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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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From a preliminary analysis of the data, we made a typology of name signs (that was later expanded) that we used to record the various name signs of each informant. Successive name signs and their etymologies were noted in order to analyze patterns of change in name signs acquired at various junctures in people’s lives.

Schooling was noted as an indicator of when informants were likely to have first encountered a Deaf social group and been exposed to signing. The generations of Deaf people over forty years old have been educated mainly in residential schools for the deaf, whereas younger generations are more likely to have experienced a deaf unit class or a fully mainstreamed situation for at least part of their schooling. Each of these settings creates different opportunities for access to sign language, a Deaf peer group, and the acquisition of name signs.

Our data collection approach differs from other studies of name signs in which random examples of name signs have been elicited from third parties. Because name signs are created and used by third parties rather than by the named people themselves, there are valid reasons for seeking name signs and etymologies from others. But because we were interested in linking name signs to personal data such as age, parentage (deaf or hearing), and patterns of acquisition of name signs, we chose to elicit personal profile data directly from informants. In this study we did not specifically elicit data on informants’ feelings about their name signs, although frequently this information was volunteered, either explicitly or indirectly.

Our discussion of the data in this chapter, particularly about the usage conventions of name signs, is supplemented by our participant observation in the NZ Deaf community over ten years.

Formation of Name Signs in NZSL

The formation of name signs highlights the linguistic resources and preferences of the community. The linguistic resources available to the NZ Deaf community for constructing name signs include a wide spectrum of possibilities because NZSL and its users exist in a contact situation with spoken English. Also, given the close historical relationship of NZSL to British and Australian sign languages, it could be expected that the name sign traditions in these language communities would also be quite similar, and this indeed was found to be true. We identified the following potential elements for the construction of NZSL name signs: gesture and mimetic description, the existing lexicon of NZSL, the phonological and morphological building blocks of NZSL (particularly classifiers used for describing size, shape, and movement), spoken English in the form of lip patterns, written English incorporated into NZSL in the form of a manual alphabet (two-handed fingerspelling or, more recently, the one-handed alphabet from American Sign Language), and also combinations of these elements.

Name signs in NZSL are not straightforward to describe and categorize, as the NZSL community exhibits a range of ways of creating name signs drawing on these possible resources. Because deaf education in NZ has been dominated by a major emphasis on the teaching of speech articulation and speechreading, the incorporation (or mutation) of information on the lips has carried over into the formation of many name signs. However, the acceptability of signing has increased significantly since the 1980s, and the NZSL community is now experiencing a period of lexical growth and borrowing from American, Australian, and British Sign Languages, which could be expected to affect trends in the formation of name signs.

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