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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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Deaf children rapidly acquire schoolyard NZSL from slightly older peers, add to the lexicon and possibly grammar through group invention and usage, and eventually come into contact with mature NZSL signers in the Deaf community as late teenagers or young adults. This pattern has repeated itself for about a century, with the notable exception of Deaf children born to Deaf parents (estimated at around 8 percent in New Zealand), who acquire NZSL natively if their parents sign. This small group of children plays a vital role in the transmission and standardization of NZSL. However, the creation of name signs by Deaf children in New Zealand is an example of spontaneous and systematic language invention arising with limited exposure to conventional models of a signed language.

The majority of Deaf adults in New Zealand who have grown up Deaf and been in contact with other Deaf people during their school years informally acquire and continue to use NZSL as their primary language of communication in the Deaf community. In contrast to middle-aged and younger signers, the older generation of Deaf people prefer to vocalize while signing (although not in standard English) and regard this spoken (voiced and speechread) element of signed communication as very important. NZSL, in whatever form, represents a vital means of social, emotional, practical, and intellectual survival—in other words, a full-fledged language that enables cultural existence. Outside their own language community, Deaf people negotiate communication using combinations of speech, speechreading, gesture, mime, writing, forms of contact signing with those who know some signs, and guesswork.

For Deaf people, having a name sign signals membership in a community that uses NZSL because a name sign is first acquired at the point of contact with, and acceptance by, other signers. Anthropologists and social psychologists have described the cultural and social significance associated with names and naming practices in a range of cultures and social subgroups (cf. Levy-Bruhl 1926; Morgan, O’Neill, and Harre 1979). Given that naming systems are recognized as a subsystem of a language and culture, the existence of a name sign tradition among NZ Deaf people provides evidence that they constitute a subculture that is distinct in many important aspects from the surrounding hearing-speaking society.

Name Sign Systems in Other Sign Language Communities

Varying name sign systems have been described in Deaf populations elsewhere, including the United States (Meadow 1977; Supalla 1990, 1992; Mindess 1990), France (Mottez 1985), Sweden (Hedberg 1991), Desrosiers and Dubuisson (1992), Thailand (Nonaka 1997), China (Yau and He 1987), Argentina (Massone and Johnson 1991), and England (Sutton-Spence and Woll 1999). As an example, Deaf Americans have a tradition of two distinct types of name signs: arbitrary and descriptive. Arbitrary name signs consist of one or more fingerspelled initials of a person’s first and sometimes last name, combined with one of a conventional set of movements and locations on the upper body or face. For example, the American Sign Language (ASL) letter P may be tapped on the right side of the chin as a possible name sign for “Patrick,” or a letter B shaken slightly side to side in neutral space could be a name sign for “Betty.” Such name signs are called arbitrary because they have no intrinsic meaning connected to the person’s identity other than the initial; they simply conform to linguistic conventions about the structure of a name sign.


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