Languages are more than just collections of words. When talking, a hearing person might vary elements like tone, speed, rhythm, or stress to add meaning. The meaning of these variations differs from one spoken language to another.
The same is true for signed languages. Sign languages use more than just the hands. For example, they might use facial expressions. Sometimes this might express emotion, but in other instances, there are specific rules for when and how to use certain facial movements. Signers can also make use of the space around their bodies for meaning.
There are many sign languages in the world, each with unique vocabulary and grammar. Just as different spoken languages have rules for things like tone or rhythm, rules for things like facial expression vary from one sign language to another. American Sign Language, for example, makes use of the signer’s facial movements and the placement and orientation of signs around the body.
Facial expression: eyes
One way that ASL makes use of the eyes is through eyebrow movement. English speakers may have noticed that when asking a question with a yes or no answer, the speaker raises the tone of their voice at the end of the sentence to signal they are asking a question. In ASL, a signer does the same thing by raising their eyebrows while signing. Unlike in spoken English, ASL users also mark sentences with question words (i.e. who, what, when, where, how) by lowering their eyebrows.
Eye gaze is also significant in ASL. Signers can use their eyes to indicate that they are paying attention or look away to show that they need a moment to think. When telling a story with multiple people, the signer can use eye gaze to reenact a story.
Facial expression: mouth
One way that ASL uses the mouth is to mark distance. For example, when talking about something nearby, the signer makes a clenched-teeth shape with their mouth. When talking about something far away, the signer opens their mouth slightly. ASL uses this both when talking about physical distance and time.
Another way that ASL uses mouth shape is to indicate size. When talking about something small, the signer will purse their lips as one does when making an “oo” sound. When talking about something large, the signer will make a mouth movement that looks like “cha.”
There are other ways ASL uses the mouth that are more specific to certain words or phrases. The sign equivalent to the English word “finish” is typically accompanied by mouthing “fish.” When paying attention to another signer, an ASL user might twitch their nose in the same way English users might say “uh-huh” to show they’re paying attention.
The placement of signs relative to a signer’s body is crucial for meaning. Just like English users, ASL users will not keep referring to a person by their name when discussing them. English speakers use pronouns like he, she, and they. ASL users will establish and use different spaces around their body to refer to different people, and then point to that space again whenever they need to.
The direction a sign moves in is also meaningful. For example, the direction of a verb describes who did or will do something to whom. If a signer is discussing lending something to the person they are talking to, they sign the verb toward that person. If they are discussing borrowing something from them, they sign the verb towards themselves. They can even make use of a space they establish. If they indicate that the space to their left refers to their brother and the one to their right refers to their sister, they can sign the verb from left to right to discuss their brother lending something to their sister.
The space around a signer’s body can also describe the location of things. The simplest example of this is the act of pointing toward something. However, ASL users can also create complex maps in the space in front of them to describe anything from a hallway to the layout of the buildings on a city block.
ASL also uses space to describe time. Signs for times in the past, such as yesterday, move backward relative to the signer’s body, while signs that describe times in the future move forward. The signer can apply this to many time phrases, such as “two weeks in the past” or “two weeks in the future.”
ASL uses far more than just the hands. Hearing people who do not know sign language should keep this in mind to ensure deaf people can talk or use an interpreter in any given situation.