Deaf culture

Name sign: a naming custom in Deaf culture

Occasionally, a hearing person would ask, "What is the name sign for [first name]?"

Fingerspelling. One cannot look up a personal name for a name sign in the dictionary. For translating all personal names, use fingerspelling only.

Most members of Deaf community have their unique name signs independent from their birth names. Name sign is part of a distinctive identity in Deaf culture.

Giving or receiving name signs

Name sign is a traditional part of Deaf culture which is to some degree a parallel to name giving in Native Americans. Name giving is not instant. It takes time for a Deaf person or community to get to know a newcomer to the Deaf community before giving a name.

A name sign is not something a non-native or hearing person can make up or invent for oneself. It is treated in the similar way Native Americans give names to honorary members from the outside. A new name sign is sometimes mutually agreed between a person and her/his Deaf peers, family, or community. It's not unusual that a hearing person don't get a name sign at all, even if they have a deaf friend.

Unlike a birth name on their birth certificate, a sign name can be changed once or so in a person's lifetime for some reason or it may remain the same for years since its first naming. Deaf signers usually have the birthright to change their own name signs.

In bilingual deaf schools, a deaf newcomer may not have a name sign. Deaf teachers eventually will give them name signs, especially young ones. Deaf parents give name signs to their children at very early age, sometimes as newborn or months later or, in few cases, few years later.

Creating a name sign

Forming a name sign in American Sign Language has its natural naming system of linguistic and cultural rules that native Deaf signers instinctively know. A newly formed name sign is usually not given quickly nor without consideration of its specific rules.

A name sign is not always a "name sign". Sometimes, it can be just a fingerspelled name or a lexicalized name as a sign name. For example, my closest hearing friend that we trained together in swimming twice a day every day for several years never got a name sign, just four-letter fingerspelled name sign, which is produced much faster than my own name sign. Another example, my Deaf aunt's four-letter name which comprises only two double letters naturally turned into a lexicalized name sign.

Some signers do not have or choose not to have name signs, so their names would be fingerspelled, especially when a person's name is short or less than four letters.

In bilingual deaf schools, Deaf teachers use deaf students' name signs as everyone has a name sign. When a new deaf student comes to the school without a name sign, Deaf teachers will eventually give them.

It's inappropriate for a non-native or hearing signer to make up a name sign for themselves or others. Sometimes, their formation may be sound unsuitable or awkward. Or, just culturally inappropriate.

Common locations of name signs

locations of a name sign

The most common areas of the initialized name signs are: upper head-side, lower head-side, mid-level space, dominant hand on the passive hand, dominant hand on the passive shoulder, chest, and occasionally other parts of the face (e.g. chin).

Traditionally, the area of the upper head for name signs in ASL is reserved for male and lower head for female.

Types of name signs

There are two common types of name signs: initialized (also known as arbitrary) and descriptive name signs. Initialized name signs are more common in North America, whereas descriptive (non-initialized) name signs are common in Europe and some other continents. Although, in few cases, North American Deaf people decide to switch their initialized name signs to non-initialized name signs.

Initialized (arbitrary) name signs

Initialized or arbitrary name sign consists of the first letter(s) of a person's name. It may be a single initial letter of the first name or double initial letters of the full name. E.g. A. L. for Abraham Lincoln on the head. Double-initial signs would reduce the chances of being similar name signs of others.

Descriptive name signs

Descriptive name signs are largely used in other countries where their native sign languages were not affected by, for example, artificial spoken-based signing systems. A name sign assigned is usually based on a unique or personal characteristics of the person, such as a similar sound or meaning of a person's name or surname in a native language; physical appearance, manners, habits, or personality traits; career or occupation or such.

On a note of cross-cultural awareness, descriptive characteristics may be offensive or sensitive to hearing people in American culture. Not so in American Deaf culture. After all, we're very-visual people. Like the Israeli culture, straightforward is part of a norm in ASL/Deaf culture.

Blended name signs

Some name signs are a combination of the initialized and descriptive types.

name sign semi-descriptive

For example, a Deaf person's name initials are S. B., in which her name sign is "S" shifted to "open B" backward in a wave movement like a fish. It was named after one of her characteristics as a great swimmer.

Examples of name signs

Below are some examples of name signs in real life: Laurent Clerc, Wayne Gretzky, and few of my Deaf family members.

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More name signs can be found in the ASL dictionary on this website such as Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Liisa Kauppinen, Paddy Ladd, Nyle Dimarco, and a lot more.

Using name signs

Deaf people use name signs to introduce themselves, to identify people, to talk about people, and such, just like hearing people use personal names. However, there is a few differences.

In hearing American culture, a hearing person uses the other person's name to get attention even if they look at each other in the eye. E.g. "Patty, please tell me" or "Fraser, I love you". In Deaf culture, one doesn't address a listener's name sign, face to face.

When someone called a Deaf person across a room filled with other people and couldn't get the person's attention, she/he would sign the person's name and the intermediary nearby would tap on the person's shoulder and point to the person who called. This practice is common in a classroom, at a party, etc.

Web conferencing online

During the pandemic from 2000, social gatherings on Zoom or other web conferencing tools boomed that Deaf users begin to address name signs to others because signers don't know who a person is signing to. Everyone makes eye contact with virtually everyone.

Deaf #1: "Hey [waving hand which gets everyone's attention], [name sign which gets one person's attention]."

Deaf #2: Me?

Deaf #1: Yes, [name sign].

Deaf 2: [talking while others may look on or turn to other signers on the zoom].

Or, a Deaf signer might send a private message to the specific person on the zoom via chat to get the person's attention, if chat is not too noisy.

Name signs in classes

In ASL beginner courses, all hearing students' names are finger-spelled. Occasionally, a hearing ASL student happen to have a name sign when each student introduces themselves on the first days. My Deaf colleagues and I (ASL teachers) don't use a student's name sign in ASL beginner classes to treat everyone as equal.

Nearing the end of two-year graduate studies, my graduate fellows were shocked to learn that they had temporary name signs for nearly two years that I assigned to each of them, but they were disposable informal name signs anyway. It wasn't really a secret, just a private business between my interpreter and myself that we used to refer to the students.

Further readings

Meadow, K. "Name signs as identity symbols in the deaf community. Sign Language Studides. 1977, pp 237-246.

Supalla, Samuel J. The Book of Name Signs: Naming in American Sign Language. San Diego: DawnSignPress, 1992.

Related posts

Related posts: Name signs of political figures, Name signs legally recorded on official documents.

Or jump to the ASL dictionary to see links to the name signs of some notable people.

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