15 Role shifts in Conversation

English Notes
BSL Video

Role Shifts in Conversation

In spoken English, people can describe a conversation in one of two ways. For example, they might say:

"I tried to get my daughter to leave the toy shop but she just wouldn't."

Or they might say:

"I said to my daughter, please, lets get out of this shop, but she said, 'No, no I want to stay and play with the toys'."

In BSL, signers may describe events by using a technique similar to the second example given above. This technique is called ‘role shift’. The narrator has to keep shifting roles, from his/her role to that of each of the characters involved in the story. Signers usually change their facial expressions and signing styles to fit each character. Role shift also usually involves the body, head, or eye shifts, so that a character may be looking left and another looking right, or one looking up and another looking down. An eye and/or body shift might be used, for example, to show whether the mother was signing or talking to the daughter, or whether the daughter was signing/talking to the mother. Role shifts are used not only when the signer wants to quote what someone signed or said, but also to describe what someone did, how they felt, or even what they thought within the story.


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