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Why Do Sign Language Interpreters Look So Animated?

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As New York City Mayor Bloomberg gave numerous televised addresses about the preparations the city was making for Hurricane Sandy, and then the storm’s aftermath, he was joined at the podium by a sign language interpreter, who immediately became a twitter darling. People watching the addresses tweeted that she was "amazing," "mesmerizing," "hypnotizing," and "AWESOME." Soon, her name was uncovered—Lydia Callis—and animated .gifs of her signing were posted. A couple of hours later, a tumblr was born. New York magazine called her "Hurricane Sandy's breakout star."

Callis was great, but not because she was so lively and animated. She was great because she was performing a seriously difficult mental task—simultaneously listening and translating on the spot—in a high-pressure, high-stakes situation. Sure, she was expressive, but that's because she was speaking a visual language. Signers are animated not because they are bubbly and energetic, but because sign language uses face and body movements as part of its grammar.

In American Sign Language, certain mouth and eye movements serve as adjectival or adverbial modifiers.

In this example, Bloomberg is explaining that things will get back to normal little by little. Callis is making the sign INCREASE, but her tight mouth and squinting eyes modify the verb to mean "increase in tiny increments." This facial expression can attach to various verbs to change their meaning to "a little bit."

Here, Bloomberg is urging people not to put out their garbage for collection because it will end up making a mess on the streets. Callis is making a sign for SPILL, while at the same time making what is known as the 'th' mouth adverbial. This mouth position modifies the verb to mean "sloppily done." If you attach it to WALK, WRITE, or DRIVE, it means "walk sloppily," "write messily," or "drive carelessly."

Movements of the head and eyebrows indicate sentence-level syntactic functions.


In this example, Bloomberg is warning people that the worst of the storm is coming. Callis signs WORST SOON HAPPEN. Her eyebrows are raised for WORST and SOON, then lowered for HAPPEN. This kind of eyebrow raise indicates topicalization, a common structure used by many languages. In topicalization, a component of a sentence is fronted, and then commented upon. A loose approximation of her sentence would be "Y'know the worst? Soon? It's gonna happen."


Bloomberg is urging people to use common sense and take the stairs instead of the elevator. Callis signs NEED GO-UP FLOOR USE STAIRS. During NEED GO-UP FLOOR her eyes are wide and her eyebrows raised. Then her eyebrows go down sharply and her eyes narrow for USE STAIRS. The wide-eyed eyebrow raise marks a conditional clause. It adds the sense of "if" to the portion it accompanies. The second clause is a serious command. She signs, "if you need to go up a floor, use the stairs."

Body position is used to indicate different discourse-level structures.

Here Bloomberg is urging people to check on road conditions before they go anywhere. He says, "The FDR may be open or closed." Callis signs OPEN while leaning to the left and CLOSED while leaning to the right. This shift in body position marks a contrastive structure. If Bloomberg were to continue making distinctions between the "open" and "closed" possibilities, she would use those same positions to maintain coherence while interpreting those other distinctions.


In this example, Bloomberg is saying that the worst will be over by tomorrow and that tomorrow when we look back "we'll certainly be on the other side of that curve." Callis signs DECREASE IMPROVE WEATHER POINT. On the first three signs she looks up and to her right. She turns back to the front on POINT.  Here her body shift marks the adoption of a role. She is being a hypothetical person saying "Ahhh, I see things are less intense, weather improving…" She then drops the role and turns forward to say (as Bloomberg does), "The point is, stay home."

Of course, some facial expressions in sign languages are just facial expressions.


Here, Bloomberg is responding to a reporter's question a little testily. Callis captures his bemused, impatient tone with her facial expression. In fact, Bloomberg captures it with his own facial expression. No one would call him animated, but he can also say a few things without words.

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