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Name Signs:

Also see: "Name Signs"

Topic: Name Signs
Context: Deaf Community and Culture

Name Sign Definition: A "name sign" is a sign* that is commonly associated with or used to refer to a specific person, place, or organization.  *(A sign language "sign" is an articulatory bundle of information (produced with one or both hands held in a specific shape or series of shapes, moved in a specific way, at a specific location or series of locations, at a specific orientation or series of orientations, and associated with a specific meaning or range of meanings.)

Example: A "V"-hand touched to the temple is a name sign associated with "Dr. Bill Vicars."*  

Question: What is the significance of name signs in Deaf culture?

Response: Name signs provide a convenient way to identify and refer to people, places, and organizations. Name signs facilitate connection between members of the Deaf Community. Some name signs are associated with a person's characteristics thus providing easy conversation starting points. The naming process allows for camaraderie building and/or generally (but not always) good natured, playful, or humorous interactivity.

Question:  Can two people have the same name sign?

Response: More than one person can have the same name sign but typically not within the same social circles. If someone new moves into a local Deaf Community who uses the same sign as an existing member of that community one of them typically changes their name sign enough to eliminate confusion. Usually (but not always) it is the new person who changes their name sign.  Exceptions to this might be if the person were older or more active and well-known (or famous) in the larger Deaf world -- that person may end up retaining their name sign through no effort of their own but rather the sheer numbers of individuals in the community each choosing to associate the existing name sign with the well-known person. 

Question: Do all members of the Deaf Community have name signs?

Response: All members of the Deaf Community do not have name signs. Some people have short names that are easy to fingerspell. Some people have simply rejected name signs. Some people have not been members of the community long enough to receive a name sign. Some people have relinquished their name sign due to having moved to a new community where someone is already using the same name sign.

Question: Are their any famous name signs?

Response: There are some very well known name signs. Numerous Deaf actors are famous and thus have well-known name signs. Many historical figures (both in and out of the Deaf Community) such as Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc have well-known name signs. There are typically well-known name signs for the current and recent past presidents of the country in which the Deaf community exists.

Question: How do you get a name sign?

Response: Generally you should get a name sign by interacting enough in the Deaf community that those around you get tired of spelling your name and decide to assign you a name sign.

Question: Who can assign a name sign?

Response: Generally name signs should be assigned by socially active Deaf adults who are highly skilled signers and who are familiar with most of the existing name signs Deaf people in their local community as well as commonly known name signs from the larger Deaf community. This is important so that a newcomer is assigned a name sign that isn't offensive, conforms to societal norms, and doesn't conflict with existing names. Parents of Deaf children commonly assign their own children name signs. This is best done in consultation with adult members of the local Deaf Community -- if not -- the parents and child should remain flexible and open to the idea that the name sign may have an issue and may need to be changed later upon entry into the Deaf Community. Some teachers of the Deaf commonly assign name signs to their students who may not already have name signs. It is hoped that such teachers of the Deaf are highly skilled in sign language and familiar with the name signs in use in the Deaf community.

Question: Can name signs change over your lifetime?

Response: Yes. It is common for people to have several name signs throughout their lives.

Question: Can you make up your own?

Response: It is advised that you instead strive to interact enough with the Deaf community that those around you will spontaneously assign you a name sign. After you have developed some genuine (non-superficial) relationships in the Deaf community it is likely you will be granted a name sign. If not, you can hint to a friend in the community that you would like a name sign.

Question: Do ASL students eventually make up one / get one, or is that cultural appropriation and only for Deaf people?

Response: ASL students are ill-equipped to be choosing their own name signs. Due to lack of experience and skill ASL students do not know the spectrum of existing name signs. It is not uncommon for a well-intentioned student to come up with a name sign that is a swear word, private body part, drug-related term, sexual process, or some other potentially embarrassing or inappropriate sign.

Question: Can Hearing parents of Deaf children give their own children name signs?

Answer:  Think of the naming of a Deaf child as a process not an event. If you are the parent of a Deaf child, do your best to check with your local Deaf Community regarding possible name signs for your child.  If you live in an area where there are few or no Deaf you may choose to go ahead and assign your own child a name sign.  It is recommended that you think of it as a temporary-home-name-sign rather than a permanent name sign.  Do your best to come up with a name sign that you feel good about but think of it as being for family use and of a temporary nature.  Then when you or your child has the opportunity to associate with adult skilled signers who are active in the Deaf Community you can ask them to either confirm that the name sign fits -- or that it perhaps might need some adjustment. If a home-name-sign needs adjustment it can often be moved a little or modified in some way to be similar to the previous version but appropriate for use in the Deaf Community.

Question: Does someone who becomes part of the Deaf community later in life (becoming Deaf or getting deeply involved otherwise via work or marriage or similar) get a name sign?

Response: Deep and sustained involvement in the Deaf community is almost always accompanied by the granting of a name sign by one's associates. If your name is short and easily spelled then you may not receive a name sign. Even if your name is spelled it is likely to go through a lexicalization process wherein it is shortened and morphed to become easier to spell. For example, the name sign of a Deaf person named "Nick" morphed into "N3" (an "N" followed by an extremely loose "K" hand that looks somewhat like a mutated "3").

Question: Is the bestowal of a name sign a significant event (like baptism) or is it just totally for functionality/convenience?

Response: Typically a large party is held, attended by as many significant individuals in that person's life as possible -- accompanied by gifts, toasts, extensive drinking, and dancing. (I'm KIDDING! That is a JOKE!) Name sign bestowal is generally a spontaneous happening. Sometimes it arises out of someone describing someone else and that description becoming more and more concise until it becomes a single sign. Sometimes a name sign arises from someone teasing someone else and it sticks. (I know a fellow with the name sign "DIAPER.") Sometimes a name sign starts as an insulting way to refer to someone. (There is a rather well known person whose name sign is a compound of SWEET-B_TCH. The person has embraced the sign and some others wish it was their name sign). Sometimes a name sign arises from the person's initials becoming more and more commonly used in place of spelling out the name. So, no -- the receiving of a name sign is generally not a big "event." However it is not-uncommon for some ASL students to return home from a Deaf Event and squeal with delight to their roommate that they have finally received a name sign.

Those who have some real-world experience with the "realities" of raising a child have questionsthat are valid and need to be addressed in a realistic, balanced way.

Deaf children do need names for the people in their lives. They do! And if the family isn't surrounded by the Deaf Community that doesn't change the fact that Deaf children need names for the people in their lives. Not providing names for the people in a Deaf child's life would be a form of "language deprivation." So, while a Hearing parent very much "should" seek out input from skilled adult Deaf local signers if at all possible -- in the absence of the availability of such input the parent should go ahead and provide the child with language.


A person commented in an online thread that a person's English name was their "actual name."

I'd like you to reflect on that concept of "actual name." That statement is very Hearing / English-centric. It promotes "English" or spoken language as being better or more "real" than ASL or a signed name. I would suggest to you that if a (Deaf) person were in a court of law and was being cross-examined he/she/they might use name signs to refer to various people in their testimony and that testimony would carry as much weight as a spoken testimony using spoken English names.

I would suggest to you that if a (Deaf) person were in a court of law and was being cross-examined he/she/they might use name signs to refer to various people in their testimony and that testimony would carry as much weight as a spoken testimony using spoken English names.

Think of a person's signature. Many people's signature looks more like an indecipherable scrawl or a graphic (as in graffiti). The signature (the picture version of their name) is actually more legitimate than the spoken version of their name for the production of legal documents. It is common for a person's signature to be so far removed from spoken English that (if you didn't know the person) you could not decipher their name into spoken English. Yet again, it is the visual depiction (scrawl) of the name that carries more weight than the English version of the name.
Another thought would be to watch the movie "Dances With Wolves" and ask yourself what the main character's "actual" name was at the end of the movie.



About Name Signs
- By Belinda Vicars

Here are some facts that you need to know.

Name signs, for many reasons, are given by members of the Deaf community.

Name signs are used to talk ABOUT the other person. I never use the name sign to address the person directly. It's always used to talk about someone.

Existing signs should not be used as name signs. For example, the sign for CHAIR cannot be used for the name HEIDI. That creates confusion.

Most Deaf can tell when a hearing person has created a name sign. One of the more memorable stories is when a parent gave their child Patty the name sign "P" on the nose because of her cute button nose. "P" on the nose actually means pee or penis. So having Deaf input is valuable.

Name signs are treasured in the Deaf community, but it is not necessarily a sign of honor. Many Deaf will end up with 3 or 4 throughout their lifetime. I've had 3 so far.

When you move to a new Deaf community, sometimes your name sign will conflict with someone who is already in the community and has been there longer (hence the reason for my most recent name sign). This is only true if you are involved in the Deaf community.

And yes, parents do give their Deaf child a name sign. In general, I'm okay with that - BUT, it is wise to have Deaf input on this so that you are not naming your child "penis."

Or something else equally embarrassing.

And last, just because you know a Deaf person, it doesn't mean that you'll get a name sign. Again, it depends on how often your name pops up in a conversation.

My husband and I recently gave a relative a name sign, and we've been married for thirty years. The name sign does not indicate that we've suddenly became more affectionate with the said relative, but because due familial circumstances we are talking about that relative more. So to make conversation easier, in a matter of a few seconds, we created name sign. That relative will probably never know about that name sign. Never. It was for Bill and I, that's it. We waited THIRTY years to give that relative their name sign.

Some name signs are temporary. Interpreting situations, for example, if an interpreter does not know the name sign of someone famous (or if one does not exist), that person will create a name sign for that particular interpreting assignment. And then the name sign disappears. It's not permanent thing.

The only time a name sign becomes permanent (of a public or famous person) is when a Deaf person has created one and then if another Deaf person likes it and spreads it around. If it gains traction, then it becomes a name sign. If it does, it dies a quick death in the name sign graveyard.

Too much hullabaloo is made over name signs. They are not the honor that most people think. It's a convenience. Sometimes is a gift. But to receive one, you have to spend time in the Deaf community.

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