April 14, 2002
Eye Gaze in
American Sign Language
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
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.
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
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
eye gazing serves a variety of function, including indexing,
expressing subject and object agreement, and distinguishing the
definite and indefinite forms.
Scott K. (2003). Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign
Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ceil. Ed. (1998). Pinky Extension & Eye Gaze: Language Use in
Deaf Communities. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.
Carol, Judy Kegl, Dawn MacLaughlin, Benjamin Bahan, & Robert G. Lee.
(2000). The Syntax of American Sign Language. Cambridge: The
Clayton & Ceil Lucas. (2000). Linguistics of American Sign
Language: An Introduction. 3rd Edition. Washington
D.C.: Clerc Books.
Ronnie B. (1987). American Sign Language: Linguistic and Applied
Dimensions. 2nd Edition. Boston: College-Hill