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Nonmanual Signs versus Nonmanual Markers:

There is a difference between a nonmanual marker (NMM) and a sign that doesn't use the hands.

Non-manual markers (NMMs) and signs that do not use hands, such as head nods or shakes, can appear similar but have different roles and meanings in ASL.

Here's the distinction:

Non-manual markers are facial expressions, head movements, or other body movements that are not made with the hands but provide critical grammatical, syntactic, and affective information to an ASL sentence. They are used simultaneously with manual signs and often indicate the mood, tone, or grammatical function of a sentence or phrase. For example, raised eyebrows are used for yes/no questions, and a nod can emphasize or mark the action of the sign that is concurrently performed with the hands.

On the other hand, there are also non-hand signs in ASL, such as nodding or shaking the head, which serve as independent signs with their own meanings, separate from any accompanying hand signs. For example, nodding the head on its own can mean "yes," and shaking the head can mean "no." These actions do not modify or provide context to other signs but stand alone as complete signs in themselves.

So, the key difference is the role they play in ASL communication. Non-manual markers provide additional meaning or context to manual signs, while non-hand signs are standalone signs with their own meaning. The same physical action (like nodding the head) can function as a non-manual marker or a standalone sign depending on the context in which it's used.

The use of nonmanual markers in conveying syntactic information:

Syntactic information in a language refers to the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences in a given language. It dictates how words and phrases should be ordered and combined to form sentences. Syntax includes things like word order, the use of function words (like "and" or "but"), and how different sentence types are formed (like questions or negations).

In American Sign Language (ASL), syntactic information is conveyed through a combination of manual signs (hand movements) and non-manual markers (facial expressions and body movements).

For example, in ASL, yes/no questions are typically formed not by rearranging the order of signs (as in English), but by using non-manual markers - specifically, raising the eyebrows and leaning the head forward slightly while signing the sentence. The rest of the sentence may follow the typical subject-object-verb or topic-comment syntax of ASL, but it's the non-manual marker that indicates it's a question. Without the raised eyebrows, the sentence could be mistaken for a statement instead of a question.

Another example is the use of non-manual markers for conditional sentences ("if...then" statements). The word "if" is signed, followed by the condition. While signing the condition, the signer holds a squinted and tensed facial expression (as the non-manual marker). The facial expression is then relaxed for the "then" part of the sentence. In this case, the non-manual markers are used to clearly delineate the different parts of the sentence, providing crucial syntactic information.

In these ways, non-manual markers in ASL are not just about emotion or emphasis, but they play a crucial role in the grammatical structure of the language, providing important syntactic information that helps determine the meaning of sentences.

Nodding your head to indicate "yes," shaking your head to indicate "no," puffing your cheek to indicate "menstrual period," jerking your head in a specific direction to indicate "over there," and other similar forms of communication are nonmanual signs.

For example, the "PERIOD-[cheek-puff] version" has the following parameters:

1. shape: segment 1 "cheek"-neutral shape, segment 2 "cheek" puffed shape, segment 3 "cheek" neutral shape. *(Sometimes this series of segments are repeated).

2. location: dominant side cheek area

3. orientation: head is facing viewer or audience

4. movement: the cheek moves from a neutral position to a puffed position and back to a neutral position.

Questions and answers:

Question: Aren't such signs just non-manual markers?

Answer: Signs such as YES-[head-nod], NO-[head-shake], PERIOD-[menstrual_period / cheek-puff nonmanual version], OVER-THERE-[head-jerk nonmanual version] all function as "words" (signs) in ASL. They are not merely marking or influencing other words they are fully functioning words (signs) and are or can be considered lexical items worthy of their own entry as a "headword" in ASL dictionaries.

Question: But aren't they lacking meeting the threshold of filling all four of the main parameters of signs: handshape, location, palm orientation and movement?

Answer: Just because you read somewhere or someone told you that those are the parameters of signs doesn't mean that is the end of the story. Instead of "handshape" a more inclusive parameter is "shape." We can consider "handshape" to be a sub-parameter of the parameter of "shape." Similarly, the parameter of "palm-orientation" is a sub-parameter of "orientation."








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