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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Discourse in Signed Languages
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A review of the 27 dialogues in ASL presented in Baker-Shenk and Cokely (1980) reveals that hey occurs 13 times, and 12 of these 13 instances occur before the first utterance in the dialogue and function as conversational openers. The one exception occurs in the middle of a dialogue in which the discussion about a statue at Gallaudet University is winding down and a signer says, “heygallaudet index-rt/t, many+ change+, “wow,” can’t believe/neg (p. 170) [(Addressee’s name), I can’t believe all the changes at Gallaudet]. The signer makes use of the sign hey to shift the discussion to a broader discussion of changes at Gallaudet University. This one instance provides additional evidence that hey can occur other than at the beginning of a conversation or to get a person’s attention: It can also be used to signal a change in topic. Fraser (1988, 1996, 2009) reports a similar function for hey in English; he states that hey can signal a refocusing on a part of the topic at hand.

The sign hey also shares a feature with the word oh in English. Fraser (1988, 2009) states that oh can function as an attention marker (before an orientation marker like “I almost forgot”) as in “Oh, I almost forgot . . .” (Fraser, 2009, p. 896). Hoza (2007) reports that the sign hey can also convey warning or surprise, especially when it co-occurs with specific nonmanual markers, and that a mouthed expression of ah or oh sometimes co-occurs with hey. Thus, there are two ways in which hey functions in some ways like oh and hey in English discourse other than as an attention-getter: (1) as an interjection of surprise and (2) as a discourse marker to indicate a change in topic.

hey serves several discourse functions in ASL. It can be used to summon someone’s attention and to serve as a conversational opener; it can function as an interjection to express surprise or to serve as a warning; it shares some features with vocatives, but also differs in some respects; and it can be used to switch topics within discourse.

The Politeness Functions of hey in ASL

Speakers usually attempt to avoid putting people on the spot or otherwise making others feel uncomfortable, and to avoid embarrassing themselves as well. One way in which speakers do so is by altering the linguistic form of their utterances in some way. Compare, for example, these two rejections in ASL: no, can’t go-to, i/neg [No, I can’t go], which is an outright rejection (without redressive action), and wish go-to, but have-a-conflict. have-to go-to to-see doctor. next time/q [I wish I could (go), but I have a conflict at that time; I’ve got a doctor’s appointment. Maybe next time?], which is an indirect way of turning someone down (see Hoza, 2007, for further discussion). The form such rejections take has less to do with relative clarity and directness of the message, and more to do with social appropriateness and saving face, which is the nature of linguistic politeness.

Linguistic politeness involves saving or maintaining face for the speaker and/or the addressee (Brown & Levinson, 1987; Scollon & Scollon, 2001). Face is “the positive social value [or image] a person effectively claims for himself . . . by making a good showing for himself (or his group)” (Goffman, 1967, p. 5). Attempts to save face can be accomplished by flattering someone (Kerbrat-Orecchioni, 2005; Sifianou & Antonopoulou, 2005), for example, new haircut agree-with-you. beautiful! [That new haircut really works for you. It’s beautiful!] or by downplaying threats to face (Brown & Levinson, 1987), for example, i-interrupt-you sorry. important tell-you. [So sorry to interrupt, but I have something important to tell you].

Face-flattering acts reduce a face-threat by enhancing face, and they are commonly used as strategies to enhance involvement (Tannen, 1986; Scollon & Scollon, 2001), which has also been termed positive politeness (Brown & Levinson, 1987). Mitigating face-threatening acts avoid embarrassment or avoid making someone look bad and are commonly used as strategies to mitigate threats to independence (Tannen, 1986; Scollon & Scollon, 2001), or negative politeness (Brown & Levinson, 1987).

The functions of hey — to get someone’s attention, to bring up a new topic, and to express surprise or warning — all have the potential to threaten someone’s face-needs if not handled appropriately. Depending on the situation, such functions can be considered either an act of camaraderie or an interruption. If hey is being used to bring up a related topic among friends, it enhances the relationship and participants’ face-needs, and contributes to a sense of involvement; but if hey is used to interrupt someone in the middle of an important discussion, it can threaten the relationship and the participants’ face-needs, and can threaten someone’s independence.

The sign hey in ASL can function to express surprise or warning like oh in English; however, unlike oh, the relative degree of surprise or warning can be expressed by using an accompanying nonmanual marker (NMM) with the sign hey (Hoza, 2007). NMMs are linguistic markers that are generally used to convey adjectival and adverbial information, for example, when mm (puckering of the lips) or intense (a bearing of the teeth) co-occur with drive (drive/mm or drive/intense), the mm NMM conveys the concept of “as usual” and the intense NMM in this instance conveys the concept of “with a great degree of tension” (see, e.g., Baker-Shenk & Cokely, 1980; Bridges & Metzger, 1996, in which intense appears as IS). Some NMMs can also serve politeness functions by mitigating face-threats (Hoza, 2007, 2008; Roush, 2007). These NMMs can mitigate a wide range of face-threats when they co-occur with hey. Five such NMMs have been identified in the literature. Three of these were originally identified by Roush (2007), and all five — these three NMMs as well as two additional NMMs — have been further explored by Hoza (2007, 2008).

The polite pucker (pp) NMM mitigates small threats to face and is used when cooperation is assumed (Hoza, 2007, 2008; Roush, 2008). When it co-occurs with hey, it assumes involvement and communicates that the threat to face is minor. See figure 3.3 for an illustration of hey/pp. The tight lips marker mitigates moderate threats to face, is the most common politeness marker, and is used to mitigate threats to both involvement and independence (Hoza, 2007, 2008). See figure 3.4 (hey/tight lips).

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