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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Discourse in Signed Languages

Cynthia B. Roy, Editor

Part II: Cohesion in Discourse

The Discourse and Politeness Functions
of hey and well in American Sign Language

Jack Hoza

The signs that are commonly glossed as hey and well in the literature often appear in American Sign Language (ASL) conversations. The sign hey is generally understood to function as an attention-getter in order to open a conversation (Baker-Shenk & Cokely, 1980), and well is commonly used when hesitating, as when one is unsure about what one is saying or when hedging on a response (Hoza, 2007). Therefore, hey commonly appears at the beginning of a conversation or at the beginning of new utterances, and well commonly appears in questions and in responses to questions and requests, especially when turning someone down (i.e., rejections; Hoza, 2007; Roush, 2007).

These two signs share two major features. First, they both appear to have originated from naturally occurring gestures that have been incorporated into ASL, and thus are often glossed as “hey” and “well,” in which the quotation marks indicate that these are gestures (Baker-Shenk & Cokely, 1980). The hey sign is a reduced form of a natural gesture that involves waving one’s hand up and down (palm-down) to get someone’s attention (although this sign can be modulated in different ways in ASL), and the well sign looks much like a natural gesture meaning “Well, what can I say?” or “Beats me,” in which both open hands appear palm-up to the sides of the body. (See figures 3.1 and 3.2.) In this chapter, we will see that these signs have particular discourse and politeness functions in ASL that go beyond the functions of these gestures.

Second, both hey and well do not convey content as do signs such as house or mother, which clearly have informational value. Grammatically speaking, words in a language are either function words or content words (or both). Function words are composed of a finite set number of vocabulary items, which are not productive (i.e., function words do not tend to change much over time) and, in English, include such lexical categories as determiners (such as a, an, and the), prepositions (at, with, and between), and conjunctions (and, but, and although). In ASL, a particular determiner sign (a pointing sign often glossed as det or index) is an example of a function word


figure 3.1. hey: hand waves up and down slightly


figure 3.2. well: hands move outward slightly

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