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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Discourse in Signed Languages
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Conlin, Hagstrom, and Neidle (2003) also mention a discourse function of this sign that supports what has been reported elsewhere for both well (e.g., Schiffrin, 1987) and well (Hoza, 2007; Roush, 2007). They state that this sign not only functions as an indefinite particle at the syntactic level, it is also used in discourse “where the uncertainty expressed relates to the discourse context, rather than to some specific element present in the sentence itself” (Conlin et al., 2003, p. 11), and that they “believe that most (if not all) occurrences of the discourse particle well actually involve this same particle of indefiniteness” (p. 11). In other words, this sense of indefiniteness expressed by well can be conveyed at either the level of syntax or the level of discourse, with slightly different effects.

Schiffrin (1987) reports that a primary function of well in English is to maintain coherence in discourse, that is, to provide cohesiveness, logic, and overall sense of the discourse. Well is used especially when that coherence is threatened by non-compliance. Well is used in an attempt “to accomplish coherence despite a temporary inability to contribute to the satisfaction of that need in a way fully consonant with the coherence options provided through the prior discourse” (p. 126) and “non-compliance with a request is more likely to be marked with well than is compliance” (p. 114).

Question-answer sequences provide clear examples of this coherence function. Well is used more often when the response diverges from the options provided by, or implied by, the question. The purpose of a wh-word question, for example, is to elicit specific information, and Schiffrin (1987) reports that well appears in a higher percentage of responses to wh-q questions when the information is not given in the answer, than in responses in which the requested information is provided (56 percent and 14 percent, respectively). In a response to a yes/no question, Schiffrin (1985) finds that well is used over three-fourths of the time when the answer does not include a straightforward confirmation (e.g., yes) or negation (no) (28 out of 37 instances). To clarify, Schiffrin gives examples of some question-answer sequences to illustrate her point, such as “Are you from Philadelphia?” “Well I grew up uh out in the suburbs . . .” (p. 645). In these instances, the speaker is clearly aiming to maintain coherence.

Hoza (2007) discusses a similar function for well in ASL and reports that well, which he labels a hedge, occurs three times as often in difficult rejections (48 instances) as in easy rejections (16 instances). Although Hoza’s focus is on the politeness function of well, which he states is used in the linguistic data to save face, the examples he gives indicate attempts to maintain coherence; well is used more often when the signer is not complying with the request. Consider, for example, the following response to a supervisor’s request to call a prospective consumer (which this employee is not able to do): well”/pg-frown, my staff/t, #all full”(2-hands)/puff cheeks . . . [Well, you know, my staff is already overloaded . . .] (p. 171). In this case, we see that well is used when the signer is (a) not complying with the request, and is attempting to save face, and (b) trying to maintain coherence, that is, provide a suitable response to the request.

Roush (2007) proposes a typology for well (which he labels 5hpu [5-hand, palm up]), and, of the six types proposed, two clearly convey discourse functions. Roush reports that the first type, 5hpu(1), is used to convey, “I’m done. Go ahead” or “The floor is yours,” and the second type, 5hpu(2), conveys that the speaker should “Keep talking” (p. 127). Although Roush’s focus is on the politeness functions of this sign, these two types clearly indicate that this sign can serve two distinct discourse functions. The discourse function of the first type, 5hpu(1), is to signal turn-taking (the completion of a turn and offering a turn), and the discourse function of the second type, 5hpu(2), is to explicitly signal for the speaker to continue to talk.

figure 3.8. well (one-hand, movement forward)/browraise

Hoza (2007) and Roush (2007) have noted that well can be produced with one or two hands (but is generally produced with two hands), and the movement of the sign can sometimes be toward the addressee (rather than to the sides of the signer). However, there has been little investigation into these variants of well. It seems that the one-handed version with the forward movement is used more often for these discourse functions: either to offer a turn or to signal that the speaker should continue. See figure 3.8 for an illustration of well (one-hand, movement forward).

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