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Deaf History Month: Name Signs

Diana Kautzky, President of Deaf Services Unlimited, discusses the history of name signs in American Sign Language.

Full Video Transcript

Hello, my name is Diana. Did you notice how I signed my name? The upper part of the letter “D” tapping my chin, Diana. Well, today I want to talk about name signs in American Sign Language.

Name signs have a rich cultural heritage within the Deaf community, and I have found researching those naming practices fascinating. This research was pioneered by Sam Suppala in his book “The Book of Name Signs”. I’d like to tell you some of what he discovered and share my own experiences with this core value of the Deaf community.

I’ve shown you my name sign, Diana. I also have two sisters Debbie and Dawn. Their name signs are “D’s” that tap on the shoulder and chest area respectively. We have these name signs because they were given to us by Deaf people, in our case our parents. When they were expecting a new baby our parents would discuss what they wanted to name their new child. An English name that would appear on the birth certificate and an ASL name that was represented by a sign they came up with. I don’t know if they originally planned on having us three girls, but I do know that they carefully planned out our names in ASL.

ASL names are signed in two general ways arbitrarily meaning that the name sign uses the initial of the person’s English name – such as Diana, Debbie, and Dawn. Or name signs can be descriptive based on a physical characteristic or behavior that tends to exemplify that person. For example, my mom’s name in English is Marlene but her name sign is not initialized with an “M” she is known by the name sign using a bent index finger tapping the middle of her chin. I remember asking her why she was named that way and she said she grew up with that ASL name sign that other Deaf kids at her school gave her that because they identified her as the girl with the dimple in her chin.

On the other hand, my father’s English name is Donald Kautzky so his name is signed with a “D” on the forehead changing to a “K” on the chest. So, all three of us girls were given name signs with the initialized “D” after our dad.

ASL rules limit where name signs can be placed to three specific areas. They can be in a neutral space to the front and side of the body with a shaken or repeated initial such as a “C” or “J” or “H”. They can be placed on one specific part of the body like mine and my sister’s names or they can be on one part of the body and finish in a different location like my dad’s name where the “D” starts on the forehead and ends with a “K” on the chest or a “G” on the shoulder and an “H” at the wrist.

Yes, name signs follow specific rules. Many people are fascinated with the idea of ASL name signs and want one for themselves but it’s important to realize that there is a strong cultural tradition and history in the giving of name signs. The primary purpose of a name sign is to identify that person within the community. That means that my name sign the “D” tapping to the side of the chin might also be the name sign of a person in California, Washington DC, or Florida and their English name probably won’t be Diana. The name sign represents the person and is decided on by the local Deaf community but the tradition of giving name signs does more than just identify that person. It also signifies that the person is an integral part of the Deaf community. That means that most Deaf people have name signs. There may be a few exceptions where Deaf people have name signs that are spelled rather than signed but most members of the Deaf community will have a name sign.

Historically, it was not common for hearing people to have name signs although we now see more hearing people being accepted into and recognized as part of the community and so they received name signs. People like teachers and schools for the Deaf who were viewed as part of the community – perhaps interpreters and children with Deaf parents. In this way the name sign becomes like a rite of passage signaling the person’s inclusion in the Deaf community.

Another interesting fact is that unlike English names, name signs are not commonly given at birth since most Deaf children have hearing parents. They are naturally given an English name that is put on their birth certificate but typically it is only later when the child is among other Deaf people that they are given a name sign – usually by their peers or a well-respected authority figure in the Deaf community. They will give them a name sign. This helps us understand how vital it is to recognize the history, the values, and the traditions behind giving and receiving name signs. We want to be true to that history by respecting the values behind ASL naming we show that we will do things their way the Deaf way!