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Questioning Facial Expressions

Signers of American Sign Language use three different facial expressions when asking three different types of questions. The three types of questions are as follows:

non-polar questions (wh-questions)
polar questions (yes/no questions)
rhetorical questions

Polar questions are questions that ask for a response of yes or no. Non-polar or wh-questions seek further information beyond just a simple yes-or-no response, usually but not always by using one of the following ASL question words:

  • who?
  • what?
  • when?
  • where?
  • why?
  • which?
  • how?
  • reason?
  • for-for?
  • do-do?

Unlike in English where rhetorical questions refer to questions asked to argue a point, the root word being rhetoric, the rhetorical questions referred to here are used in ASL as a grammatical structure in declarative sentences. Although there is a sign for the word "because" in ASL, these rhetorical questions are often used in place of signing the word "because". This is because the following structure tends to be clearer in ASL.

Example of rhetorical question:

English: I'm going to the store because I need milk.
ASL: Store, I go, why? milk, I need.

Using question signs like "why?", "reason?", and "for-for?" in place of signing "because" is not the only use of rhetorical questions. They can be used with any of the wh-question words listed above, as shown in the following examples:

English: His name is Zedekiah.
ASL: His name, what? Zedekiah.

English: I went to Colorado by submarine.
ASL: Colorado, I finish go, how? submarine.

English: My monster truck is the red one.
ASL: My monster truck, which? red.

Each of these three types of questions has its own distinct facial expression in ASL:

non-polar questions
polar questions
rhetorical questions
Head tilted forward
Head tilted forward
Head tilted slightly back and to the side
Eyebrows furrowed Eyebrows raised Eyebrows raised

Fortunately, these three different facial expressions are mostly natural behavior, meaning people tend to make these facial expressions naturally when asking questions. It is important, however, to know the differences between the three questioning expressions to correctly interpret and use them when conversing in ASL.

Note that each of the three questioning expressions shares one physical feature with one of the other expressions:

non-polar questions
polar questions
rhetorical questions
Head tilted forward
Head tilted forward
Head tilted slightly back and to the side
Eyebrows furrowed Eyebrows raised Eyebrows raised

Lastly, note that the rhetorical questioning facial expression is the same facial expression used when signing a topic when using topic-comment structure in ASL.

 

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