Name signs: a naming custom in Deaf culture

Personal name sign is one of some cultural aspects of the ASL/Deaf community. Virtually each member of the ASL/Deaf community has her/his unqiue name sign.

Assigning name signs

Name sign is a traditional part of ASL/Deaf culture and is somehow parallel to name giving in American Natives. Culturally Deaf person may create a name sign to a new non-native (hearing) member of the community. It is a gift given that is not something that 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. Unlike birth names on their 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.

Creating a name sign

Forming a name sign has its natural system of rules. A newly formed name sign is usually not given quickly nor without consideration of its rules. Unfortunately, sometimes non-native and hearing signers make up name signs for themselves or others that their formation may be insuitable or awkward. Name sign is a part of the distinct identity of the Deaf culture.

A few times, a hearing person asked me by email, "What is the name sign for [first name]?"

None, you cannot look up a name sign for "JOHN", "MARY" or any personal name. For all personal names, use fingerspelling. Signed names are independent from spoken/written personal names.

Types of name signs

There are two common types of name signs: initialized 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. Though, sometimes Deaf people switch their name signs to non-initialized name signs in North America.

name sign fingerspelling
Fingerspelled 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, his/her name may be simply fingerspelled with no name sign. For example, a person's name "Anna" is articulated as "A" to a long "N" to "A" sideward.

Initialized name sign consists of the initial 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. B. on the cheek, near-shoulder, chest, head side, or hand. Double-initial signs would reduce the chances of being similar name signs of others.

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 distinct characteristic of the person, such as a similar sound or meaning of a person's name or surname; unique characteristics of a person (physical appearance, manners, or habits; career or employment 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 ASL/Deaf culture. After all, we're very-visual people. Like the Israeli culture, straightforward is part of a norm in ASL/Deaf culture.

name sign semi-descriptive

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

Common locations of name signs

locations of a name sign

The most common areas of the initialized name signs are: upper headside, lower headside, 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.

Examples of descriptive names

Below are examples of some name signs in real life.

Laurent Clerc born in France in 1785 was America's first deaf educator and one of the founders of the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut. At age one, he accidentially fell off a chair near the fireplace. It burned his face badly that left his cheek a scar, which inspired his name sign.

The spelling of the person's last name in another language/country is close to the word "strawberry" in its language; thus, her sign name is based on the sign "strawberry" in her sign language/country.

The students at the Alberta School for the Deaf in Edmonton, Canada, named Wayne Gretzky as "9-9" on the arm when Gretzky was playing for the Edmonton's Oilers in the mid-1980s.

The person is a gentle-hearted, chubby and bald European, always wearing a belt, revealing his distinct belly (classical Santa Claus belly). His belt-like name sign is after this.

This person got his name sign which is similar to the sign "violin", after the characteristics of his lengthy, sometimes dreamy, talk.

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.