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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Attitudes, Innuendo, and Regulators: Challenges of Interpretation
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ASL Sign Play

While it has not yet been proven linguistically whether ASL makes use of innuendo, or what function innuendo might serve, anecdotal evidence reveals that ASL does indeed have figurative uses that satisfy the definition of innuendo for this paper. Deaf entertainer Elmer Priester was known in the 1940s for his performance of an adult version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” According to Padden and Humphries (1988), “[the performance] suggests that he knew at least enough about the language to be able to select signs that subtly suggested another meaning, yet were similar enough to the original song so people would recognize the joke” (84). Beyond this anecdotal example and research by Roush, little has been developed regarding indirectness in ASL. ASL morphology, however, has been the subject of much study.

A great deal of research has focused on ASL morphology. (For overviews, see Baker-Shenk & Cokely, 1980; Valli & Lucas, 1992.) Rather than discuss morphology in general, this paper will highlight some aspects of morphology used to create a “play on signs.” Using the patterns of words or signs that already exist, languages can create totally new forms (Valli & Lucas, 1992, p. 51). Deaf poet Eric Malzkuhn demonstrated his ability to manipulate ASL morphemes when he prepared and performed his translation of “Jabberwocky.” Just as Carroll had created fantastical words from combinations of known English words in the original, Malzkuhn combined recognized morphemes from standard ASL signs to bring the mystical characters to life (Padden & Humphries, 1988). This recognition of language structure and the ability to manipulate the components are the basis for puns, which themselves may be used for innuendo

As discussed above, puns and jokes have received the lion’s share of researcher’s attention relative to other forms of wordplay categorized as innuendo in this paper. Again, this is because they tend to be self-contained utterances, which are more easily analyzed. The same is true in the only published research on ASL wit. Klima and Bellugi (1979) investigated the poetic function of ASL; half of their paper focused on manipulating signs for punning. To be clear, at this time, their was no deliberate attention paid to the function of punning from a sociological or ethnographic perspective, but rather a much more basic question about whether puns were even possible in ASL. “Perhaps, or so this question sometimes implies, the existence or non-existence of the special form of wit known as punning could give us clues to the status of ASL as a language, since punning relies so heavily on the form of a language” (ibid, p. 106). Even so, some of the data was gathered in what amounts essentially to ethnographic interviews. These led the researchers to the conclusion that not only does punning exist in ASL, but that it functions as wit in communication.

Klima and Bellugi outline three processes for creating puns in ASL:

  • Process 1: Overlapping two signs simultaneously or holding part of one sign as another sign is produced.
  • Process 2: Blending two signs into one complex unit.
  • Process 3: Phonological manipulation, which is substituting one prime for another in one of the four sign parameters: handshape, location, palm orientation, and movement.

An example of overlapping (not from Klima and Bellugi) roughly translates into English as “book smart, but no common sense.” The pun is created by overlapping the sign for knowledgeable (C-handshape at the forehead) and stupid (2-handshape). The 2-handshape for the pun is placed in front of the knowledgeable sign rather than directly on the forehead. The blending in process 2 can be clearly seen in the name sign for former President Richard Nixon. Klima and Bellugi explain the pun is developed by blending the sign for lie with the bound morpheme N, the initial for the former president’s last name. The third process includes many puns that are becoming lexicalized, such as think-hearing and good-question (question made with 4-handshape) . MJ Bienvenu (personal communication, 2000) pointed out that such puns are often accepted as standard ASL by nonnative signers who do not recognize them as plays on signs.


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