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Bilingualism and Identity in Deaf Communities

Melanie Metzger, Editor

Name Signs and Identity
in New Zealand Sign Language

by Rachel Locker McKee and David McKee

Personal names in any culture are a potential gold mine of information about social relationships, identity, history, and linguistic processes. In Deaf communities around the world, members are commonly referred to by sign names given to them by other Deaf people at various stages of life, which are different from the legal (spoken language) names given by parents at birth. The study of name signs provides a window on the relationship between sign language, social interaction, and identity, in this case within the New Zealand Deaf community. Because they are bestowed by other Deaf peers through a period of close acquaintance, name signs both signal and construct a person’s identity as a recognized member of a Deaf community, which is often regarded by members as an extended “family” (Monaghan 1996, 463).

The acquisition of a name sign may mark a person’s entry to a signing community, and its use reinforces the bond of shared group history and “alternative” language use (in relation to mainstream society). Thus, using name signs is a linguistically efficient means of personal reference and is culturally important for interactions in a signing community because social networks tend to hinge on connections with other Deaf people rather than one’s family of origin (unless the family is also Deaf). Personal identity in the Deaf community is strongly shaped by (and reflected in) language use and by one’s relationships with peers—information that is encapsulated in a small way in name signs. Because people in the NZ Deaf community often have several name signs (which are used either at different periods of their life or alternately within different social groups or audiences), their use is somewhat context dependent.

The form of name signs and the particular social values and practices associated with them vary considerably among different signed languages and Deaf cultures around the world. The analysis of name signs contributes to a linguistic understanding of lexical creation and sources in a signed language. This chapter reports on a study that identifies types of name sign structures and derivations and describes their distribution in New Zealand Sign Language (a language used by a community of approximately 7,000 people). The chapter also discusses findings about the acquisition and use of name signs (such as differences between age groups and the use of alternate names) in terms of what these reveal about social norms and values in NZ Deaf culture.

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