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Deaf Culture: Name signs
Also see: name signs (2)
Also see: name signs (3)

Also see: name signs (4)
Also see: Name signs in the Deaf Community

By William Vicars, EdD

Name signs are signs that are used in the Deaf Community as people's names. They are specific signs that refer to specific people.

If you spend enough time in the Deaf community you will likely receive a name sign from your Deaf friends or associates. It is best to get your name sign from a skilled native signer who is familiar with the Deaf people in your area and knows whether a particular name sign is already being used.

In general, only people who are culturally Deaf should give name signs to others.  The reason you should get your name sign from a Deaf person skilled in ASL and active in the Deaf Community is because such individuals have enough experience to know if a potential name sign is grammatically correct and culturally acceptable   Getting your name sign from a Deaf person who is active in the Deaf community helps insure that the new name sign doesn't conflict with local name signs or those belonging to prominent or historically important individuals.

Dr. Bill's comments and notes:

There are many Deaf people (and ASL teachers) who give out combined name signs (first letter of name combined with some personality trait or characteristic). However, there are some ASL instructors who feel that "combo name signs" should not be handed out even though such name signs are "common," "out there," and "used by many in the Deaf Community." The reason some ASL instructors do not recommend using or designating combo name signs is that such name signs are not reflective of classic / traditional Deaf Culture.

Combo name signs are very common now but were not common in the classic (golden days) of Deaf society.  There is an emerging and ongoing resurgence of respect for classic/traditional ASL and as such there has been a trend (in certain circles) away from the use of combo signs and back to either descriptive or arbitrary name signs (but not a combination of the two).   

Students want solid and definitive answers. The challenge is that if you ask many different Deaf people -- you will get a variety of answers. At this time (2014-most recent edit) many of those people (real people, your Deaf coworkers, Deaf friends, Deaf associates) will tell you that combo name signs are fine (and may even have given you one).  Then along comes some ASL instructor, book, or vlog, that says, "No, do it this way. Do it my way. Do it the right way. Do it the historical way." 

Will the trend away from "combo name signs" (and back to the legacy ways) continue to spread and become dominant? Time will tell. We will see.

In the meantime I recommend you follow the lead of your local ASL instructor(s), local native-Deaf-adult leaders, and local Deaf friends.
In all cases take a humble, open, respectful approach.

Edit: 2016: Yes, the trend has continued away from name signs that use initials (letters from a persons spoken/written name).  Thus it is popular to assign names based on a characteristic of the person and avoid using a letter-handshape.


Discussion notes:

1.  Name sign choices should be guided by deep seated values based on appreciation of and respect for the type of signing done by native ASL users.

2.  It is recognized in the Deaf Community that novice or low-level signers tend to use excessive initialization.

3.  "Combo name signs" are often laborious, cumbersome, or simply have the visual equivalence of the fingernails-on-the-chalkboard effect.

4. To be accepted in the Deaf Community it is important to show respect for and appreciation of the type of signing done by native ASL users.

5. There are physiological reasons for the grammatical rules that apply to name signs.  Human brains prefer visually effective and efficient signing.

6.  The grammar of ASL is based on the type of signing done by native ASL users.  Native signers sign the way they do because such signing is visually effective and efficient.

In a message dated 8/29/2012 3:10:42 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, kinokun91 writes:
Greetings sir!!
My name is David Kunze,
... I have a question about a name sign I was given by a deaf co-worker I recently worked with. We both work as Respit Care Providers for kids with intellectual disabilities, and after a few weeks working with each other he gave me a name sign that was signed alot like "candy" except its the letter "D" on the cheek instead of your pointer finger. He told me that "Candy is sweet, and your sweet with kids." So there's meaning to it. Is this an appropriate name sign? I ask because I worked myself up to Lesson 12 and I saw a section about Name Signs, and it seems like it doesn't quite follow the rules due to it being a "Combined Name Sign". I don't fully understand the rules when it comes down to name signs, but I am very curious and willing to learn! ...
- Dave.

The fact is, many Deaf people out there in the real world have, use, and assign name signs in exactly the same approach as your Deaf co-worker:  via combining the first letter of your name with the sign for a personal characteristic.

Thus you as a newcomer to the community find yourself being pulled in two directions:
1. Certain "academics" and "traditionalists" prefer or promote the "classic" or "legacy" approach to assigning name signs and will tell you that you should do it the "classic" way of using either an arbitrary "letter" or a "descriptive sign" but not both.

2. Your co-worker (who is Deaf) actually assigns names via the combination of an initial and a personal characteristic. (A method that has become very widely used for decades.)

To boil that down even more:

1. What someone thinks you "should do."

2. What "is" done.

So, where does that leave you?

The academician in me is bound to tell you to do it the "old classic / legacy way."
(Sort of like an English teacher might tell you that "ain't" isn't a word and you shouldn't use it. Heh.)

The lexicographer / pragmatist / realist in me would tell you when in Rome do as Romans do (or as your co-worker does), but be aware that some Romans disagree with what is being done by other Romans. 

- Dr. Bill

In a message dated 4/3/2015 11:41:20 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time, "Nate" writes:

Dr. Vicars:

... I wanted to share an experience I had at my job with regards to name signs.

A couple years back I worked as a mental health worker for a children's psychiatric hospital here in south Texas.  When we had a Deaf boy admitted to our hospital I wanted to learn some ASL to help him feel more comfortable during his treatment.  It wasn't long before I found your website and started learning how to communicate with ASL.

During his stay he grew fond of me and a few other of our staff members and gave us all name-signs.  As my name starts with an N, he would sign my name by making an N hand-shape and shake it side to side in front of him similar to the sign for BATHROOM.  There was a female staff member with very long hair whose name started with an L.  He would sign her name using the combined method by holding the L hand-shape next to his temple and shaking it side to side as he lowered his hand to about chest height.  There was also a male staff member whose name started with an M.  He would simply make an M hand-shape and tap the left side of his chest near his shoulder twice.

I have since moved on to another department but am still using your website to learn ASL.  I just wanted to share this with you and also express my deepest gratitude for your generosity.

Best wishes,
- Nathan

In a message dated 8/24/2016 11:18:21 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time, julieeditor writes:
Hi Bill,
I'm a hearing person (good friend of John Lee Clark), enjoy your site (and your humor) and refer people to your site.
I just read and appreciated your information about name signs.
I thought you would want to know about this sentence in that section:
Human brains are prefer visually effective and efficient signing.
In my reading about Deaf lifeguard hero Leroy Colombo, I read that his name sign was the "C" hand shape touched to the forehead, and this was a sign of respect. Can you explain why that is  a sign of respect?
- Julie

Colombo's name sign being a sign of respect would have to do with some association in the minds of those giving the name sign with some other positive aspect of signs done in that location.  Just guessing here but I'd imagine it would be something like "father" or "smart."  The sign for "respect" starts up in that area but doesn't usually "touch" the forehead -- so the connotation of "respect" isn't a direct connection with the sign for respect.
My own (current) name sign is a "V" touched to the forehead but it started out higher on the head (the scalp) not as a sign of respect but rather to tease me for being "bald." (Or perhaps the person respected bald folks?) Then later another Deaf colleague felt it was... um... disrespectful and changed my name sign by moving the location to the side of the forehead. 
- Dr. Bill

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