Name Signs in the Deaf Community

A Unique Identifier That Reflects How Deaf People Perceive You

One aspect of Deaf culture is the use of unique, personal "name signs" as a way to identify someone without fully spelling out their name using American Sign Language (ASL). These names often reflect the person's character and are usually devised by someone within the Deaf community

Types of Name Signs

Just as your name was carefully chosen by your parents, so is your name sign, also called your ASL name. It can take days to months for a deaf person (or community) to assign you your special ASL name.

Name signs are generally chosen based on a unique characteristic, such as a personality trait or favorite hobby, and are known as descriptive name signs. For instance, if you have a great sense of humor or a bubbly temperament, your name sign may be "Giggle" or "Sunshine."

Likewise, your name sign may signify an interest of yours or your occupation, like "Dance" or "Writer," or it may be characteristic of a physical feature, like "Curly hair" or "Beard." There really is no limit or boundaries when it comes to receiving an ASL name.

That said, while many name signs provide a window into a person's personality or interests, others are more simple. For example, some people's name sign is the first letter of their name, like "C" for Caitlin or "J" for Jamie, and are called initialized name signs

Some people have a combination of initialized and descriptive name signs, like the first letter of their name that is swirling like a fish for someone who is a swimmer.

Or, if you love a specific animal, like cats, your name sign may be using the first letter of your birth name to then sign "cat's whiskers" on your cheek. If you enjoy birds, your name sign could be the first letter of your birth name combined with the sign for bird.

Unique Naming Situations

Not everyone with an affiliation to the Deaf community has a name sign, even people who have lived within it their entire lives, as it is not a requirement and some people just prefer to use their given name. This is especially true for people who have short first names, like "Pat" or "Mike." 

Deaf children tend to come up with sign names fairly quickly, so don't be taken aback if your kid-derived name sign is humor-based, like something they found particularly funny about your appearance or personality. Try not to get offended, as choosing your name is all in good fun, and a true "sign" you are accepted by their community. 

Introducing Your Sign Name

Whenever you introduce yourself to someone new, you should always fingerspell your actual name first. Then, it's customary within Deaf culture to explain your background (especially how you came to be involved with the Deaf community), as well as detailing your schooling, family, and friends. Typically people will learn your name sign through a third party and begin using it.

It is not uncommon for your name sign to change as you move between social and work groups since your personality and how you are perceived is likely different in these situations. Your name sign may even change if you meet a new group of friends, either because they see you differently or someone else already has that name sign.

A Word From Verywell

The Deaf community has their own naming system within their native ASL language, and it's quite a gift to receive a name sign. Even more special is that your name sign is only used by deaf people—it should not be used on official documents or by people who hear. 

If you have a name sign, you have been welcomed into the Deaf community. So accept your ASL name and enjoy this lovely honor.

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Article Sources
  • HandSpeak: American Sign Language Online. (n.d.). Name signs: naming custom in Deaf culture.