ASL University | Bookstore | Catalog | Dictionary | Lessons | Resources | Syllabi | Library

Deaf Culture: Namesigns
Also see: namesigns (1)
Also see: namesigns (3)

Also see: namesigns (4)

In a message dated 10/19/2006 5:35:14 PM Pacific Standard Time, kiirsih@ writes:
Hi Dr. Vicars,
I read your articles on name signs and all the FAQs.  I don't want to take up your valuable time but I have a question that I can't find an answer to so far.  I read Sam Supalla's book on Name Signs and he says that the ANS (arbitrary) and DNS (descriptive) name signs should not be mixed--that this is not traditional.  He theorizes that this tendency is creeping into Deaf culture because more and more hearing people are learning ASL. 
I belong to an online signing message board and nearly everyone there (some of them very experienced signers) use the "mixed" name sign version--a signed initial of the person's name while doing a motion describing some characteristic, whether physical or whatever.  Example: let's say Lori has long curly hair, so they sign "L" with a downward spiral movement to indicate her hair.  I also recently attended a class for children (my own children are in it) for beginning sign and the hearing teacher of the class wanted to give every child a name sign, telling them they needed to think of something they liked to do and then make the sign for that with their name initial.  According to Sam Supalla, this is not correct--this "mixing" of the two systems--and furthermore, only certain movements/locations are correct for name signs. 
Another issue: Sam Supalla says in his book that you can choose your own name sign and gives 500 signs for the alphabet featuring correct movements and locations to help you choose.  Everywhere else I've read that only a Deaf person can give one to you.
What is the truth here?  I'd love to know your opinion/knowledge on this subject. 
Kiirsi Hellewell 
[Response updated September, 2010]

The truth is that 9 out of 10 deaf children have Hearing parents.  Thus you have a huge number of deaf kids receiving their first name sign from either their Hearing parents, their parents Hearing ASL teacher, or their Hearing teacher's aide, their Hearing interpreter, or their Hearing teacher who works at the Deaf School.  Many of these name signs stick with the Deaf person for many years or even their entire life.
My opinion?  It is definitely best to get your name sign from a skilled Deaf signer who is familiar with most if not all of the other signers in the area.  But let me ask you this:  "Who is Deaf?"  At what point does a person become "Deaf?" At what point are they qualified to give you a name sign?
Suppose you have a friend you consider to be d/Deaf.  They are physically deaf, they know ASL very well, they hang out in the Deaf community, and in their hometown are considered Deaf by all the people around.   Now suppose such a person were to get on a plane and fly to Gallaudet University and start hanging out with third generation Deaf (children of Deaf parents and Deaf grandparents) who used ASL in the cradle, attended a state school for the Deaf since age 3, etc.  That "Deaf" then moves two or three status levels down the (Deaf) totem pole or two or three rings outward from the center of the "Deaf target." 
I think you should keep doing what you are doing.  Keep asking questions and looking around to get a sense of what the core Deaf community believes in and how they function and use that as your standard.
Dr. Bill

Discussion notes:

A native Deaf ASL teacher sent the following (around 2010).
(Adapted with permission).

"Three important things to know about name signs:
 1. Name signs are given by a Deaf person. Discuss difference between "deaf" and "Deaf."
In some cases a hearing person has to do the giving of a name sign. A mainstreamed Deaf ed teacher for instance. But that teacher must be aware of the rules.
 2. Name signs are either arbitrary or descriptive.
 3. "Combined" name signs are not acceptable."

What's an example of a combined name sign that breaks the rules?

A native Deaf ASL teacher answers:
"A combined name sign is a combination of an initialized sign name and a description--i.e. someone named Alejandrina with curly long hair might have the "500" handshape name waving down her head and it would be fine--she could also have an "A" handshape on the chin and it would be fine--but making the same down the head movement to show the waves with an "A" hand shape would breach the ASL rule of name signing. Basically that is very much a SEEism."

A "combo name sign" is describing a person's physical feature or personality with a handshape corresponding to the first letter of person's name.
For example:  Paul "P" as in sign for laugh: the handshape P. On side of the mouth as if you're signing laugh. (That's a combined sign.)
Laura "L" as in having long eyelashes: the handshape L in a sweeping motion near the eye. (Combined)
Bev "B" as in "happy". (Combined)

Instead it would be better to stick to either using descriptive name signs WITHOUT the manual alphabet letter, (for example, it's ok to use a bent 5 handshape as a name sign for "Missy" who has curly hair), OR stick with using the first letter of person's name in an arbitrary location without meaning (for example, the letter N-shaken in space in front of the signer).

The use of combo name signs is like saying that ASL language rules are insignificant and/or that the person is "hearing minded." (Not familiar with the way Deaf do things.)

- (name on file, slight edits for clarification)


Dr. Bill's new iPhone "Fingerspelling Practice" app is now available!   GET IT HERE!  

NEW!  Online "ASL Training Center!"  (Premium Subscription Version of ASLU)  ** CHECK IT OUT **

Also available: "" (a mirror of less traffic, fast access)  ** VISIT NOW **

Want to help support Lifeprint / ASLU?  It's easy!