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Nonmanuals in Sign Language ed. by Annika Herrmann, Markus Steinbach (review)

From: Sign Language Studies
Volume 14, Number 3, Spring 2014
pp. 402-405 | 10.1353/sls.2014.0006

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Sign linguistics research has traditionally focused on the actions of the hands and arms during signing. The head, eyes, mouth, and body are referred to in the sign language literature as nonmanual articulators. Most researchers have assumed that the hands produce lexical content during signing and the nonmanual articulators produce prosodic or intonational content.

The new volume Nonmanuals in Sign Language, edited by Annika Herrmann and Markus Steinbach, originates from a conference at the University of Frankfurt am Main in 2009. The work includes original papers with a range of theoretical and methodological approaches. Additionally, it includes analyses of multiple sign languages, specifically American Sign Language (ASL), Turkish Sign Language (TID), Hong Kong Sign Language (HKSL), German Sign Language (DGS), and British Sign Language (BSL). Although the languages, research questions, and theoretical approaches vary, several common themes run throughout the volume, including the multifunctionality of nonmanuals, the development of nonmanuals from autochthonous nonlinguistic gestures, and the interface between nonmanuals and syntax, semantics, and morphology.

Many of the papers focus on syntax and analyze nonmanuals as in-dices of linguistic scope or constituent structure. For example, Churng extends past research on ASL nonmanuals and wh-questions to examine sentences with multiple wh-questions (e.g., “Where are you going and why?”). Churng does not describe the form or structure of the nonmanuals in detail except to say that shoulder shift, lowered brows, and head thrust are associated with conjoined elements, wh-marking, and focus marking, respectively. Based on grammaticality and meaning judgments by ASL consultants, she concludes that ASL prosody is sensitive to syntax and that nonmanuals can be analyzed to uncover derivational history.

Gökgöz also focuses on syntax, but the author examines negation markers in TID based on narrative and conversational data. Past re-search suggests that TID relies primarily on manual signs for negation, but Gökgöz proposes that the full range of nonmanual correlates of negation had not been considered. The nonmanual negation markers that he documents for TID include backward head tilt, headshake, single head turn, brow raising, and brow lowering. He suggests that the last four of these are syntactic but that backward head tilt accompanies only specific lexical signs.

Hosemann describes an empirical study of eye gaze and verb agreement in DGS, which attempts to replicate a similar study by Thompson, Emmorey, and Kluender (2006). Based on eye-tracking data, she finds that eye gaze is related to verb agreement but that a high degree of variability in gaze patterns exists across signers. Like most experimental sign language research, this study is somewhat limited by its small sample size, particularly in light of the intersubject variability. Nonetheless, it makes an important contribution by replicating an earlier study in a different sign language and by adding to the body of empirical sign-production data.

Lewin and Schembri’s chapter is unique in that it investigates a mouth gesture, which raises issues about the relationship of sign to speech and of sign to nonlinguistic gesture. In particular, the research-ers examine tongue protrusion in BSL, based on narrative data from two signers. The researchers suggest that the “th” gesture has more functions in BSL than had previously been recognized. Lewin and Schembri emphasize that “th” mouth gestures are distinct in ASL and BSL. This is noteworthy because it illustrates that mouth gestures are not universal in their form or meaning. Moreover, this demonstrates that mouth gestures need not be derived from speech sounds.

Sze examines nonmanual markers of topic constructions in HKSL based on conversational and narrative data. His approach differs in that he first makes an independent determination that a sign is a topic, and then he states whether the topic co-occurred with a nonmanual. He found that, in HKSL, scene-setting topic markers have a brow raise and distinct body posture, but “aboutness” topic markers have no clear nonmanual component. Sze points out that topics have not been consistently defined in the literature on either spoken or signed languages, and he emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between grammatical topic and focus at both a theoretical and an operational level. He concludes that brow raising in HKSL may be more clearly...

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