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

Deaf Culture: Name signs
Also see: name signs (2)
Also see: name signs (3)

Also see: name signs (4)

Name signs are signs that are used as people's names. They are specific signs that refer to specific people.

If you spend enough time in the Deaf community eventually you will receive a name sign from your Deaf friends or associates. It is best to get your name sign from a skilled native signer who is familiar with the Deaf people in your area and knows whether a particular name sign is already being used.

In general, only people who are culturally Deaf should give name signs to others.  The reason you should get your name sign from a Deaf person skilled in ASL and active in the Deaf Community is because such individuals have enough experience to know if a potential name sign is grammatically correct and culturally acceptable   Getting your name sign from a Deaf person who is active in the Deaf community helps insure that the new name sign doesn't conflict with existing local name signs.

Discussion notes:

A native Deaf ASL teacher sent the following. (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 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 comments and notes:

There are many Deaf people (and ASL teachers) who give out combined name signs (first letter of name combined with some personality trait or characteristic), this is not reflective of the classic (golden days) of Deaf society nor the emerging resurgence of respect for classic/traditional ASL. While "combo name signs" are "out there" and "used by many" they are not reflective of classic / traditional Deaf Culture.


Discussion notes:

1.  Name sign choices should be guided by deep seated values based on appreciation of and respect for the type of signing done by native ASL users.

2.  It is recognized in the Deaf Community that novice or low level signers tend to use excessive initialization.

3.  "Combo name signs" are often laborious, cumbersome, or simply have the visual equivalence of the fingernails-on-the-chalkboard effect.

4. To be accepted in the Deaf Community it is important to show respect for and appreciation of the type of signing done by native ASL users.

5. There are physiological reasons for the grammatical rules that apply to name signs.  Human brains are prefer visually effective and efficient signing.

6.  The grammar of ASL is based on the type of signing done by native ASL users.  Native signers sign the way they do because such signing is visually effective and efficient.

In a message dated 8/29/2012 3:10:42 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, kinokun91 writes:
Greetings sir!!
My name is David Kunze,
... I have a question about a name sign I was given by a deaf co-worker I recently worked with. We both work as Respit Care Providers for kids with intellectual disabilities, and after a few weeks working with each other he gave me a name sign that was signed alot like "candy" except its the letter "D" on the cheek instead of your pointer finger. He told me that "Candy is sweet, and your sweet with kids." So there's meaning to it. Is this an appropriate name sign? I ask because I worked myself up to Lesson 12 and I saw a section about Name Signs, and it seems like it doesn't quite follow the rules due to it being a "Combined Name Sign". I don't fully understand the rules when it comes down to name signs, but I am very curious and willing to learn! ...
- Dave.


The fact is, many Deaf people out there in the real world have, use, and assign name signs in exactly the same approach as your Deaf co-worker:  via combining the first letter of your name with the sign for a personal characteristic.

Thus you as a newcomer to the community find yourself being pulled in two directions:
1. Certain "academics" and "traditionalists" prefer or promote the "classic" or "legacy" approach to assigning name signs and will tell you that you should do it the "classic" way of using either an arbitrary "letter" or a "descriptive sign" but not both.

2. Your co-worker (who is Deaf) actually assigns names via the combination of an initial and a personal characteristic. (A method that has become very widely used for decades.)

To boil that down even more:

1. What someone thinks you "should do."

2. What "is" done.

So, where does that leave you?

The academician in me is bound to tell you to do it the "old classic / legacy way."
(Sort of like an English teacher might tell you that "ain't" isn't a word and you shouldn't use it. Heh.)

The lexicographer / pragmatist / realist in me would tell you when in Rome do as Romans do (or as your co-worker does), but be aware that some Romans disagree with what is being done by other Romans. 

Dr. Bill


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!