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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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Any verbal interaction within a group can only be meaningful when explicitly or implicitly, common terms of references are established; otherwise group relations break down. A group can exploit this phenomenon by establishing its own peculiar terms and labels. To function as part of this clique one has to break the “code”—comprehend and utilize the referents—often to acquire one oneself. (Morgan et al. 1979, 110)

Spoken names given by one’s family are not especially salient or accessible as identity labels in signed discourse. Spoken names and their social and linguistic significance are not easy for young Deaf children to learn by the usual informal means because they cannot hear their own or others’ names called, hear names used in direct address, or overhear others’ names used in conversation. Nor can Deaf children necessarily use spoken names easily because speech skills depend on hearing; thus Deaf children often have to be explicitly taught their own spoken/written names (cf. Rottenberg and Searfoss 1993) and the names of others around them.

For example, a Deaf informant recounted that as a child, she was visited at deaf school from time to time by an elderly couple, which she thought was very kind of them. Several years later, at the age of ten or eleven, she inquired about their identity and was surprised to learn that they were her grandparents. This information about personal identity had never been explicitly communicated to her. Another adult Deaf informant from a very large family reported that he does not know the full names of several of his older siblings, let alone cousins, nieces, and nephews. Our observation is that it is not uncommon for some Deaf people in New Zealand to know regular associates in the Deaf community by their name sign or initials only. This is not surprising because a large proportion of name signs in NZSL bear no relationship to the person’s legal name, although others are derived either directly or indirectly from the spoken name.


Descriptions of name sign systems in other countries and our own experience of living in the contrasting sign language communities of the United States and New Zealand made us aware that name signs in New Zealand are both similar to and different from those found overseas. The distinctions in form were made abundantly clear to us personally as we moved between the two countries and were promptly renamed “appropriately,” according to the conventions of each language community. Our research questions in this study were the following:

1. What linguistic forms and derivations do name signs have in NZSL?
2. How are name signs distributed across these types? What is the dominant or most preferred type?
3. Are there differences in the type of name signs associated with different age groups?
4. When and how are name signs typically acquired and changed?
5. How many name signs do Deaf individuals have?

We videotaped the self-reported name signs of 118 Deaf people from age two years (reported by Deaf parents for their young Deaf children) to approximately seventy years old, in three major regions of New Zealand. Most informants had more than one name sign, so in total we recorded 223 name signs, excluding some that were acquired outside New Zealand. Informants were asked to give their legal name, age, the schools they attended, all the name signs they had had during their life, the date each one was acquired, and the etymology of each name sign. Data were collected by a Deaf researcher who is an immigrant member of the NZ Deaf community. Data were solicited from a cross-section of the community in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and school background (mainstream/deaf school).

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