Name signs: naming custom in Deaf culture

Personal name sign is one of valued aspects of the ASL/Deaf culture. Each member of the ASL/Deaf community, has her/his unqiue name sign, regardless of their names on their birth certificates.

That is, signed names are independent from spoken/written personal names. You cannot look up a name sign for "JOHN", "MARY" or any personal name. If one doesn't have a name sign, fingerspell the person's name.

Assigning name signs

Name sign is a traditional part of ASL/Deaf culture and is parallel to name assigning in American Natives. Culturally and lingually Deaf person assigns a name sign to a new non-native member of the community. In this culture, it is a gift, something that is given to one and is not something that a non-native can pick 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.

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

Types of name signs

There are two 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.

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.

Some name signs are a combination of the initialized and descriptive types. For example, a certain person's initial name is 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.

Descriptive name signs are largely used in other countries where their native sign languages were not affected by, for example, artificial sign systems. A name sign assigned is usually based on a unique or distinct characteristic of the person,such as:

  • characteristics of physical appearance
  • employment related
  • characteristics of body movements
  • personal tendencies or habits
  • similar sound or meaning of a person's name or surname
  • any unusual or unique characteristics of a person

    On a note of cross-cultural phenomenon, some of these characteristics may be offensive or sensitive to people in American culture. Not so in ASL/Deaf culture. Like Israeli culture, straightforward is a part of norms in ASL/Deaf culture.

    Common locations of name signs

    The most common areas of the initialized name signs are: upper head, lower head, hand in the mid-level air, active handshape on the passive handshape, right (active) hand on the left shoulder, chest, and occasionally other parts of the face and body.

    Name signs may have either a single initial letter or double initials of the name in manual alphabet. Double-initial signs would reduce the chances of being similar name signs of others. 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.

    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.

    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 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 his lengthy, sometimes unrealistic or dreamy talk.

    ASL version. Dr Rachelle Harris produced this lecture video for her course within the Masters in Sign Language Education graduate program for ASL teachers at Gallaudet University. In this video, she summarize Dr. Samuel J. Supalla's The Book of Name Signs: Naming in American Sign Language (1992).

    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.

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