you inflect a sign it still generally means what it started out as meaning but if you change a sign to the extent that you have created a significantly different meaning then you have not just inflected the meaning of an existing sign but rather have "derived" (created something from something else) a new sign with a new meaning.  The fact that the new sign has roots in the old sign doesn't change the fact that the new sign means something different from the old sign.  Example, CHAIR does not mean SIT -- however it can be argued that CHAIR has its roots in SIT.  CHAIR was derived from SIT and the two concepts mean different things.  CHAIR is not an inflection of SIT. CHAIR is a derivation of SIT. 



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