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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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According to Bienvenu, true punning (as opposed to those becoming lexicalized) may be used conversationally as humor for its own sake or indirect communication like a veiled insult. To illustrate her point, she used the example ?interpret—the standard sign interpret produced with hands crossed at the wrist and nonaffected facial expression. When discussing the lack of skill of an interpreter, one might choose direct utterances with predicate adjectives like
                                                                         interpret^agent lousy (or inept).

Another approach would be the use of nonmanual adverbs, as in

pro.3 interpret

Certainly, an explanation could serve the same purpose. For example,
                                       pro.3 interpret. wrong++ awful. can't understand pro.3.
Choosing to use the pun,
                                                                             pro.3 ?interpret
is indirect. The signer relies on the addressee’s communicative competence and shared background of interpreting services to arrive at the implied message. In this way, the pun seems to function as innuendo.

The puns think-hearing and ?interpret also uncover another potential similarity to how innuendo is used in English. In English, innuendo is often used to mask aggression. Roush focused his research to prove that a frank language did in fact have indirectness strategies, so puns that function as veiled insults were beyond the scope of his work. A logical next step for future research then is the ethnographic function of negative indirectness in ASL. If similarities are found between English and ASL uses of negative punning, strategies could be developed to benefit interpreters working with that language pair.


Given the anecdotal evidence of innuendo in ASL from Padden and Humphries (1988) and research confirming punning and indirectness in the language (Klima & Bellugi, 1980; Roush, 1999, respectively), it seems possible that an English message fraught with innuendo can be effectively interpreted into ASL. The question then is: What form best conveys the intended message? Remember, the heart of innuendo is the insinuation—what is actually left unsaid. “The unsaid is consistently present in humor whose base is language. Mainly, humorists make use of their audience’s unstated expectations” (Dolitsky, 1983, p. 41). That means the interpreter must decide which information can or must be included to achieve the same implication in the target language. Further, he must consider if the target language utterance will produce the intended humor cross-culturally. If the innuendo is based on a pun or the polysemy of an English word, one would expect the interpretation to reflect the necessary changes to the message in order to signal ASL users of the humor and/or ambiguity.

For this project, an English script was performed in ASL by Deaf actresses. The same script was interpreted from an audiotape by artistic interpreters. I hypothesized that the analysis would reveal differences between the two groups. The actresses, whose native language is ASL, would have a different understanding of a Deaf audience’s unstated expectations. Moreover, I anticipated the actresses’ ASL utterance to reflect greater communicative competence through the use of different contextualization cues than those of the interpreters whose native language is English. It is not the intent of this project to evaluate the dramatic or interpreting skills of the participants overall, rather it is to uncover similarities and distinctions in the strategies employed to convey the English-based humor in ASL.

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