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Eye Gaze:

Erin Tate

April 14, 2002


Eye Gaze in American Sign Language


In American Sign Language, eye gazing serves a variety of functions. It can regulate turn taking and mark constituent boundaries. Eye gazing is also frequently used to repair or monitor utterances and to direct the addressee’s attention (Lucas, 1998).  However, this paper is going to focus on the role of eye gazing in indexing and in expressing object and subject agreement and definiteness versus indefiniteness.

Indexing is the establishment of a point in space as a referent to a noun. This is generally done by pointing, with either the dominant or non-dominant hand (Wilbur, 1987). Eye gazing often accompanies indexing by looking at the same location that the finger is pointing to (Valli, 2000). Eye gazing can also index independently, but this does not occur too often, and, when it does occur, it is usually considered a less emphatic way of indexing a noun (Lucas, 1998). So, eye gazing in indexing is usually an optional component that is meant to draw extra attention to the sign being indexed.

Eye gazing plays a greater syntactic role in expressing object and subject agreement. In transitive sentences, eye gazing expresses agreement with the object, while head tilting expresses agreement with the subject. In the sentence, generally, subject agreement begins first and then object agreement beginning with both starting before the signing of the verb phrase. Both agreements end around the same time a little bit before the finishing of the verb phrase (Neidle, 2000). So, for example, if a person signs COMPARE while looking over a set of books, the signer is indicating the direct object of books through eye gaze. The sentence would then translate to approximately “Compare these books” (Liddell, 2003) However, when the object is the first person (the signer), the roles switch and eye gaze agrees with the subject and head tilt agrees with the object. This is most likely because people cannot look at themselves and, therefore, cannot express the first person with eye gaze. In intransitive sentences, eye gazing, head tilting, or both express agreement with the subject and, as before, the agreement starts just before the verb phrase begins and finishes just before the verb phrase ends. However, this time, the eye gaze and the head tilt begin at the same time (Neidle, 2000). In sum, eye gazing can be used to express agreement with either the subject or the object depending on the sentence.

 There are two types of eye gazing: one associated with the definite form and one associated with the indefinite form, which are comparable to the English ‘the’ and ‘a’ respectively. However, note that it is not a direct match. The definite eye gaze is pronounced by a direct eye gaze at a precise location associated with the indexed sign. In the indefinite form, the eye gaze may wander around slightly or take the form of an unfocused stare (Neidle, 2000). Thus, the pronunciation of the eye gaze can distinguish the definite from the indefinite form.

In total, eye gazing serves a variety of function, including indexing, expressing subject and object agreement, and distinguishing the definite and indefinite forms.




Liddell, Scott K. (2003). Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Lucas, Ceil. Ed. (1998). Pinky Extension & Eye Gaze: Language Use in Deaf Communities. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.


Neidle, Carol, Judy Kegl, Dawn MacLaughlin, Benjamin Bahan, & Robert G. Lee. (2000). The Syntax of American Sign Language. Cambridge: The MIT Press.


Valli, Clayton & Ceil Lucas. (2000). Linguistics of American Sign Language: An Introduction. 3rd Edition. Washington D.C.: Clerc Books.


Wilbur, Ronnie B. (1987). American Sign Language: Linguistic and Applied Dimensions. 2nd Edition. Boston: College-Hill Publications.


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