moving beyond the hands

My most recent lessons have taught me much more not only about the signs themselves, but the facial and body language cues, called non-manual markers, that are a key feature of ASL.

  • Facial expression allows a signer to negate or emphasize a signed concept. For example, signing that someone’s room was clean while frowning and shaking one’s head would indicate the exact opposite; the room was not clean. A more exaggerated expression would indicate a more drastic state of disorder.
  • Mouth morphemes are mouth shapes that accompany certain signs. Many signs that convey the idea of smallness are paired with an “ooo” mouth shape, signs meaning average size tend to use a “mmm” shape, and the idea of largeness is conveyed with a “cha” mouth movement.
  • Eyebrow movements play a key part in signing questions. Who, what when, where, why, and how questions are signed with furrowed, drawn-down eyebrows, while questions requiring a yes/no response are signed with eyebrows raised. Raised brows also indicate that the topic of a sentence is being signed.
  • Body language is also a key component of signing. Leaning forward indicates that one is signing a question. A technique called contrastive structure, the shifting of the body to one side and then the other while signing two different entities, allows the signer to easily demonstrate that the signs reflect two separate people or ideas. For example, a signer might lean slightly to the left while signing about one family member, then to the right to indicate another.

All these cues will take time for me to learn, probably more time than the signs themselves, since the cues are more important to ASL’s unique grammar structure than its vocabulary. However, the more I practice, the more such actions will become second nature to me.


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