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The sign that dares to speak its name: echo phonology in british sign language (bsl)

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Bencie Woll

City University, London


This paper is concerned with one subgroup of mouth gestures in British Sign Language (BSL) which share the following features: they are obligatory, are not derived from spoken words, occur in citation forms of lexical signs, and are specifiers of meaning, rather than adverbials added to cita­tion forms. The signs in which these components occur are well-formed only if the mouth gesture is present, and all the mouth gestures require some movement during their production: either the exhalation or inhalation of breath, or change in mouth configuration during the articulation of the sign. Because the mouth gestures derive from the actions of the hands, the term 'echo phonology' is used to describe the system which underlies their production. It is argued that the mouth compo­nents of these signs have a phonological structure which can serve to support theories about syllable structure in the manual component of sign languages, and can also provide interesting clues about the possible origins of spoken language phonology.


Spoken Components (Mouthings)

A number of studies have reported on the role of oral actions in different sign languages. These actions can be divided into two groups: those relating to spoken language, and those that have developed independently of spoken language. Their functions within sign languages overlap in some respects, with both serving to specify meaning and to disambiguate manual homonyms. Figure 1 illustrates the hierarchy of oral actions and the termi­nologies currently in use.

An early study by Vogt-Svendsen (1983) introduced the term 'word pictures' for spo­ken components that have been borrowed into a sign language. Schermer (1990) regarded "spoken components" (mouthings) as a sub-type of "oral component", which in turn is a sub-type of non-manual activity. Schermer clearly distinguishes between spoken components involving the articulation of spoken words (with and without voice) by some signers when using, e.g. Signed Dutch; and spoken components of a sign language which occur as borrowed elements in the language, rather than as examples of code switching in con­tact forms.

More recently, the general term `mouthings' has been used both for mouth patterns found in loan signs and for mouth patterns found in contact signing. The role of these ele­ments has been studied in a number of European sign languages (including the sign lan­guages of Finland (Pimid 1990), Germany (Ebbinghaus & Hessmann 1996), Norway (Vogt-Svendsen 1983) and the Netherlands (Schermer 1990) although little researched in ASL (but see Bridges & Metzger 1996). Although research on mouthings may also lead to a re-analysis of the relationship between spoken and signed languages, as has been sug­gested by Ebbinghaus & Hessmann (1996), these forms are not the concern of this paper.

Oral Components (Mouth Gestures)

In this paper, the term 'oral component' or 'mouth gesture' will be restricted to any mouth activity which does not derive from the spoken language of the hearing community in which the deaf community is nested.

Schermer (1990) identifies three functions for obligatory mouthings and mouth gestures: disambiguation, meaning specification, and as sole carrier of meaning when there is no manual component.

Disambiguation. Oral actions can serve to disambiguate pairs of signs, where the manual part of both signs is identical, and the only differences are oral. Mouthings (as in BSL BATTERY and UNCLE (Fig. 2)) or mouth gestures (BSL BRIGHTON, EXPEN­SIVE (Fig. 3)) may be the sole disambiguating element in a pair of signs which are man­ual homonyms.

Meaning specification. The second role of mouth actions is to specify meaning, where the hand activity does not have a meaning in and of itself. The term 'idiom' was originally used for this group in the BSL literature, because they were not easily translat­able into English. However, they do not function like idioms, and have subsequently been called 'multi-channel' signs (MCS) by Lawson (1983). Lawson restricts the term MCS only to those signs that include mouth gestures (not mouthings). The term MCS has recently fallen out of favour for two reasons. Firstly, the use of MCS suggests that all other signs involve the hands only, and this is clearly not the case. Secondly, in signs such as MOTHER and MEMBER, borrowed from English via fingerspelling, mouthing serves the same function (Figure 4) as mouth gestures in MCS. The examples originally identi­fied as MCS by Lawson will be reanalysed below in terms of echo phonology.

Sole Carrier of Meaning. The third function of mouth gestures is to carry meaning where the sign has no manual component. There are no examples in BSL of mouth-only signs, although there are several signs with no manual element, in which the lower face is the sole articulator (e.g. a 'schoolgirl' sign meaning 'menstruation', in which one cheek is slightly puffed).

In all three types above, the mouth activity is operative at the lexical level and is found in the citation form of signs.

Enaction and Adverbials. The other functions of mouth gestures comprise enaction and adverbials. The 'enaction' group consists of representations of actions associated with the sign's meaning (puffing air in BALLOON, biting action in APPLE (Fig. 5).

The adverbial group includes such forms as BSL `tense spread lips' to denote deter­mination, intensity; 'gently pursed lips' meaning relaxed, casual, etc. The mouth gestures in this group represent a 'natural' mouth configuration: intensity of action is accompanied by tense mouth; relaxed activity is accompanied by a relaxed mouth. In a second group of mouth gestures the mouth adopts a visually-motivated configuration: sucked-in cheeks

accompany THIN and puffed-out cheeks accompany LARGE (Sutton-Spence & Woll 1999) (Fig. 6). One characteristic of adverbial mouth gestures is that they are static con­figurations. The position of the mouth is held constant throughout the articulation of the sign. In contrast, mouthings and echo phonology always involve active movement. Thus the mouth gestures found in adverbials might better be described as 'mouth arrange­ments' or 'mouth holds' rather than mouth actions.


In the remainder of this paper we will be concerned with one final subgroup of mouth gestures in BSL which specify meaning. They are not mouthings; they occur in citation forms of lexical signs. They are specifiers of meaning, not adverbials added to citation forms. They are also not enactions. The signs in which they are found require the presence of the mouth gesture to be well-formed. Finally, examples are only included in this group if the mouth gesture includes some movement: either the exhalation or inhalation of breath, or a change in mouth configuration during the articulation of the sign. The term `echo phonology' (suggested by van der Hulst, personal communication) will be used to describe them (Woll & Sieratzki 1998). The most striking feature of the mouth gestures in this group of signs, and the reason for using the term echo phonology, is that the mouth gestures mirror or echo the manual movements in these signs. The paper will go on to argue that mouth components of these signs have a phonological structure which can serve to support theories about syllable structure in the manual component of sign languages, and can also provide interesting clues about the possible origins of spoken language phonology.

The examples which follow are found in the Dictionary of British Sign Language/ English (Brien 1992).

Mouth and Hand Movements

It is known that manual and oral actions are often well co-ordinated (Nobe 1996). An attempt to close the mouth while opening the hands from Ô will demonstrate the motor links. So it is not surprising that, in general, mouth gestures will share some features with manual components of signs. It is important to note for these examples, that as they are not derived from spoken English (they are not mouthings), the hands 'drive' the mouth, and not the other way around, as in most gestures accompanying speech.

The essential dependence of the mouthing on the articulatory features of the manual movement can be seen in three BSL signs all meaning `succeed' or 'win'. Three different oral patterns of mouthing co-occur with these signs, and one cannot be substituted for the other (Fig. 7).

In SUCCEED, the thumbs are initially in contact, but move apart abruptly as the mouth articulates /pa/. In WIN, the hand rotates at the wrist repeatedly as the mouth artic­ulates /hy/ (resembling a front rounded vowel); and in WON, the hand closes to Ô, while the mouth articulates /^p/. Examples 7d and 7e are impossible signs(*) in BSL.

Syllables Occurring in Echo Phonology in BSL

The elements which have been identified thus far are listed below. It is likely that this is not an exhaustive list. Some articulatory features are given for them; no voiced-voiceless distinction is operative, and not surprisingly, almost all involve articulations at the front of the mouth or lips, where they are most visible.


Although this research is only in its preliminary stages, further exploration of echo phonology may provide insights into a number of research areas, in particular, the struc­ture of the sign syllable, sonority, and language evolution.

Sign Phonology

The earliest model of sign phonology (Stokoe 1960) proposed that the structure of the sign differed from that of the (spoken) word in that the former had a simultaneous phonological structure, while the latter had a sequential phonological structure. Since then it has been recognised that sequential contrasts also are found within signs, and more modern models of sign phonology describe the underlying structure as consisting of a sequential combi­nation of segments (e.g. Liddell & Johnson 1989). Sandler (1989) has proposed a basic underlying structure of Location Movement Location (LML); movements in signs may consist of path movement (where the hand moves through space (e.g. upwards) or local movement (where parts of the hand move, e.g. finger wiggling).

The Sign Syllable

Since the recognition of the basic similarity between the phonological structures of signed and spoken languages, despite the modality difference, researchers have explored other parallels. The minimal word in spoken languages consists of a single syllable. Within single syllables, CV (consonant-vowel) syllables have been described as 'unmarked', with V being applied not only to what are clearly vowels but also to the more sonorant consonants (such as nasals and liquids, and in some languages, obstruents). Signs tend to be composed of a single movement and are therefore regarded as monosyl­labic (Wilbur 1990; Brentari 1998), with movements serving the role of vowels. What can echo phonology contribute to this view? Because the mouth gestures in echo phonol­ogy are derived from the manual component of the sign, they provide a direct opportunity to simultaneously look at the syllable structure of the manual component in terms of sign phonological theory, and at the syllable structure of the echo component in terms of spoken language phonological theory. Thus, the data provided by echo phonology provides a direct and novel insight into the relationships between signed and spoken phonology.

The syllables found in echo phonology generally consist of no more than two articu­lated elements. The echo syllables can occur, in what appears at first to be an apparently random way, in the forms CV, VC, or V. However, if we look more closely at the syllables above, we can see clear patterns. CV syllables are associated with the following features: exhalation (syllable types 1, 2), hand opening (1) and movement away from the body and/ or hand separation (1, 2). VC syllables are associated with inhalation, hand closing, and movement towards the body or hand contact (syllables 3, 4, 5). The inhalation/exhalation component appears to directly reflect movement: as the hand(s) move inwards or close, the breath moves inwards; as the hands move outwards and separate, the breath moves outwards. The C element reflects sign locations such as closed hands, hands touching each other, and hands touching the body. This evidence from echo syllables, although pre­liminary, supports the claim that signs have sequential structure with Locations corre­sponding directly to Consonants and Movements to Vowels.

Sonority is a term which describes hierarchies of perceptual salience. Researchers in spoken and signed languages have used data from phonetics and phonological structure to argue that some elements are relatively more sonorous than others. In spoken languages, sounds articulated with a relatively more open nasal or oral tract are more sonorous than those articulated with a relatively more closed nasal or oral tract. They can be heard at a greater distance. In sign languages, manual movements articulated with more proximal joints (shoulder or elbow) are more sonorous than those articulated with more distal joints (wrist or fingers). (Cf. Brentari 1998, Sandler 1993.) They can be seen at a greater distance. The usual articulatory sonority hierarchy is (in decreasing order of sonority) shoulder > elbow > wrist > base joints of fingers > non-base joints of fingers.

Syllable types 5, 6 and 7 are of particular interest in relation to the sonority hierarchy. Type 5 has no path movement but it has a closing hand-internal movement, in which the [θ] appears to represent the movement and the [p] the final closed configuration. Types 6 and 7 are the only ones to occur as V (without a preceding or following Q. They are not found where there is path movement, but are only found with hand-internal movement (wiggling in 6, and wrist rotation in 7) in which there is no change in hand configuration at the end of the sign. The echo vowel in all these syllables consists of a fricative ([θ], [∫], [w], [y]) serving as a syllabic. These are much less sonorous than the vowels found in syl­lable types 1-5, and can therefore be used as independent evidence for the sonority hier­archy proposed for the manual component of signs. It should be recognised, of course, that fricatives rarely occur as syllabics in spoken languages. However, echo phonology only makes use of consonants and vowels that are visually distinctive, and syllabic con­sonants such as [1], [n] and [r], found, for example in English, are not visually distinctive.

These observations suggest that an examination of echo phonology might provide inde­pendent evidence which can contribute to our descriptions of manual syllable structure, in particular, the underlying sequential nature of sign syllables and a hierarchy of sonority.

Language Evolution

The recent resurgence of interest in the origins and evolution of language has led to a focus on whether sign languages represent an earlier stage in the evolution of language than spoken languages do. Researchers such as Armstrong, Stokoe & Wilcox (1995) have argued on the basis of syntactic and semantic data that the transition from gesture to sign language preceded the development of spoken language, using arguments drawn from syntax and semantics. In contrast, MacNeilage, in a number of papers in the past 6 years (MacNeilage 1994, 1998, MacNeilage & Davis 2000), has used phonological data to support the view that spoken language did not evolve from gesture or sign language, but instead from a pattern of open/close alternation of the jaw underlying the syllable. Para­doxically, echo phonology simultaneously suggests a link between words and gestures, but from the phonological, rather than semantic perspective.

MacNeilage and Davis (2000) suggest that there are four basic sequential sound pat­terns in the words of modern spoken languages and the first words of infants. Three of the patterns involve intrasyllabic consonant-vowel (CV) co-occurrence: labial (e.g. [p]) con­sonants with central vowels, coronal (e.g. [t]) consonants with front vowels, and dorsal (e.g. [k]) consonants with back vowels. As has previously been discussed, echo phonol­ogy found in the sign languages of deaf communities only uses consonants which may be visually perceived, and therefore may not provide particularly appropriate data. However, the echo phonology data does not contradict the observations of MacNeilage and Davis, since in both the CV and VC forms in echo phonology there does appear to be a tendency for labial consonants to be associated with central vowels (syllables 1, 3 & 4), with the only front vowel [i] found associated with the consonant [f] (syllable 2). This would accord with their suggestion that the CV effects may be primarily biomechanically moti­vated.

One issue in any theory of language evolution which seeks to relate gesture to spoken language has always been how the largely visually-motivated forms found in gestures and in sign languages could possibly be linked to the largely arbitrary words of spoken lan guage. Echo phonology provides points of insight into a possible mechanism.

The oral actions in echo phonology are themselves not visually motivated. It is impos sible to reconstruct from a syllable such as [∫] (example 6 above) the meaning 'exists', although the manual actions can be interpreted as visually representing the marking of in area in space, and therefore might be interpreted as a visually-motivated form. In the process of echoing the formal movement and location elements, any iconicity is lost. Thus, echo phonology provides a concrete example of how arbitrary spoken forms can be derived quite naturally from non-arbitrary gestural forms.


This paper represents only a very preliminary exploration of echo phonology in a single sign language. Further research will be required to identify whether echo phonology is found in other signs languages, and the forms of echo syllables. In turn, such research may provide further insights into universals of phonetic and phonological structure, and into the origins and evolution of spoken and signed language.

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