Deaf Culture: Namesigns
Also see: namesigns (1)
Also see: namesigns (2)
Also see: namesigns (4)
By Rachele Stockdale
language, cultural setting, class, ethnicity and even location in
the world, all people groups use names as a way to identify an
individual from the masses. While names are used throughout the
world, names can be expressed and used differently depending on both
language and culture. For instance, while hearing individuals are
able to hear their name, Deaf and hard of hearing individuals use
name signs, a particular sign associated with the individuals name,
as a way to indentify themselves to others particularly within the
Deaf community. No matter the way of communicating ones name to
others, names are an incredible part of our identity as humans and
the concept of name signs is therefore an incredibly serious and
sacred part of Deaf culture.
The concept of name
signing is an important part of Deaf culture. Not only does it
identify an individual to others but it also means that fingerspelling one's name is not always necessary when conversing, thereby
(sometimes) making it faster and easier for people in the Deaf community.
Because the concept of name signs is unique to Deaf culture, it is
only appropriate for a member within the Deaf community to assign
name signs. When a Deaf or hard of hearing child is born, if the
parents are part of the Deaf community they will give their child a
name sign much at birth, while Deaf children with two hearing
parents might receive their name sign later, during school.
There are two
main categories of name signs in Deaf culture. One category of
name signs is called arbitrary and the other is descriptive.
Arbitrary name signs are made up of common signs, typically made up
using the first letter, for names that are used more widely within
the Deaf community. While common and easily identifiable to others,
arbitrary name signs are not necessarily “personalized” to each
individual. In contrast to arbitrary name signs are the more unique
or personalized name signs called descriptive name signs.
Descriptive name signs can be more personalized to the individuals
because the sign usually indicates some distinctive physical
feature. Descriptive name signs can also be assigned based upon
unique characteristics such as employment, characteristics of body
movement, or personal tendencies. While both arbitrary and
descriptive name signs are taken seriously within Deaf culture and
are only given after collaboration, unlike a name on a birth
certificate, name signs can change as a person ages.
Just as names given at
birth are a significant and serious decision, name signs are also
taken quite seriously in the Deaf community. Because of this, one
recent story in the news followed a family in Nebraska where a
child’s name sign was being criticized for looking too much like a
gun. The parents (note that they were hearing) claimed that the
school had asked them to change his name sign and simply dismissed
its importance. While the parents were hearing and did not appear to
be involved in any sort of Deaf community, especially since the
child went to a public school, the idea that people would demand
that a child’s name sign be changed seems to disregard the
sacredness of name signs especially for Deaf culture.
While name signs are
unique to Deaf culture, the importance of names still remains across
cultures and nations. Whether a descriptive or arbitrary name sign,
the idea that it is still associated to a Deaf or hard of hearing
individual’s identity only more firmly cements the idea of its
Gold, Jim. “Deaf child’s sign language name looks too much like gun,
parent says school told him” NBCnews.com 2013. Retrieved
January 31, 2013 from
Michael. “Name Signs?” Start ASL: the fun way to learn American
Sign Language. 2013. Retrieved January 30 2013 from:
Carmel High School ASL. “Name Signs – ASL and Deaf Culture” [Video].
2012. Retrieved January 30, 2013 from:
“Name Signs.” Handspeak.com Retrieved January 30, 2013 from:
Deaf Culture: Namesigns
What is a name sign? Within the deaf
community, a name sign is used in place of spelling out the whole name
(Wilbur, 1979). These signs are used to identify a person, kind of like a
nickname. Sign names are used for introductions and references to that
person, but in conversation references to people present are made by
indexing or gesturing (Isenhath, 1990).
A person cannot give himself a name sign.
Someone needs to come up with a name sign for that person. There are two
basic types of name signs. Sign names that are descriptive and those that
use a handshape from the signed alphabet. Signed names using a letter from
the alphabet (also called Arbitrary name signs) are more commonly used than
the descriptive signs and contain information about a person’s family or
heritage (Shelly & Schneck, 1998). A descriptive name sign can tell you
something about a person. A tall, small, or thin person might have a name
sign with that characteristic.
A single person may have several name signs,
each one given by different groups within the community. If the person is a
supervisor at work, the worst player at poker, and a loving father at home,
he may have three name signs to reflect these three different
characteristics; or he may just have the same name sign in all three
(Wilbur). Where in the English language a person has a first, middle, and
last name; in sign it is just a one-word unit. A name sign will not change
its form into a shorter version like from Robert to Rob (Supalla, 1992). A
new kind of name sign is showing up in the community probably due to hearing
adults learning sign language as a second language. It is a blend of the
arbitrary and descriptive name signs also called a nontraditional name sign.
An example is the handshape S (used to represent the first letter of the
person’s name) placed next to the eye, twisting the wrist up and down to
represent that the person winks a lot. If it was descriptive, it would not
use an alphabetical handshape. If it was arbitrary, the location would not
be at the eye but at the nearest acceptable location, the temple (Supalla).
A deaf person usually will not have a name
sign if he is the only deaf person in the community. The same is true for
deaf children born to hearing parents. The deaf children do not get a name
sign until they are around other deaf people. Yau and He did a study at a
deaf school in China to find out how deaf children born to hearing parents
acquired a name sign. They thought that the teachers gave the children
their name signs, but this was not the case. They had 21 children all born
to hearing parents and did not already have a name sign. It was the
dormitory monitors that gave the children their signed names during the
first week of school. The monitors had to call roll three times a day so a
shorter way than fingerspelling their name was needed. Most of the name
signs they chose were descriptive and not all were flattering. The terrible
thing about a name sign is that once they are conferred and made known to
the public, it is too late to change them. They will continue to be called
by the same name until retirement.
The good thing about name signs is that
after time a sign will undergo morphological changes and those that did not
already know the origin of the name sign will not get its intended meaning.
A shift in location or a change in hand configuration is enough to erase the
track that leads to their etymology (Yau & He, 1990). A name sign can be
changed if social conditions require it. If someone moves into town and
finds a person living there with an identical name sign then the newcomer
would have to change it. It is also common for the elder or the person who
has had the name sign the longest keep it. If a deaf and hearing person had
the same name sign then the hearing person would be expected to change it.
It can be done either by modifying it or replacing it with a completely new
name sign. A person can use the ASL name sign modification system. Adding
an additional handshape would modify the existing name sign. An example
would be adding the first letter of your last name (Supalla).
He, Jinxian and
Yau, Shunchiu. (1990). “How do deaf children get their name signs during
their first month in school?” Papers from The Fourth International
Symposium on Sign Language Research. SLR ’87, 243-254.
O. (1990). The Linguistics of American Sign Language. Jefferson, NC:
Mc Farland & Company, Inc.
Shelly, Susan &
Schneck, Jim. (1998). The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Learning Sign
Language. New York: A Simon & Schuster Macmillan Company.
J. (1992). The Book of Name Signs: Naming in American Sign Language.
San Diego, CA: Dawn Sign Press.
Ronnie B. (1979). American Sign Language: Linguistic and Applied
Dimensions. Boston: A College-Hill publication.
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