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American Annals of the Deaf

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Attitudes, Innuendo, and Regulators: Challenges of Interpretation
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Indirectness in American Sign Language (ASL)

While the breadth and depth of ASL research is ever increasing, the fact remains that the field itself is not yet even four decades old. Innuendo, as defined for this paper, is only now beginning to be investigated in English discourse after centuries of linguistic research; it should not come as a surprise then that research into even the broadest related issues of ASL is sparse. Since the earliest work of Stokoe (1960), which inspired decades of linguistic research into ASL as a natural human language, only one published study has analyzed the structural and grammatical possibilities of wit and punning (Klima & Bellugi, 1979). Considering that humor has only been a viable topic for investigation in linguistics roughly as long as ASL has been recognized, limited research demonstrating that witticisms and “plays on signs” do indeed exist in the language may not be surprising.

Unfortunately, the minority status of ASL users coupled with the nonaural and unwritten modalities of the language has allowed many assumptions about ASL and the American Deaf community to fill the void of research yet to be conducted. Consider the long-held notion that Deaf people are blunt. (Lane, Hoffmeister, & Bahan, 1996, p. 73) Such an assumption would lead one to believe that it is impossible to use innuendo when indirect communication is not commonplace. Roush (1999) challenged the stereotype of the blunt Deaf person when he brought indirectness strategies in ASL to light. Although indirectness in general goes beyond the scope of this paper, several of Roush’s points are key to an understanding of the possibility of innuendo in ASL.

Roush acknowledges the stereotype of directness in Deaf people and emphasizes that it is as strong inside the Deaf community as it is with those outside the community who interact with its members. Typically, issues related to changes in the addressee’s physical appearance, speaker disclosures, and advice are cited as examples of that directness. The rationale is that directness facilitates communication and promotes solidarity through sincerity. Roush posits, however, that these goals are tempered by strategies for independence and saving face.

While he notes that more research must be done on indirectness in ASL, Roush does mention several examples that are commonplace Criticism may be offered in an indirect manner with phrases that translate roughly to “this is not the Deaf way” to emphasize a sense of community; bilingual Deaf people may also appropriate more English-like politeness strategies to convey indirectness; and ASL also makes use of euphemisms such as:

gone for deceased
brother/sister for gay or lesbian, respectively
monthly for menstrual period
(Roush, 1999, p. 36)

In addition to lexical substitution for taboo topics, signs may be altered to reduce their visibility for the sake of subtlety. For example, menstrual period may be conveyed with a particular nonhanded sign made at the location where the standard ASL sign is produced.

Roush’s research is the foundation for analysis of the role of innuendo in ASL. First, he has demonstrated that ASL has strategies and use for indirect communication. Second, the examples of euphemisms for taboo topics parallels topics that are often discussed figuratively in English as well. This bodes well for the probability of innuendo, which also tends to capitalize on taboo topics. Moreover, the shared background of taboo topics (death, sexuality, sexual orientation, bodily functions) may also bode well for interpreting innuendo on those topics cross-culturally. Future research should investigate the ethnographic role of innuendo in ASL and Deaf culture. If ASL does indeed have innuendo, what function does it serve? Does innuendo in ASL parallel innuendo in English as euphemisms seemingly do? Answers to these questions lead in turn to development of strategies for interpreting innuendo between the two languages.


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