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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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It’s Not What You Sign, It’s How You Sign It: Politeness in American Sign Language

Jack Hoza

Chapter Eight
Why It Matters How You Say It

All language users communicate at least four levels of meaning in any given utterance: content, function, textual meaning, and social meaning. In this study I investigated a particular area of social meaning in ASL and English: the linguistic expression of politeness. The data from the ASL and English versions of the discourse completion test (DCT) reveal general trends regarding specific linguistic strategies used by ASL signers and English speakers when making requests and rejections. Although the ASL signers may use more direct and involvement-oriented strategies at times when English speakers may use more indirect and independence-oriented strategies, both language groups use many similar strategies. In addition, each language group used some language-specific strategies.

One of the goals of this study was to determine whether or not ASL signers use a variety of strategies in the mitigation of speech acts because it was not clear in the literature that ASL signers use any strategy other than directness (except for an example from Valli, Lucas, & Mulrooney, 2005). Indirect speech acts in ASL were especially in question. The DCT results show that ASL signers do use a variety of strategies in making requests and rejections. Although the English speakers make indirect requests in only the “requesting the employee complete a big project much earlier than expected” (+P, +R) context, none of the ASL signers make such indirect requests. The only instance of an indirect request in the ASL DCT data is a joke. On the other hand, both ASL signers and English speakers make indirect rejections, especially in difficult (+R) rejections. The use of indirect rejections by ASL signers and the joke (as an indirect request) by one ASL signer provides empirical evidence that ASL signers indeed use, at least, these two types of indirect speech acts.

This investigation is important because how an interlocutor says something can result in possible misinterpretation, negative perceptions, and perpetuation of stereotypes. Cross-cultural communication can be improved with the understanding that more than one kind of politeness is at work in face-to-face interaction. Therefore, the results of the current study have implications for interactional sociolinguistics and cross-cultural studies, as well as for ASL instruction and ASL/English interpretation.

Misinterpreting Another’s Way of Speaking—Moving Away From Stereotyping

Learning a particular way of speaking is part of one’s acquisition of a language and becoming a full member of a language community. That is to say, people learn to express themselves in socially appropriate ways. When encountering the utterances of those who use the same way of speaking, addressees generally know how to interpret the various levels of meaning, including the social meaning, of those utterances, and the discourse usually flows naturally. However, speakers also encounter language communities that have quite different ways of speaking.

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