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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Discourse in Signed Languages
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Roush provides no examples of 5hpu(1) in his examples and only one example of 5hpu(2). In this one instance, the signer has just been told that someone else has a truck that he may be able to borrow, and the signer responds, “5hpu(2)” [Oh yeah?] (p. 140). The signer in this instance uses the one-handed version that includes a forward movement, which signals to the addressee that the addressee should “continue,” that is, should tell him more about this truck.

Hoza (2007) also notes this variant of the well sign and glosses it as “well”(movement forward). He states that the sign can be produced either with both hands or a single hand, and that it moves “forward toward the addressee and has the added meaning of a suggestion. In fact, it looks like a reduced form of the ASL sign suggest” (p. 177). One example from Hoza (2007) is the following: you have other people cover me, “well”/tight lips(one-hand, nondominant hand, move forward) /q [Perhaps someone could cover for me, or something?] (p. 206). This use of well (movement forward) in this example, which appears here as a tag question, is to prompt a response (a type of turn) from the addressee. Roush (2007) has also noted that 5hpu (produced with either one hand or two hands) is semantically and phonologically related to signs such as converse, suggest, bring-up-topic, and introduce (p. 127).

Conlin, Hagstrom, and Neidle (2003) have an example of well (one-hand, movement forward) occurring after “what” at the end of a question. They also have examples of well (one-hand) without the forward movement (as opposed to the standard well sign produced with two hands) occurring initially in a statement, and co-occurring with who in a wh-question and with someone/thing in a statement. When well (one-hand) co-occurs with who and someone/thing, it is produced with the nondominant hand. Additional research into the functions of these variants could further clarify how they differ from the standard (two-handed) sign well.

The well sign serves many functions in ASL discourse. It functions as a hedge, a filled pause, and an indefinite particle, as well as an indicator of a footing shift, a coherence device, and a turn-taking regulator. Some of these functions have been reported for well in English, for example, serving as a filled pause and a coherence device; and some of them have not been reported for well, for example, serving as an indefinite particle, an offer for a turn, or a signal that the speaker is to continue talking.

The Politeness Functions of well in ASL

well can be used to save face by signaling an attempt to either maintain cooperation or avoid imposition (Hoza, 2007, 2008; Roush, 2007). These politeness functions seem to stem from the functions of well in discourse: to provide coherence, to indicate reluctance or to hedge, and to serve as an indefinite particle.

For example, Roush states that well (5hpu) is not being used as an indefinite particle in the contexts (dialogues) he investigates. In these contexts, “it seems more likely (given the context and the explanatory power of politeness dynamics) that the speaker is certain about the propositional content but is using 5hpu as a politeness marker. What may be uncertain to the speaker in these instances is how the interlocutor will accept the face-threatening act” (p.127). He reports that this sign clusters around instances in which there are threats to face.

Two of the six types of 5hpu (well) listed in Roush’s typology serve mainly discourse functions, as mentioned above. The other four types, however, mostly serve to mitigate threats to face. Three of these seem to primarily mitigate threats to involvement (camaraderie) and the other one primarily mitigates threats to independence.

The three types that primarily mitigate threats to involvement are 5hpu(3), which conveys, “What can I say?” or “Well . . .”; 5hpu(5), which conveys, “What do you think?” or “How does this sit with you?”; and 5hpu(6), which conveys, “I accept” or “I agree” (p. 127). Each of these communicates the following functions, respectively: an inability to cooperate (5hpu[3]), an offer to cooperate or negotiate (5hpu[5]), and acceptance of an offer or a comment made by another person (5hpu[6]). This last type — 5hpu(6) — frequently occurs with the signs fine and #ok in Roush’s examples, which highlights its agreement and cooperation functions. The remaining type, 5hpu(4), seems to function only to mitigate threats to independence, in that this sign conveys, “I don’t mean to impose” or “I know this is a lot to ask” (p. 127). This sign is used to downplay acts that may impose on the addressee.

The degree to which one saves face for each of these types is conveyed by the NMM that co-occurs with well (Hoza, 2007, 2008; Roush, 2007), as was discussed above for hey. In particular, when well is accompanied by the polite pucker (pp), it conveys the meaning, “I can’t comply (and I know it’s not a big deal)” because polite pucker conveys assumed cooperation and little threat to face (Hoza, 2007, 2008; Roush, 2007). See figure 3.9. When well is accompanied by tight lips, it conveys a moderate threat to face and means, “I wish I could, but I can’t this time” (Hoza, 2007, 2008; figure 3.10).

When polite grimace (pg) co-occurs with well, it signals a significant threat to face and means, “Sorry, I’m stuck here; I wish I could, but I just can’t” (Hoza, 2007, 2008; Roush, 2007). See figure 3.11. When polite grimace-frown (pg-frown) co-occurs with well, the threat to face is severe and means, “I’m so terribly sorry, but there’s no way I can comply with your request” (Hoza, 2007, 2008; figure 3.12).

The other NMM, body teeter (bt), involves “side to side head movement or shifting of weight between one foot and the other” (Roush, 2007, p. 128). The body teeter serves an intensifier function and, therefore, most often mitigates extreme threats to involvement and independence (Hoza, 2007). It does so in one of two ways: “First, when the marker co-occurs with other NMMs, it serves to intensify those NMMs. Second, when bt appears without an accompanying NMM, it functions to question the possibility of compliance with a request or to question the possibility of an option working out” (Hoza, 2007, pp. 172, 173). See figure 3.13 for well/polite pucker, body teeter and figure 3.14 for well/polite grimace, body teeter.

well often functions as a politeness marker and can mitigate threats to both involvement and independence. As with hey, NMMs that co-occur with well provide a wide range of possible mitigation — from small to extreme.


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