Blink in American Sign Language

handspeak eye blink
Gif animation created in 2005(?).

"Blink" is, generally perceived as, to close and open the eye, especially involuntarily. What is the purpose of blinks? To wet the eyeballs? That's what I learned in school from a physiological perspective. That's all I had this concept in mind.

The day my graduate advisor brought me a copy of the article "Blink!" by Walter Murch (Brick No.53, p 8-13) in 2006, it changed how I look at blinks. The author even mentioned a paragraph on American Sign Language, at least in parentheses. Inspired by this article, I pursued a bit further on this topic.

First, the author in his article talked about blinks relating to the cuts of thoughts and how specific timing cuts are made in film. He gave an illustration:

"Look at that lamp across the room. Now look back at me. Look back at that lamp. Now look back at me again. Do you see what you did? You blinked. Those are cuts. After the first look, you know that there's no reason to pan continuously from me to the lamp because you know what's in between. Your mind cut the scene. First you behold the lamp. Cut. Then you behold me."

In addition to how cuts are decided in film, he touched on the blinks relating to emotion and thought. He described the idea of how blink separates one thought after another. Many blinks (and perhaps gazes) when there are conflicting emotions and thoughts to sort.

Besides biological and emotional blinks, are blinks also used as grammatical in American Sign Language? There is much research on eye gaze in ASL, but blinks?

Informally, I picked two videos Vital Signs by Wayne Betts, Jr. and The Star Arrow (2008) by myself to study blinks.

The Star Arrow

Sure enough. There is a blink to create a line or separation between the scenes in this poem, especially in the beginning. To create a soft transiation, I use "down gaze", to somehow convey a fade-in/out cut, one of the cinematic techniques in ASL storytelling.

The narrator Roger Vass Jr. in the video Vital Signs by Wayne Betts, Jr. doesn't blink in the opening. When he was told that he had only one week left to live, then he blinked a lot with racing thoughts. These are the examples.

I also observed how I blink in my signing sessions for the ASL dictionary online on this website. I blink just before signing a word every time. It made my editing an easy time. Cut right after the blink.

In the Caterpillar by Ian Sanborn, Ian doesn't blink a single time in his whole first minute video (unless he and I blink at precisely the same time, ha). Except that he probably blinks during the 'tornado' effect. In all 2 minute story, there is no blink 98% of the time. It has a meaning. An effect. A blink would change the effect or meaning in the story.

Blink definitely has a place in its meaning, its effect, and its cinematic device in ASL storytelling and poetry beyond thought and eye-wetting.

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