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“Sarah…” Instantly I am confused. Are they talking about me, Sara O, Sarah A, or Sarah M? All my life I have been plagued with a name that is not unique to me at all. Everywhere I go, I meet yet another person who shares the same name with me. This is why the concept of Sign Language name signs intrigues me so much. Each name is unique and special; even if two people have the same name on their birth certificates, they will have separate name signs based on a distinctive quality that they have.
It would get very tiring if we had to spell out each letter every time we referred to another person who was not in the room. So to make the process more efficient, culturally Deaf people are given a name sign. Parents can choose a sign when their baby is born if they are already a part of the Deaf community.
If a person is not born into a family that is actively part of the Deaf community to begin with, then friends can bestow a name sign. After spending time with other Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, they will pick up something unique and it will become that person’s name sign. Generally, a name sign is based off of a positive characteristic, but it can go either way, depending upon who gives it to you.
A name sign should be given to you. You should not simply make up a sign and start demanding people use it when referring to you. Although you can attempt to give yourself your own name sign based off of a flattering characteristic, if you are unfamiliar with the norms of the Deaf Community is likely that you will choose one that is awkward contextually. Even if you manage to choose a suitable ASL name sign, there is no guarantee that your Deaf friends and acquaintances will accept it and use it (Lapiak).
When meeting a new person in the Deaf community, you would greet them, fingerspell the English version of your name and then show them your name sign. Generally, during introductions in Deaf Culture, after you tell them your name, you give the other person some background and explain how you became involved in the Deaf community. Oftentimes you can explain why you have your specific name sign. (Berk).
Name signs are able to describe a person much more intimately than a name spoken aloud in the Hearing world. Instead of simply being assigned a sound that translates into a name, the process is much more unique in the Deaf world – often (but not always) choosing something special about the person, friends assign the person a name sign symbolizing that characteristic. A name sign could be given based on the person’s appearance, job, habits, or other unique traits. A Hearing name is not very special to the person. Chosen at birth, the little bundle of wails does not have much of a personality yet (Howlett). Another aspect that separates name signs from Hearing names is that a name sign can change once or twice throughout your life, as your personality and friend groups switch.
It is not always necessary to choose or have a name sign. If a signer’s name is short enough, it is not difficult to just fingerspell their name rather than be given a name sign, if that is what they want. In my opinion however, name signs are a special gift. Getting one shows that there are people who care and recognize your habits. Hopefully I am able to receive one myself someday.
Berk, Jamie (2016, April 28). Using Name Signs for Personal Names. Retrieved June 2, 2016, from https://www.verywell.com/using-name-signs-for-personal-names-1048725
Howlett, E. (2012, May 04). Emily Howlett: Hearing people have invisible sign names. Retrieved June 1, 2016, from http://limpingchicken.com/2012/05/04/emily-howlett-hearing-people-have-invisible-sign-names/
Lapiak, J. (n.d.) Name signs: Naming custom in Deaf culture. Retrieved from http://www.handspeak.com/culture/index.php?id=79
Some name signs are arbitrary -- they don't represent a particular characteristic. For example, an "S" tapped on the chin could simply be an arbitrary name sign -- not indicating anything about the person. On the other hand, it could represent a dimple.
- Dr. Bill
Also see: "name signs"
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