LINGUIST List 13.3402

Sat Dec 21 2002

Review: Sign Lang: Boyes Braem & Sutton-Spence (2001)

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  1. Martha Tyrone, Boyes Braem & Sutton-Spence (2001),The Hands are the Head of the Mouth

Message 1: Boyes Braem & Sutton-Spence (2001),The Hands are the Head of the Mouth

Date: Sat, 21 Dec 2002 13:14:59 +0000
From: Martha Tyrone <>
Subject: Boyes Braem & Sutton-Spence (2001),The Hands are the Head of the Mouth

Boyes Braem, Penny and Rachel Sutton-Spence, eds. (2001)
The Hands are the Head of the Mouth: The Mouth as Articulator in Sign
Languages, Signum GmBH, paperback ISBN 3-927731-83-8, International
Studies on Sign Language and Communication of the Deaf 39.

Book Announcement on Linguist: 

Martha E. Tyrone, 
Department of Language and Communication Science, City University London


This book comprises papers presented at a workshop on the use of the
mouth in European sign languages, held at the University of Leiden in
1998, with contributions made by two additional research groups. It
is the first edited volume on the topic, and as such should be of
interest to most sign language researchers. The book not only
contains descriptions of several languages, but also represents a
variety of theoretical, methodological, and analytical approaches to
the subject. The range of subjects and approaches makes it a useful
book for both undergraduate and graduate courses in Sign Language and
Deaf Studies, all the more so because it highlights the specific
challenges of doing linguistic research on sign languages. Also,
because it is a relatively unexplored research area, a lot of time is
spent discussing terminology, methodology, and data transcription.
For these reasons, the book is worthwhile reading for anyone
interested in issues surrounding lexicography, field linguistics, or
linguistic methodology in general.

To give some background, it is generally agreed that the hands are the
primary sign language articulators, as the title of the book suggests,
but there are other articulators (e.g. eyebrows, mouth) whose
movements or configurations, often referred to as non-manuals, are
used by all sign languages studied to date. There have been many
studies on head movements, eyebrow raising and furrowing, and shoulder
tilts in sign language, and their role in syntax and discourse
(Bergman, 1984; Neidle et al., 1996; Antzakas & Woll,
2002). Nonetheless, the focus in sign language research, particularly
in sign phonology, has traditionally been on the hands (Friedman,
1976; Uyechi, 1994). Even within the subdomain of non-manuals, very
little work has been done on the mouth specifically. Some researchers
(including some in this volume) have suggested that the lack of
research on mouth patterns may stem from the fact that most early
research was on American Sign Language, which uses the mouth less than
many other sign languages (Sasaki, 2000; Boyes-Braem, this
volume). Also, because early research aimed to show that sign
languages have their own structures and grammars independent of spoken
language, emphasis was placed largely on what made sign languages
distinct from majority spoken languages, and potential similarities
between the two modalities received less attention.

Despite the range of approaches and theories represented in the book,
there are some points of consensus. The authors agree that
extralinguistic factors, such as age, educational background and age
of acquisition, can influence mouth patterns in signing.
Additionally, it is agreed that there are two types of mouth patterns,
which are referred to as mouthings and mouth gestures. Mouthings are
formationally related to the words of the majority spoken language
that a sign language contacts, but are not usually identical to them.
In addition to not being vocalized, a mouthing does not exactly
replicate a word's physical shape. The difference between the
physical form of mouthings and of spoken words is a question touched
on by a few articles in the book (Schermer, Ajello et al.) By
contrast, mouth gestures bear no apparent relationship to spoken
language but seem to be generated from within the sign language. Some
represent a semantic component of the accompanying sign, while others
are just related formationally (Woll, this volume). Many of the
articles seek to explain the differences in function, form, and
distribution of these two categories of mouth patterns. Central
questions running throughout the book include: which syntactic
categories of signs are accompanied by mouthings versus mouth
gestures; in what ways do different groups of signers use the mouth
differently; and what is the functional and grammatical role of
mouthings and/or mouth gestures. While most of the articles are
primarily descriptive, others incorporate mouth patterns into their
theoretical models of sign language structure. In particular, the
articles on German Sign Language continue an ongoing debate on the
linguistic status of mouthings, with one research group arguing that
mouthings are peripheral to the language and only a performance
feature (Hohenberger & Happ), another arguing that they are intrinsic
to the language (Ebbinghaus & Hessmann), and the third taking an
intermediate position (Keller).


The aforementioned novelty of the field is probably both the book's
strongest and its weakest point. On the positive side, the
discussions of data analysis and transcription are perceptive and well
argued. In my opinion, the amount of time spent on questions of
methodology is probably the book's best feature. Several articles
discuss the difficulty of accurately perceiving and transcribing the
physical form of mouthings or mouth gestures without being influenced
by the spoken words they resemble. Transcription in particular is an
ongoing issue in sign language research, since sign languages
typically do not have written forms, and the International Phonetic
Alphabet (IPA) cannot be applied to them as it can to spoken
languages. On first glance, it may seem that the IPA could easily be
applied to mouthings, but as several articles point out, the audible
portion of mouthings is irrelevant to Deaf signers; and multiple
spoken phones look identical, while others are not visible at all.

Of course, the motivation for the discussion of methodology and
transcription is the fact that there is no established methodology for
collecting or analyzing these types of data. On the one hand, this
means that data are collected from various sources, contexts and
languages and can thus be more powerful. But at the same time,
comparisons made across studies or research groups can be misleading,
because the nature of the data often vary so much in terms of
linguistic and experimental context as well as actual subject
populations. Though many of the authors acknowledge the variability of
data within and across studies, they often describe the data as if
that variability were not there.

Along similar lines, though most of the articles are good about
including descriptions of subjects -- age, gender, and linguistic and
educational backgrounds -- not much attempt is made to control for
these variables. To some extent, this can scarcely be helped. One of
the biggest challenges in doing sign language research is the small
number of native sign language users in any given community. Plus the
fact that most signers learn sign language at school or from peers
rather than from their parents makes the Deaf community an inherently
more heterogeneous population. Beyond this, however, researchers do
not adjust analytical methods to allow for the nature of the data, in
many cases. As one of the articles (Keller) points out, the number of
subjects in many studies is too small for quantitative analyses of the
data to be meaningful. This does not mean that small studies should
not be done, but rather that they might benefit from using alternative
analytical frameworks, perhaps more qualitative analyses.

If the book's best feature is its emphasis on methodology, then its
second best is certainly the number of languages represented. It is
useful for anyone interested in the topic to have descriptions of so
many different languages in one volume. And the authors do an
impressive job of negotiating terminology and subject matter given the
range of views they represent. That said, however, what strikes me as
the most noticeable omission from the book is any discussion of
language contact between sign languages. It is all the more striking
because language contact between signed and spoken language is so
central to discussions of mouthing, and yet the idea that European
sign languages might influence each other, with respect to either
mouthings or mouth gestures, never seems to arise. If as Woll (this
volume) suggests, the structure of mouth gestures is determined by the
structure of signs, we first need to establish that frequently
occurring mouth gestures are not cultural phenomena passed within
interacting linguistic communities. While it is tempting to explain
mouth patterns in terms of motor constraints or visually-motivated
semantic representations, such an explanation is unconvincing until
simple cross-linguistic borrowing has been ruled out as a factor.

Despite its shortcomings, the book is an important addition to the
field, if for no other reason than that it is the first of its kind.
As such, it opens the way for future researchers by providing insight
into methodological and theoretical pitfalls and advances, as well as
presenting interesting research questions to be pursued. By and
large, the shortcomings of the book simply reflect the preliminary
nature of the research area itself which is in a crucial and exciting


Ajello, R, Mazzoni, L., & Nicolai, F. 2001. Linguistic gestures:
Mouthing in Italian Sign Language (LIS). In this volume.

Antzakas, K. & Woll, B. 2002. Head movements and negation in Greek
Sign Language. In I. Wachsmuth & T. Sowa (eds.). Gesture and Sign
Language in Human Computer Interaction. Proceedings of the
International Gesture Workshop, 2001, London. Lecture Notes in
Artificial Intelligence Series 2298. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Bergman, B. 1984. Non-manual components in signed language: Some
sentence types in Swedish Sign Language. In F. Loncke, P. Boyes Braem,
& Y. Lebrun (eds.). Recent Research on European Sign
Languages. Proceedings of the European Meeting of Sign Language
Research, 1982, Brusssels. Lisse : Swets & Zeitlinger.

Boyes Braem, P. 2001. The function of the mouthings in the signing of
Deaf early and late learners of Swiss German Sign Language (DSGS). In
this volume.

Ebbinghaus, H. & Hessmann, J. 2001. Sign language as multidimensional
communication: Why manual signs, mouthings, and mouth gestures are
three different things. In this volume.

Friedman, L. A. 1976. Phonology of a soundless language: Phonological
structure of ASL. Ann Arbor : U.MI Press. Univ. of California,
Berkeley Dissertation.

Hohenberger, A. & Happ, D. 2001. The linguistic primacy of signs and
mouth gestures over mouthings: Evidence from language production in
German Sign Language (DGS). In P. Boyes Braem & R. Sutton-Spence
(eds.). The Hands are the Head of the Mouth: The Mouth as Articulator
in Sign Languages. Hamburg: Signum-Verlag. International Studies on
Sign Language and Communication of the Deaf 39.

Keller, J. 2001. Multimodal representations and the linguistic status
of mouthings in German Sign Language (DGS). In this volume.

Neidle, C., Kegl, J., Bahan, B., MacLaughlin, D. & Lee, R.G. 1996.
Non-manual grammatical marking as evidence for hierarchical relations
in American Sign Language. Paper presented at the Fifth International
Conference on Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research. September
19-22. Montreal.

Sasaki, D. 2000. The role of Japanese mouthing in Japanese Sign
Language. Paper presented at the Texas Linguistics Society Conference
''The Effects of Modality on Language and Linguistic Theory,''
February 25-27. Austin, TX.

Schermer, T. 2001. The role of mouthings in Sign Language of the
Netherlands: Some implications for the production of sign language
dictionaries. This volume.

Uyechi, L. 1996. The Geometry of Visual Phonology. Stanford, CA: CSLI
Publications. (Dissertations in Linguistics)

Woll, B. 2001. Echo phonology: The sign that dares to speak its
name. In P. Boyes Braem & R. Sutton-Spence (eds.). The Hands are the
Head of the Mouth: The Mouth as Articulator in Sign
Languages. Hamburg: Signum-Verlag. International Studies on Sign
Language and Communication of the Deaf 39.


Martha Tyrone is a PhD student in Language and Communication Science
at City University London. She is currently working on her thesis on
the effects of neurogenic movement disorders on sign language
production. Her broader interests include the implications of sign
language structure for traditional linguistic and neurolinguistic
theory, and the interaction between motor control and linguistic form.
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