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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Discourse in Signed Languages
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The signs we have glossed as hey and well share primary discourse functions with hey and well, respectively, but they also have some distinctive functions. hey functions primarily as an attention-getter and conversational opener, and well functions primarily to express hesitation and to hedge. At the same time, both signs serve additional functions. hey also functions to switch topics (like hey in English) or to express surprise or warning (much like oh in English), and shares many features with vocatives. well can be used as a hedge, a filled pause, and an indefinite particle, as well as to signal a footing shift and to serve a coherence function.

hey and well also play key roles in politeness concerns. There is an increased use of hey and well when someoneís face is being threatened. A potential face-threat is inherent in the use of hey, especially when it is used to interrupt someone because an interruption can threaten a speakerís independence. Conversely, hey can be used to express involvement and enhance face when the interaction is characterized by camaraderie. The sign well does not have an inherent mitigating function when it is used as a straightforward pause marker, although this function allows well to mark boundaries between sections of discourse. However, when well functions to express reluctance, it plays a key role in politeness concerns by both mitigating threats to independence, as when hesitating when making a request (which can threaten independence), and enhancing involvement, when making a rejection (which can threaten involvement). NMMs that co-occur with hey and well signal the degree to which the signer is mitigating a face-threat.

There are several implications of the functions reviewed in this chapter. First, educators, students of ASL, researchers, and others who use ASL glosses need to be careful in their selection of glosses and to realize the superficiality of glosses and the inherent skewing of meaning that is present in glossing. Second, semantics and functions of ASL signs need to be investigated in their own terms as distinct lexical items of the language, similar to what has been done here. Third, it is likely that many of the meanings and functions of signs do not appear in current ASL dictionaries (whether online, on video, or in print), so dictionary users (especially learners of ASL) need to be cognizant of this fact when they look up signs.

There is a need for additional research into the discourse and politeness functions of other signs in ASL (as well as signs in other signed languages). This may be especially important for signs that do not appear in dictionaries because they do not have a convenient gloss, for example, as well as for signs that appear to have multiple meanings or functions.

It is likely that native users of ASL and those who have acquired the language to near-native fluency have intuitions about the meanings and functions of such signs. However, those who are learning ASL, or are late-learners of the language, would genuinely benefit from this type of investigation, and could better appreciate the complexity of the language if they were exposed to a richer sense of both meaning and function. Consider, for example, the multiple uses of finish and vomit as lexical items in ASL, as well as the multiple discourse and politeness functions of hey and well, which have been the focus of this chapter. In sum, an investigation of lexical items (and other features of ASL such as NMMs) should not only focus on semantics, but also discourse functions and politeness functions.

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