Center for the Study of Language and Society (CSLS)

Languages and Lives in Deaf Communities

Nick Palfreyman

Ausserordentlicher Professor an der University of Central Lancashire (UK)

Nick Palfreyman ist ausserordentliche Professor für Gebärdensprachen und Gehörlosenstudien an der University of Central Lancashire (UK). Er ist Experte für Mehrsprachigkeit in der Gebärdensprache und Translanguaging und für die gehörlose Gemeinschaft in Indonesien.


The social meaning of sign language mouthing in multilingual settings

Sign languages are known to exploit the affordances of the visual-gestural modality, which include the possibility of simultaneous articulation. An example of this is the co-incidence of manual elements with non-manual ones such as mouthing, where signers produce lip patterns based on those of speakers (Pfau & Quer, 2010). The prevalence of mouthing may vary considerably cross-linguistically, and also between individuals and across interactional contexts (Adam & Braithwaite, 2022). Indeed, mouthing is perhaps an example par excellence of how signers do translanguaging, combining semiotic resources to obtain effective communication outcomes (De Meulder et al. 2019, Kusters 2020).

While research has been conducted on the linguistic functions of mouthing (Boyes Braem & Sutton-Spence, 2001; Crasborn et al., 2008; Bank 2014), there is comparatively less work addressing its social functions. Mouthing already entails actively mixing or blending a minimum of two languages, but in settings where speakers are bi- or multilingual, there is potential for code-switching in the mouthing channel, and exactly this is reported for Finland-Swedish Sign Language (Hoyer, 2004) and New Zealand Sign Language (McKee, 2019).

I argue elsewhere that code-switching in the mouthing channel functions as an indexical practice for Indonesian Sign Language (BISINDO) (Palfreyman, 2020), and in this presentation I examine how the Indonesia’s ethno-linguistic diversity may influence mouthing practices. Given the multiple spoken languages of the Swiss Confederation, I conclude by raising questions about mouthing practices in Switzerland and how it might compare with the situation of BISINDO.


Adam, Robert & Ben Braithwaite (2022). Geographies and circulations: Sign language contact at the peripheries. Journal of Sociolinguistics 26(1), 99-104.

Bank, Richard (2014). The ubiquity of mouthings in NGT: A corpus study. PhD dissertation, Utrecht: LOT.

Boyes Braem, Penny & Rachel Sutton-Spence (2001). The hands are the head of the mouth: The mouth as articulator in sign languages. Hamburg: Signum Press.

Crasborn, Onno, Els van der Kooij, Dafydd Waters, Bencie Woll & Johanna Mesch (2008). Frequency distribution and spreading behavior of different types of mouth actions in three sign languages. Sign Language & Linguistics 11, 45-67.

De Meulder, Maartje, Annelies Kusters, Erin Moriarty and Joseph J. Murray (2019). Describe don’t prescribe: The practice and policies of translanguaging in the context of deaf signers. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 40(10), 892-906.

Hoyer, Karin (2004). The sociolinguistic situation of Finland-Swedish deaf people and their language, Finland-Swedish Sign Language. In: M. Van Herreweghe and M. Vermeerbergen (eds.) To the lexicon and beyond. 3-23.

Kusters, Annelies (2020). The tipping point: On the use of signs from American Sign Language in International Sign. Language & Communication 75, 51-68.

McKee, Rachel (2019). Motivation and innovation in indexing Māori identity in New Zealand Sign Language. Paper presented at the Symposium on Sociolinguistic Variation in Signed and Spoken Languages of the Asia-Pacific Region, University of Central Lancashire, 12-13 July 2019.

Palfreyman, Nick (2020). Social meanings of linguistic variation in BISINDO. Asia-Pacific Language Variation 6:1, 89-118.

Pfau, Roland & Josep Quer (2010). Nonmanuals: Their prosodic and grammatical roles. In: Diane Brentari (ed.) Sign Languages, 381-402. Cambridge: CUP.