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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Bilingualism and Identity: Chapter One

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What Are Name Signs?

Name signs are a distinct category of signs in New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), which are created as personal names for referring to others, usually members of a signing community. Name signs seem to develop wherever a group of Deaf people have extended contact with each other and use sign language as their vernacular language. They are created for individuals within each generation or social grouping of Deaf people. Most typically, name signs originate in deaf school settings where Deaf children form an autonomous social world beyond the gaze of teachers, which is governed by children’s social norms and differentiated from the “authorities” by the use of sign language and a shared sense of Deaf identity. Like the nickname systems of non-Deaf school children (Morgan, O’Neill, and Harre 1979, 2), the name signs invented by NZ Deaf children for each other appear to be little affected by either adult or hearing (non-Deaf) influences. Similarly, the name signs that Deaf adults bestow on each other later in life are determined by Deaf social norms and visual language structures rather than those of the “outside” hearing society.


A brief sketch of the historical backdrop to NZSL is useful in understanding the social circumstances and linguistic resources from which name signs arise. NZSL was named as a language only in the mid-1980s, although it has been evolving toward its present form since approximately 1880, when the first school for the deaf was opened in Christchurch. NZSL was previously referred to by Deaf people simply as “sign” or “deaf sign” and was not generally viewed as a language per se, prior to research on its structure by Collins-Ahlgren (1989). Negative perceptions of Deaf people’s signing were fuelled by the fact that signing was officially banned in the education of deaf children by educational policies enforced from 1880 until 1978. The first scientifically researched Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language, published in 1997 (Kennedy et al.), signals a recent increase in public and academic awareness of Deaf people as a minority language community in New Zealand.

Belonging to the family of British and Australian sign languages (McKee and Kennedy 2000), NZSL is a young language that flourished underground in deaf educational settings (particularly residential) from 1880 onward and also in the adult Deaf community that grew from school networks. It is presumed that in the 1800s a small number of Deaf children with Deaf parents who signed a variety of British Sign Language (BSL), along with Deaf children who had been partly schooled in Britain or Australia using BSL and occasional Deaf adults employed as domestic help at the deaf schools acted as agents of language transmission in the early creolization of NZSL among school children. Because the vast majority of Deaf children enter school without exposure to sign language and generally cannot access adult language models within the school, NZSL is at least in part re-created by each successive generation of children.

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