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Deaf Culture: Namesigns

(Article 3)
Also see: namesigns (1)
Also see: namesigns (2)
Also see: namesigns (4)

By Rachele Stockdale

Name Signs

Regardless of 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 sacred value.


Gold, Jim. "Deaf child's sign language name looks too much like gun, parent says school told him" 2013. Retrieved January 31, 2013 from

Jay, 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." Retrieved January 30, 2013 from:

Deaf Culture: Namesigns


Rachael Carey

Name Signs

             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.


Isenhath, John 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.


Supalla, Samuel J. (1992). The Book of Name Signs: Naming in American Sign Language. San Diego, CA: Dawn Sign Press.


Wilbur, PhD, Ronnie B. (1979). American Sign Language: Linguistic and Applied Dimensions. Boston: A College-Hill publication.

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