What are name signs?
Name signs are used to identify persons instead of finger spelling names, which can be tedious. Unlike names in spoken languages where most people share many of the same conventional, common names like John in English, Maria in Spanish, or Makoto in Japanese, name signs in American Sign Language are unique to each individual. There are no specific name signs in ASL for common English names. Instead, name signs are individualized for each person.
The 1993 edition of Signing Naturally Level 1 from Dawn Sign Press explains that there are two kinds of name signs, arbitrary and descriptive (74). Descriptive name signs are based on something about the individual's physical attributes, personality, hobbies, or past experiences. Arbitrary or random name signs do not describe anything about the person but instead just follow linguistic conventions for name signs. Both descriptive and arbitrary name signs tend to incorporate the first letter of the person's first and/or last name. In some areas, names signs tend to include the initials of a person's first and last name. A different trend in the Deaf community is to create name signs that do not use a person's initials, but those names are not as common as those that incorporate letters.
To avoid confusion, name signs in general are not identical to already existing word signs unless a person's name is also a common word. For example, an individual with the last name of Brown might be given the sign for "brown" as a name sign. However, Deaf people tend to try to avoid giving name signs that could be easily misunderstood because they look like other, similar signs.
Unlike names in spoken languages, which are used to get a person's attention when addressing the person directly, in ASL, the waving of the hand vertically with the palm oriented down is used to get people's attention. Thus, there is no need to sign and person's name when directly addressing a person. Therefore, ASL has evolved so that signers generally do not use a person's name sign when conversing directly with a person. Name signs are only used when talking to other people about an individual. This characteristic of the language enables some people in the Deaf community to go years without learning others' names while still being able to converse with those same people.
So, how do I get a name sign?
An unwritten rule in Deaf culture is that only Deaf or Hard of Hearing persons can give people name signs. It is taboo for hearing people to give name signs. Some argue that hearing ASL teachers can give name signs for use in class only. The problem with this practice is that students often tend to use those name signs outside of class, which can be a bad thing when members of the Deaf community hear that a hearing person is giving name signs. One exception to this cultural norm of only Deaf or Hard of Hearing persons giving name signs is when hearing parents who learn ASL and who have Deaf children give their children name signs.
Not all Deaf people have name signs. Some prefer to always have their names finger spelled. And, everyone still finger spell their names when meeting each other for the first time even if they have name signs. When meeting a new person, if a person has a name sign, he or she will show the name sign after finger spelling his or her name. Often, if the sign looks interesting or is a descriptive name sign, the person is asked to explain how and why he or she received that name sign. Short names such as those with four letters or less often are just finger spelled instead of the person receiving a name sign.
One faux pas that ASL students occasionally commit is going around at Deaf community events and randomly asking Deaf or Hard of Hearing people they don't know to give them a name sign. A common response to such requests is that they need to get to know you better before they can give you a name sign. Some people love coming up with name signs; others don't like to. However, hearing people can suggest name signs to Deaf or Hard of Hearing friends for their approval.
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