My first name sign was given to me by a hearing person. The A handshape tapped squarely in the feminine area on my cheek. It weathered years in a mainstreamed classroom, and traveled with me to the deaf school in eighth grade.
The deaf school was also my eye-opening immersion into Deaf culture and history. No longer shackled by the limitations of Signing Exact English, I was free to absorb and express American Sign Language (ASL). And then it came up: Name signs are given by deaf people to other deaf people. If my name was given by someone outside of my culture, then what did it mean? “A-on-the-cheek” felt like a counterfeit Rolex watch.
One of the first visually documented name signs is in the picture of Eliza Boardman Clerc, done by Charles Willson Peale. She holds her hand in the “E” handshape. The painting is static, but the slight motion of Eliza’s name is preserved in sign tradition. Likewise, the name sign of her husband Laurent Clerc has been passed down: The index and middle fingers together tracing the scar on his cheek.
Samuel J. Supalla’s The Book of Name Signs explains that there are two distinct naming conventions in ASL. Eliza Clerc’s name sign belongs in the first group, called arbitrary name signs. They predominately use manual alphabet letters at different locations in the signing area. The second group, descriptive name signs, are derived from distinguishing characteristics of the individual. Clerc’s scar contributed to his name.
The American signing community most commonly uses arbitrary name signs. Family units sometimes choose a particular location to express their handshapes. Some exceptions do occur, as a few married women choose to keep the maiden initials in their name signs.
An arbitrary name sign can also be passed through generations. Maurice Potter was a legendary athlete who graduated from the Minnesota School for the Deaf (now called the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf). His name sign was the traditional P touched twice on the back of the hand, “PP”. Maurice’s deaf son Jim had his own name sign as a student, but was still known as “PP’s son.” When he began his long career as a teacher at the school, “PP’s son” was no longer suitable so Jim became known as “PP.”
Because of the strength of arbitrary name signs in the American signing community, it is uncommon to see descriptive name signs. Carol Padden explains in her introduction to The Book of Name Signs that they are looked down as “childish.” The opposite is considered true in Europe and many other countries, as most name signs are descriptive. In fact, quite a few Deaf Americans who go overseas return home with new name signs.
This growing phenomenon intrigued me as I struggled with my name sign. I had slowly stopped introducing myself as “A-on-the-cheek” over the years, choosing instead to fingerspell my name. It was tempting to tie my name to into an arbitrary and descriptive combination, to visually encapsulate myself into one sign. Shouldn’t my name capture who I am and what I do?
Actually, Supalla and Padden warn against doing this. With the tremendous growth of ASL interpreting, fewer native ASL teachers and deaf models are available to ensure that cultural values are passed on. Interpreters feed off of each other to compensate for the lack of experience, and in turn deaf children rely on this limited pool as they are individually placed in mainstream classrooms. For example, someone who likes music might get a two-handed name sign with a “B” handshape strumming an imaginary guitar. Once those misnamed individuals meet other members of the signing community, they immediately get marked as someone who doesn’t know the cultural norms. It is a subconscious response much like when an American-born Chinese person enters a room full of natives in China.
Supalla’s answer to this problem was to create The Book of Name Signs. His epiphany was to create a manual that showed all the possible locations arbitrary name signs could occur, delegating little space to descriptive name signs. Perhaps he thought that by writing down the intuitive knowledge that comes from cultural values, it would then be internalized by non-natives. But Supalla missed a critical point about American Sign Language that has serious repercussions for arbitrary name signs.
I had grown complacent with fingerspelling my name sign. The signing community in Minnesota has a strong tendency for heavy fingerspelling, especially when thickly gloved in below-zero weather. Dr. Frank Turk, he of the double-handed exclamations, carried on the tradition of his alma mater throughout his career as an inspirational speaker. I was resigned to fingerspelling Minnesota-style until a fateful videochat session.
My good friend Matt Daigle held up a piece of paper to the camera. It was his sign name, written in a new method for writing American Sign Language. He had met Robert Arnold at the DeafNation World Expo. This new writing was Arnold’s creation, called si5s. It appealed both to the artist and the language-learner in me. I scrambled to contact him.
What happened next was nothing short of amazing. In creating si5s Robert Arnold had asked, “If I cannot write in my own language, then who am I?” As I learned how to write in ASL, I also uncovered a ball and chain dragging down the language: English. By filling an ill-fitting role as the written record of a visual language, English impedes ASL from being recognized as a full language.
This connection is also Supalla’s weakness. The ASL manual alphabet spells out words from English, sometimes to the point of lexicalizing them into full signs. This same alphabet is used to designate arbitrary name signs. By this definition, my sign name was merely window dressing for my English name. If my own name is not native to American Sign Language, then who am I?
The genius of written ASL (si5s) is that it finally breaks the chain between English and ASL. No longer do we need to depend on a foreign language to define and preserve our community. ASL can finally stand on its own feet instead of being stuck as a lesser language. As a result we have access directly to the source of expression, access to defining who we are.
So who am I? Thanks to a patient Deafblind husband who comes from a signing Deaf family, I received my new name. It is arbitrary in the sense that a handshape is used, but the handshape comes from the digibet, not the English alphabet. It is descriptive in the sense that it evokes a certain characteristic but does not encompass all that I am and do.