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  • Mouth actions in sign languages: An empirical study of Irish Sign Language by Susanne Mohr
  • Richard Bank
Mouth actions in sign languages: An empirical study of Irish Sign Language. By Susanne Mohr. (Sign languages and Deaf communities 3.) Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 2014. Pp. xviii, 231. ISBN 9781614514978. $140 (Hb).

While the hands are the most important articulators in signed languages, there is a lot of mouth activity when deaf signers sign among each other. This has been shown and studied for many sign [End Page 743] languages (e.g. contributions to Boyes Braem & Sutton-Spence 2001), but this book is the first to explore mouth actions in Irish Sign Language (ISL). Mouth actions can be roughly divided into two groups: mouthings and mouth gestures. The former are borrowings from the surrounding spoken languages in the form of (silently) articulated words from those languages; the latter are usually analyzed as language-inherent mouth actions that can fulfill, for instance, adverbial functions, or serve to make a sign well formed.

Susanne Mohr’s Mouth actions in sign languages provides a detailed background of mouth actions in general, and analyzes many specific instances in ISL. The book focuses on how mouth actions correlate with gender, age, and word class in ISL. After a short introductory chapter, the book takes off with a description of the sociolinguistic situation of the deaf in Ireland. Since the great majority of deaf children are born into hearing (i.e. nonsigning) families, the greater part of sign language acquisition takes place at deaf schools. Education of the Irish deaf has been strictly segregated for boys and girls in the past, to the extent that two different variants of ISL evolved that were not mutually intelligible. Moreover, after the introduction of oral education (resulting in the strict exclusion of sign language) at deaf schools across Europe in 1880 (see also Lane 1984), oralism was introduced fairly late in Ireland, in 1946 to the girls’ school and in 1957 to the boys’ school. Ch. 2 further provides an adequate description (although not necessarily relevant for the discussion of mouthings) of some of the modality-specific features of sign languages in general, intended for readers less familiar with sign languages: use of space, iconicity, simultaneity, and nonmanual features.

These nonmanual features of sign languages in general, including mouth actions, are put into theoretical perspective in Ch. 3. The first part of the chapter discusses eye gaze, head movements, and in particular facial expressions in relation to lexicon, syntax, and prosody. Although the discussion is generally informative, its function in the book is not clear: these nonmanuals are not returned to later on, nor are they specific to ISL. The second part of Ch. 3 discusses mouth actions in their usual subdivision of mouth gestures and mouthings. Regarding mouth gestures, M adopts the four-partite division proposed by Crasborn and colleagues (2008), which subdivides mouth gestures into adverbial mouth gestures, semantically empty mouth gestures, enacting mouth gestures, and mouth gestures as part of an overall facial expression. M does not further consider the latter type because its meaning is often more affective rather than grammatical (cf. Johnston et al. 2015, which considers this type as the most gestural of all mouth actions). Regarding mouthings, several theories on their linguistic status are discussed, such as mouthings as a form of on-line code-blending, or the multichannel nature of signs and mouthings and how they form composite utterances. M rejects or at least questions all theories for their applicability to ISL.

Ch. 4 introduces a typology of mouthings in ISL, based on M’s own research on the Signs of Ireland corpus. Twelve participants were selected from the corpus, evenly grouped into three age categories, each category containing two male signers and two female signers. The signers vary greatly in their age of sign language acquisition (for instance, age of acquisition in the youngest group (aged eighteen to thirty-five) varied between birth and twenty-five years of age), and also the language of communication with family shows great variation (English, ISL, gestures, or a mixture). This is something to be kept in mind for the discussion of...


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