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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Discourse in Signed Languages
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that functions as a definite determiner (Neidle, Kegl, MacLaughlin, Bahan, & Lee, 2000; Zimmer & Patschke, 2000), much like the in English, but ASL more often makes use of internal morphological changes to a sign to convey functions, as in the case of aspect (e.g., continuous action vs. repeated action), which is conveyed by changes in the movement of the sign (circular movement vs. repeated movement; Baker-Shenk & Cokely, 1980; Klima & Bellugi, 1979; Valli, Lucas, & Mulrooney, 2005). hey and well are not function words in the grammatical sense, in that they do not show relationships between syntactic components. However, these signs do serve specific functions at the discourse level and, thus, can be labeled discourse markers. Like function words, many discourse markers (such as well and hey) do not have semantic value in and of themselves.

Compare hey and well with the sign now in ASL, which is both a content word with the semantic value of “at the present time” and a discourse marker that can be used to introduce topics or to signal shifts to subtopics within a lecture (Roy, 1989). Although hey and well are not content words like now, they are nonetheless lexical items, or vocabulary items, in ASL (and not just gestures).

In this chapter, we explore the functions of these two signs in terms of their organizational/textual functions at the discourse level, and their functions in terms of politeness concerns. Politeness occurs at the level of social meaning: what speakers communicate about their relationship and the social context by the words/signs they use; this level of communication is also called the metamessage (Tannen, 1986). Before reviewing how these signs have been described in the literature, we will first discuss the limitations of glossing.


Glossing is the use of written words in one language to represent the words (or signs) of another language. Glosses such as house and mother, which involve selecting English words to represent ASL signs, are not problematic overall, in that most ASL signers who read these glosses would think of the most common signs for these concepts. However, whereas there is likely one sign that most ASL signers would agree on for house, there are actually two common signs that can be used for mother: one (mother1) involves using the 5-handshape and tapping the chin twice with the thumb, and the other (mother2) also involves the 5-handshape, but instead of tapping the chin, the thumb rests on the chin and the fingers wiggle slightly. As with any two words in a language, these two signs — mother1 and mother2 — differ slightly in their meaning, which in this case seems to be primarily a difference in register, with mother1 being more casual and used in common discourse, much like mamá in Spanish, and mother2 being more formal, much like madre in Spanish. In short, glosses don’t always capture such distinctions.

Additionally, glosses can actually express skewed or incorrect meaning because they typically use the primary sense of a word (as with house or mother) and do not capture other semantic values of a sign (see Colonomos, 2007). Take, for example, the signs finish and vomit. The first sign, finish, not only functions as a verb, which is its primary sense (e.g., finish homework, i), it also pairs with verbs to function like a past participle to convey completed action (work finish), and is used as a conjunction or discourse marker to convey a sequential relationship, much like then or and then in English (i work all-day, finish; drive-to store, buy food, finish; pick-up daughter, finish; arrive home). (See the Appendix for glossing conventions used in this chapter.) The primary sense of the second sign, vomit, is “to throw up” and is generally signed with the accompanying th nonmanual modifier (adverbial marker), which involves positioning the tongue between the teeth (meaning “out of one’s control” in this instance). However, this sign can also mean “to detest” and typically indicates the object of the disdain by the direction in which the sign is produced. When this sign is used with this secondary meaning, it can occur with a wider range of nonmanual modifiers to convey the degree to which the signer detests something or someone (but it most commonly occurs with th for this meaning as well).

Furthermore, signs may convey culturally rich realities that cannot be adequately captured by glosses. Cokely (2001) reports on the findings of a study that clearly indicates that the denotation and connotation of such signs as deaf and hearing in ASL vary greatly from the denotation and connotation of the words deaf and hearing in English. The study involved asking random nonsigning English speakers on the streets of Boston for definitions of various words commonly associated with signs (other words include, e.g., ASL, Gallaudet, hard of hearing, and mainstreaming). He reports that the assumed meaning of each word or sign differs greatly for each group and is far from equivalent. In fact, many English speakers had no idea what these words actually meant, or they reported a connotation (overall positive or negative association) that was the opposite of that of the associated sign. These results indicate that interpreters need to be aware of culturally rich realities and consider such differences in meaning in their interpretations. For our purposes, we see that although glossing provides a way for people to write down signs in ASL, glosses are quite limited in their ability to capture the true meanings and culturally rich realities of signs.

The reason that we use the glosses hey and well in this chapter is because these glosses capture the primary functions of each of these signs and will be familiar to readers who know ASL. However, it is clear that we need to be aware that the glosses can be misleading as they only begin to capture the discourse and politeness functions of these signs, just as glosses do not capture the semantic range expressed by a particular sign.

Some authors have used similar glosses for these two signs, for example, Baker-Shenk and Cokely (1980) use “hey” and “well,” and Hoza (2007) uses “well.” However, other authors have chosen to describe the phonological production of these signs — for example, Hoza (2007) uses the gloss “handwave” for hey; Roush (2007) uses 5hpu (5-hand, palm up) for well; and Winston and Monikowski (2003) use open hands for well — or to label the specific function they are investigating, for example, Conlin, Hagstrom, and Neidle (2003) use part:indef (“indefinite particle”) for well. We will use the simple, straightforward glosses hey and well for ease of reading and will forgo the other types of glossing available.

The basic functions of hey and well resemble in some respects those of the English words hey and well; however, hey and well — as distinct lexical items in ASL — have their own set of functions. In this chapter, we will elaborate on these functions by reviewing the literature on these signs, as well as by comparing these signs to words such as hey and well in English, to other words in English, and to linguistic features of language more generally.

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