By William Vicars, EdD
Name signs are signs that are used in
the Deaf Community as people's names. They are
specific signs that refer to specific people.
If you spend enough time in the Deaf community you will likely
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
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 local name signs or those belonging to
prominent or historically important individuals.
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
characteristic). However, there are some ASL instructors who
feel that "combo name signs" should not be handed
out even though such name signs are "common," "out there," and "used by
in the Deaf Community."
The reason some ASL instructors do not recommend using or
designating combo name signs is that such name signs are not reflective of
classic / traditional
Combo name signs are very common now but were not common in
the classic (golden days) of Deaf
society. There is an emerging and ongoing resurgence
of respect for classic/traditional ASL and as such there has
been a trend (in certain circles) away from the use of combo
signs and back to either descriptive or arbitrary name signs
(but not a combination of the two).
Students want solid and definitive answers. The challenge is
that if you ask many different Deaf people -- you will get a
variety of answers. At this time (2014-most recent edit)
many of those people (real people, your Deaf
coworkers, Deaf friends, Deaf associates) will tell you that
combo name signs are fine (and may even have given you one). Then along comes some ASL
instructor, book, or vlog, that says, "No, do it this way.
Do it my way. Do it the right way. Do it the historical
Will the trend away from "combo name signs" (and back to the
legacy ways) continue to spread and become dominant? Time
will tell. We will see.
In the meantime I recommend you follow the lead of your
local ASL instructor(s), local native-Deaf-adult leaders, and
local Deaf friends.
In all cases take a humble, open, respectful approach.
Edit: 2016: Yes, the trend has continued away from name
signs that use initials (letters from a persons
spoken/written name). Thus it is popular to assign
names based on a characteristic of the person and avoid
using a letter-handshape.
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
3. "Combo name signs" are often laborious, cumbersome, or simply
have the visual equivalence of the
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 prefer visually effective and efficient
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
In a message dated 8/29/2012 3:10:42 P.M. Pacific
Daylight Time, kinokun91 writes:
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
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
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
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.
In a message dated 4/3/2015 11:41:20 A.M. Pacific Daylight
Time, "Nate" writes:
... I wanted to share an experience I had at my job with regards
to name signs.
A couple years back I worked as a mental health worker for a
children's psychiatric hospital here in south Texas. When we
had a Deaf boy admitted to our hospital I wanted to learn some
ASL to help him feel more comfortable during his treatment. It
wasn't long before I found your website and started learning how
to communicate with ASL.
During his stay he grew fond of me and a few other of our staff
members and gave us all name-signs. As my name starts with an
N, he would sign my name by making an N hand-shape and shake it
side to side in front of him similar to the sign for BATHROOM.
There was a female staff member with very long hair whose name
started with an L. He would sign her name using the combined
method by holding the L hand-shape next to his temple and
shaking it side to side as he lowered his hand to about chest
height. There was also a male staff member whose name started
with an M. He would simply make an M hand-shape and tap the
left side of his chest near his shoulder twice.
I have since moved on to another department but am still using
your website to learn ASL. I just wanted to share this with you
and also express my deepest gratitude for your generosity.
In a message dated 8/24/2016 11:18:21 A.M. Pacific Daylight
Time, julieeditor writes:
I'm a hearing person (good friend of John Lee Clark), enjoy your
site (and your humor) and refer people to your site.
I just read and appreciated your information about name signs.
I thought you would want to know about this sentence in that
Human brains are prefer visually effective and efficient
In my reading about Deaf lifeguard hero Leroy Colombo, I read
that his name sign was the "C" hand shape touched to the
forehead, and this was a sign of respect. Can you explain why
that is a sign of respect?
Colombo's name sign being a sign of respect would have to do
with some association in the minds of those giving the
name sign with some other positive aspect of signs done
in that location. Just guessing here but I'd imagine it would
be something like "father" or "smart." The sign for "respect"
starts up in that area but doesn't usually "touch" the forehead
-- so the connotation of "respect" isn't a direct connection
with the sign for respect.
My own (current) name sign is a "V" touched to the forehead but
it started out higher on the head (the scalp) not as a sign of
respect but rather to tease me for being "bald." (Or perhaps the
person respected bald folks?) Then later another Deaf
colleague felt it was... um... disrespectful and changed my name
sign by moving the location to the side of the forehead.
- Dr. Bill
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