Pinky Extension and Eye Gaze
Language Use in Deaf Communities

Ceil Lucas, Editor

from Part One: A Preliminary Examination
of Pinky Extension: Suggestions Regarding
Its Occurrence, Constraints, and Function

by Rob Hoopes

Studies of the phonological and phonetic structure of signed languages have indicated both parallels with and contrasts to the phonological structure of spoken languages. One interesting parallel is the description of the prosodic structure of signed languages. This paper presents findings of a preliminary study of a phonological characteristic of American Sign Language (ASL) referred to here as "pinky extension." Specifically, in certain social and linguistic environments, some signers extend their fifth digit (or "pinky") during particular signs despite the fact that the citation forms of these signs do not specify pinky extension. This study examines the signing of one such native ASL user in order to: (I) determine whether pinky extension is, in fact, an example of variation; (I) identify possible linguistic and social constraints for its occurrence; and (3) consider possible functions for its occurrence. The findings suggest that pinky extension is a phonological variable in ASL that is subject to social and linguistic constraints. The data further suggest that pinky extension functions as a prosodic feature of ASL.

Pinky extension (PE) is the extension of the fifth digit during a sign, contrary to the sign's citation form. Prior to this study, it had been observed that PE is characteristic of only certain signers (Lucas, personal communication, Spring I995). Moreover, it had been observed that its occurrence in the speech of an individual signer seemed to be variable. For example, if a signer signs THINK several times during natural conversation, the pinky might be extended each time, some of the time, or not at all.

The purpose of this study has been to begin a systematic description of this phenomenon. The signing of one native ASL signer was examined in order to address questions such as: Does PE occur in free variation? If so, are there any constraints upon its occurrence that can be identified? If a pattern of occurrence can be discerned, does the pattern suggest any linguistic or sociolinguistic function of PE?


The importance of describing the phonological structure and variation phenomena of signed languages cannot be overstated. Phonological and phonetic theoreticians commonly assert (or deny) that basic structural principles are grounded in properties of speech articulation and perception (Anderson 1981; Coulter I993; Ohala and Kawasaki 1984). By examining languages whose articulatory and perceptual bases are visual rather than auditory, the phonological characteristics that are inherent attributes of the auditory modality are laid bare. Put differently, such studies provide independent confirmation of theories first developed purely on the basis of spoken language (Padden and Perlmutter I987).

Of particular interest to this study is recent research concerning the prosodic structure of ASL. Surprisingly, these studies suggest that intonational patterns in signed language are comparable in many respects to the intonational patterns of spoken languages. It would seem that aspects of a language concerned with the modality of the signal (such as phonological structure) would be modality dependent, whereas structural aspects not closely related to the nature of the signal would likely be modality independent (Coulter I993). Thus, one would expect that the prosodic structure of a language would be particularly likely to exhibit modality specificities. However, although the signal itself certainly exhibits modality specificities, abstract generalizations about the nature of prosodic structure are likely to be modality independent (Coulter 1993).

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