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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Discourse in Signed Languages
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hey IN ASL

The sign hey has been noted for its attention-getting function and has been labeled a conversational opener (Baker-Shenk & Cokely, 1980), as in hey, what’s-up /whq [Hey, what’s been going on?] and hey, sorry late, i [(Addressee’s name), sorry I’m late]. The word hey in English also serves this attention-getting function (McTear, 1979; Zwicky, 1974), as in “Hey, John, I wanted to talk to you” and “Hey, what are you doing?” hey tends to also be used more often during moments in interaction when there are potential threats to face and, thus, hey serves politeness functions as well (Hoza, 2007).

The Discourse Functions of hey in ASL

The sign hey has a few different discourse functions in addition to serving an attention-getting role. To explore these functions, we review what has been reported about its functions and, in addition, we compare the functions of this sign with those of hey, vocatives (e.g., calling someone by name), and oh in English, as these serve some similar functions in terms of discourse and politeness concerns.

The word hey in English has been described as having two main functions. In addition to the function of getting someone’s attention, it can function as an interjection to express surprise or to serve as a warning, as in “Hey, what are you doing here?” or “Hey! Cut it out!” (see, e.g., Hickey, 1991).

The description of the sign hey in ASL has focused on its attention-getting function (Baker-Shenk & Cokely, 1980), and this function is the one that is most commonly recognized. However, hey, like hey, may also function to express surprise or warning (Hoza, 2007, who uses the gloss “handwave” for hey), for example, handwave,” i know-that/pg bad time ask-you, ‘rub hands’/pg [(Oh), (name), I know that it’s a bad time to be asking, but, well . . .] and handwave”/pg. really sorry/tight lips inform-you/pg [(Oh), (name), I’m really sorry to tell you this] (p. 155).

The primary function of a vocative is to get someone’s attention, so we will compare the functions of hey to those of vocatives. A vocative can be defined as the use of a noun phrase to refer to the addressee(s) (e.g., proper names, job titles [e.g., waiter], forms of endearment [honey, sweetie], or formal address [sir, ma’am]); a vocative is structurally separate from the sentence it precedes or follows (Leech, 1999; Zwicky, 1974). Rather than using a noun phrase in ASL (e.g., someone’s name sign) to get someone’s attention, a signer often uses the sign hey for this purpose; crucially, eye contact is established at these times (Bahan, 2009; Baker, 1977; Baker-Shenk & Cokely, 1980; Hoza, 2007). Name signs (names in ASL) are only used to refer to others in third person and not to address someone in second person.

hey functions in some ways as a vocative, although it is not a noun phrase and does not, in fact, name the addressee. Leech (1999) identifies three pragmatic functions of a vocative: (1) to summon someone’s attention, (2) to identify the addressee (e.g., among more than one possible addressee), and (3) to establish or maintain a social relationship between the speaker and addressee(s), which is conveyed by the specific vocative selected (p. 108). This last function is reflected in the word or phrase selected by the speaker. Compare, for example, the use of dude, sir, lazy bones, Uncle Paul, or Judith to refer to an addressee; each of these communicates something about the social relationship between the speaker and addressee. We discuss the social relationship aspect of hey when we review its politeness functions in the next section.

Vocatives are also sometimes preceded by hey. For example, Leech (1999) includes the following examples in which hey appears before the vocative: “Hey Ben, do you remember a hole puncher coming in I ordered?” (p. 108) and “Hey, Mike, grab your dominoes!” (p. 110). Because ASL does not use naming as a way to summon someone’s attention, we will look at how hey in ASL compares with the features of both vocatives and hey in English.

The primary functions of vocatives — as attention-getting, identifying an addressee, and maintaining a social relationship — differ somewhat from the functions of hey in ASL. Clearly, hey serves the attention-getting, or conversational opener, function. In fact, almost all of the instances of this sign that appear in the 27 dialogues presented by Baker-Shenk and Cokely (1980) convey this function, as in the following example (note that ‘co’ is an abbreviation for ‘conversational opener’): hey”/co, one-week-past/ t, awful happen (p. 324) [(Addressee’s name), something terrible happened last week]. The function of identifying the addressee is accomplished by this sign as well, but rather than the addressee being identified by name, the hey sign is directed at the addressee, and eye contact is established with the addressee, clearly signaling who is being addressed. This use of eye contact is an important feature of this attention-getting function, and the use of hey with the accompanying eye contact is used to summon an individual addressee as well as multiple addressees. In addition, it is clear to the addressee or addressees who is being addressed, even in a group of people (Bahan, 2009). There is also a two-handed version of hey in ASL that can be used to indicate multiple addressees (e.g., to get a particular group’s attention). It has been reported that English speakers also use a gaze direction toward the addressee when using a vocative (see, e.g., McTear, 1979).

Hoza (2007) states that naming in English and hey (“handwave”) in ASL share similar functions. They are both used to get a person’s attention and show a connection between the speaker and addressee, which serves as a politeness function, and they both can serve as a discourse marker to introduce a new topic. Hoza further states that for both naming in English (using an addressee’s name as a vocative) and hey in ASL, “the second and third usages were intended by the speakers, because the role plays [in his study] involved making the requests in the middle of a conversation” (p. 100). Specifically, the examples Hoza reviews all occur midconversation, in that the ASL signers are already talking about another topic when the hey sign is used. In fact, half of these mid-conversation requests begin with the sign hey. The high incidence of hey to switch topics mid-conversation provides strong evidence that hey functions not only as a conversational opener and attention-getter, but also to introduce or to switch topics.


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