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LINGUIST List 19.1544

Tue May 13 2008

Diss: Phonetics/Phonology/Pragmatics: Weast: 'Questions in American...'

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        1.    Traci Weast, Questions in American Sign Language: A quantitative analysis of raised and lowered eyebrows

Message 1: Questions in American Sign Language: A quantitative analysis of raised and lowered eyebrows
Date: 12-May-2008
From: Traci Weast <taweastyahoo.com>
Subject: Questions in American Sign Language: A quantitative analysis of raised and lowered eyebrows
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Institution: University of Texas at Arlington
Program: Department of Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2008

Author: Traci Weast

Dissertation Title: Questions in American Sign Language: A quantitative analysis of raised and lowered eyebrows

Linguistic Field(s): Phonetics

Subject Language(s): American Sign Language (ase)

Dissertation Director:
Jerold A Edmondson

Dissertation Abstract:

Although much of linguistic information in American Sign Language (ASL) is
conveyed through nonmanual signals, the majority of more than 40 years of
research focuses on manual signs. As a result, we are just beginning to
understand the role of the face, head, and upper body in signed languages,
including eyebrow movement. While researchers generally agree that eyebrows
play a role in questions of examined sign languages, they disagree whether
upper face nonmanuals are syntactic or prosodic and intonational. Wilbur
2000, 2003 widens the debate to suggest a layered combination in the upper
face, where eyebrows represent syntax, and other upper face nonmanuals can
simultaneously represent intonation and prosody. The debate over the upper
face continues greatly due to a lack of quantitative data, with reliance on
only qualitative movement impressions. As a result, ASL curricula do not
adequately teach the role of nonmanuals, and ASL questions are often
misinterpreted with serious consequences.

This research presents the first quantitative analysis of eyebrows and
reveals how, despite emotional state, ASL maintains linguistic distinctions
between questions and statements through eyebrow height. In this study, six
native Deaf participants signed yes/no questions, wh-questions, and
statements, each in neutral, happy, sad, surprise, and angry states. Over
3500 measurements of consultant eyebrows were recorded from a total of 270
signed sentences. A mixed model was performed using SAS and the eyebrow
levels were also charted on a timed series to see patterns. In neutral,
brows for the entire sentence raise or lower, with maximums elevating 21%
for yes/no questions and lowering 30% for wh-questions, but emotional
questions show variable percent changes. Consistent distinctions across
emotional states exist between sentence types, however, that depend on
timing and spread of raised and lowered eyebrows.

The data expand on the layering of upper face nonmanuals to support a
theory for even more complexity on the face, where both sides of the debate
have merit, as eyebrows simultaneously represent syntax, grammatical
intonation, and other prosodic intonation that correlates to spoken
languages. The work suggests that it is not brow furrowing that should be
the focus of investigation into consistent patterns, but brow lowering. The
data show a first glimpse at eyebrow height attached to signs in ASL, and
new information on how raised and lowered eyebrows spread across
constituents in ASL questions, with recommendations for curricula
improvements. The results also show that ASL nonmanuals should not be
compared to pitch in English but instead better correlate to the layering
through pitch in tone languages.

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