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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 sign hey occurs in a range of registers and can inherently threaten one’s independence or enhance one’s involvement. hey is often further mitigated by the co-occurrence of NMMs (i.e., polite pucker, tight lips, polite grimace, and polite grimace-frown), which can mitigate a wide range of threats to face.

well IN ASL

The sign well serves several discourse functions in ASL interactions. It can function as a pause, an indicator of a shift in discourse, a device to maintain coherence, and a turn-taking regulator. In addition, well plays a major role in the mitigation of face-threats, which we review below.

The Discourse Functions of well in ASL

Several functions for the sign well have been reported in the literature. well has been described as functioning as a hedge, a filled pause, and an indefinite particle, as well as to signal a footing shift, to serve a coherence function, and to serve as a turn-taking regulator. In addition, well plays a special function in politeness as well, which we review in the next section.

Winston and Monikowski (2003) describe one function of well (which they gloss as open hands) as a filled pause (which Fraser [1988, 1996, 1999] also states is a function of the English word well). Winston and Monikowski state that a filled pause in ASL is characterized by the holding of a sign through a pause and can be used to indicate a boundary between segments of discourse. This type of filled pause typically “occurs at the end of a segment, topic, or important idea. It focuses attention on the idea or topic that has just ended and is a cue to the importance of that segment or idea in the overall meaning of the text” (p. 192).

Locker McKee (1992) identifies another function that well can serve when it occurs at boundaries between segments of discourse, which is to indicate shifts in footing (speaker orientation). For example, well is used when a speaker expresses a personal reaction to reported speech (well, . . .) and, thereby, “signals a return to his own ‘voice’ as principal speaker” (p. 119), that is, the signer uses well when shifting footing from reporting what someone else said to what the speaker is saying.

Conlin, Hagstrom, and Neidle (2003) identify another function of the well sign (which they gloss as part:indef for “indefinite particle”) as a focus particle at the level of syntax. They report that this sign functions to widen the domain of reference, much like any in English (citing Kadmon & Landman, 1993), as in their example, something/one boat (2h) part:indef sink cape cod [A boat (or something) sank (off) Cape Cod] (p. 20).

They state that this sign is sometimes confused with the wh-sign usually glossed as “what,” but the sign “what” “involves a side-to-side movement of the hands, while the indefinite particle [well] involves a single outward movement” (p. 13). “what” is illustrated in figure 3.7.

figure 3.7. what/whq: hands move side-to-side slightly

This distinction between well and “what” is important because the two signs are similar in their production, but serve much different functions. In addition, both signs frequently occur in ASL. A study by Morford and MacFarlane (2003) reports that well appears 14th on their list of the 37 most frequently used signs in ASL, and “what” (combined with two other variants of what) appears 30th on the list. Clearly well and “what” are commonly used in ASL. In fact, beginning-level ASL students would recognize most of the signs on the list, which is composed mostly of pronouns, common nouns, verbs, and conjunctions.


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