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North American Deaf people have two sets of names – their English name given by their parents and their ASL name sign. Upon first meeting, Deaf people exchange their first and last English name through fingerspelling followed by their ASL name sign. Name signs are a bit like a relationship map within the Deaf community and so carry much meaning. They may reflect whether someone has grown up in a school for the Deaf or a mainstreamed school. They may also represent groups. For example, name signs may all be on the same location of the body (such as all on the chin or all on the chest) or have the same movement or use the same handshape to unify family members. Name signs are given by members of the Deaf community to each other and to hearing people they live with.

Arbitrary Name Signs (ANS), typically given by members of the North American Deaf community, use the fingerspelled initial of one’s written name with no additional meaning but placed in a particular location. Deaf schools have become traditional places where students receive their name signs. This practice may have begun with the founding of the first school for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.[1]

Descriptive Name Signs (DNS) do not use fingerspelling. They are based on personal characteristics following ASL rules for handshapes, movement and location and tend to be used by the community for hearing individuals.

Name signs combining fingerspelled initials and descriptors have emerged with the increase of hearing individuals learning ASL but are not traditional ASL name signs.

Since name signs provide such a wonderful window into Deaf community relationships and culture, it is helpful and appropriate that culturally Deaf people from the community determine the name signs for a production that involves Deaf characters. The most authentic and respectful choice would be for Deaf members who have grown up in schools for the Deaf and Deaf environments to determine the name signs of characters in a play or for cast or crew as they come to know them.

Arbitrary Name Sign - Miranda Sign “M” at cheek, brush back 2X

Arbitrary Name Sign – Miranda
Sign “M” at cheek, brush back 2X

Arbitrary Name Sign - Alphonse Sign “A” at temple, tap 2X

Arbitrary Name Sign – Alphonse
Sign “A” at temple, tap 2X

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

[1] Supalla, S. 1992. The Book of Name Signs: Naming in American Sign Language. San Diego: DawnSignPress.

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