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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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In contrast, descriptive name signs derive from a physical or behavioral characteristic of a person (such as “curly hair” or “talkative”). In ASL, arbitrary name signs are more numerous than, and generally preferred to, descriptive name signs among the adult Deaf community (Supalla 1990; Mindess 1990). Supalla’s (1992) Book of Name Signs (a naming guide for parents of Deaf children) advocates arbitrary name signs as the more orthodox system, based on the fact that Deaf parents in the United States traditionally give their Deaf children arbitrary name signs and eschew descriptive ones.

This cultural value differs from the conventions for name signs in Deaf communities such as New Zealand, Australia, England, China, and Thailand, for example, where descriptive name signs are the norm. However, in Australia, France (Mottez 1985), England (Sutton-Spence and Woll 1999), and the United States (Meadow 1977), a different kind of arbitrary system was used in certain deaf schools up until the mid-1900s, in which pupils used and retained their locker numbers as name signs; this system appears to have disappeared with current generations. Anecdotal evidence is that the bearers of locker numbers may have preferred these seemingly impersonal name signs over the alternative of possibly unflattering descriptive name signs.

Supalla (1992) suggests that the arbitrary naming system based on fingerspelled initials probably stems from language planning decisions made by the founding educators of the deaf in the early nineteenth century, one of whom was Laurent Clerc, a Deaf Frenchman. In that period in France, signs incorporating the initial fingerspelled letter of a corresponding spoken word became popular in deaf education, and it is surmised that this influence transferred to the first U.S. school for the deaf, where the teachers probably encouraged the use of initialized name signs among the pupils. This apparently took hold as a tradition in the Deaf community in the United States, with arbitrary name signs becoming a highly conventionalized subsystem of ASL (Supalla 1992, 31–33 ).

By contrast, the language planning that took place in NZ deaf education proscribed the use of sign language and fingerspelling in classrooms from 1880 until 1978, instead using speech and speechreading exclusively. Although NZ sign language nevertheless flourished on the playgrounds and in the dorms (Collins-Ahlgren 1989), deaf school children were not exposed to a formal fingerspelling system for representing written letters on the hands until after the introduction of Australasian Signed English in 1979.

The oralist tradition was widespread in deaf schools in Western Europe, Asia, and Great Britain’s colonies from the late 1800s to the present and has undoubtedly influenced the form of name signs in many places. For example, in Thailand (Nonaka 1997) and China (Yau and He 1987), there is evidence that most name signs are descriptive of appearance, with minimal reference to spoken or spelled names.

Why Do Name Signs Arise?

Name signs develop as alternatives to spoken names (given and family) most obviously because Deaf people perceive and communicate in a visual rather than an aural modality. People and their identities are experienced and coded visually, thus creating a linguistic need for a signed naming system. The giving, use, and knowledge of name signs also plays an important role in the social cohesion of a group. A Deaf community is no exception to the condition that:

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