Emphatic stress in sign language

Stress is the relative emphasis given to a specific syllable in a word or words in a phrase in speech or signing, usually through a combination of relatively greater intensity, and longer duration.

Watch the video above. This paragraph in ASL (American Sign Language) consists of some stressed words (ASL signs), interjections, intonation, and others. Can you catch a few stressed or emphasized words?

For those who don't know ASL or know little, the signer in the video is having a conversation with another person (listener). She was just shocked that the listener has always thought that the signer was hearing all those past five years! How could the listener overlook? Really?! Seriously?! She is profoundly Deaf and has a culturally Deaf family.

There are a few examples of how stress or emphasis is used in sign language.

stress in sign language

The ASL word FAMILY has a much larger signing space and longer duration. Actually this emphasizes on the single concept "Deaf family", not "family" itself. The hands of this sign has far apart, a large gap. The signer is overemphasizing that she is culturally Deaf of a Deaf family.

Other features of emphatic stress is using facial expression, longer duration of the sign, and other signals.

stress in sign language

An interesting study is that some Deaf ASLans emphasize or stress some certain words using a pinky. A researcher studied to find out why and discovered that this pinky extension is a prosodic feature connected to emphatic stress in signed language. ["Linguistics of ASL" (2005), p 465.]

For example, a normal pronunciation for DEAF is the handshape "1". But, in the image above, this ASL word is highly stressed. Not only the handshape is stressed, the movement is kind of fluttering and the duration of this sign is longer. In this context, the signer overemphasizes.

Depending on the contexts and the level of sentence meaning, it may mean that the person is completely-profoundly Deaf, fully-culturally Deaf, or proudly Deaf.

stress in sign language

Another example of the pinky-extended ASL sign is SERIOUS (video above). This ASL sign is stressed with the pinky and modified movement.

The pinky extension linked to emphatic stress can be found not only in SERIOUS and DEAF, but also has been seen in BORED (signed by Mikey Krajnak caught in action in his January 2018 vlog).

Another example of the emphatic stress using pinky that I captured online is the ASL word "emphasize" signed by Lee Wingfield (April 2017).

Not only Lee used the pinky to emphasize the word "emphasis" or "to emphasize", he also shaked the dominant handshape in movement, just like you see the shaking or fluttering movement of "deaf" above.

There is much complex prosody in ASL, no doubt.

Related posts

Related topics: prosody in sign language.