Name Signs: What Are They and How Does a Person Get a Name Sign?

Name Signs: What Are They and How Does a Person Get a Name Sign?

By Brenda Cartwright
Tuesday, August 29, 2023

This article is written by Brenda Cartwright (BC). Brenda is a seasoned interpreter, a master teacher and a well known author. BC also contributes numerous blog articles for Signing Savvy. Look for them on the “Articles” tab on our website.

What is a Name Sign?

When referring to a person by name, you fingerspell their name, unless they have a name sign. A name sign, also known as a sign name or ASL name, is when a sign is used instead of fingerspelling a person’s name.

How Do You Get a Name Sign?

You do not invent your own name sign. Name signs may only be given by a person in the Deaf community. Some hearing people (like interpreters and teachers) mistakenly give name signs without realizing they are in violation of Deaf culture traditions. However, a name sign cannot be assigned by a hearing person.

American Sign Language has deep cultural and linguistic significance. Typically, it is not until you are involved in the community that you are given a name sign. In fact, not everyone within the Deaf community has a name sign.

How Do You Use a Name Sign?

When first using a name sign in conversation, you begin by fingerspelling the full name, and then sign the name sign. This introduces the name sign and who it represents. Once the name sign has been introduced, people will understand what it means and the name sign may be used without also fingerspelling the name.

Types of Name Signs

Name signs often reflect an individual’s personality, physical features or background. 

There are specific rules/categories for name signs: 

  1. Arbitrary Name Signs
  2. Descriptive Name Signs
  3. Combination Name Signs

Arbitrary Name Signs

Arbitrary name signs are always initialized. They take on one or two of the letters of the alphabet, often the initials of the person's name. They typically have one of the following patterns:

  • A double tap somewhere on the body.
  • A tap on one location of the body, followed by a tap on another part of the body.
  • The letters are out in front of the body (in neutral space). 

My name sign is an example of an arbitrary name sign. My name sign is the B handshape (for Brenda) and C handshape (for Cartwright) over the heart.

Descriptive Name Signs

Descriptive name signs are never initialized. They are assigned based on characteristics such as long hair, a scar, a mole, a dimple, a cleft chin etc.

The name sign for THOMAS H. GALLAUDET is an example of a descriptive name sign. His name sign was inspired by his characteristic of wearing glasses.

Combination Name Signs

Combination name signs combine aspects of both arbitrary and descriptive name signs, often using the first letter of the person’s name.

No Name Sign - Fingerspell

Again, not everyone has a name sign. Some people in the Deaf community choose not to have a name sign. This is especially the case when a person has a name that is five or less letters or has a distinctive name, then the community often chooses to spell that person’s name in lieu of assigning a name sign.

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About the Author

Brenda CartwrightBrenda Cartwright is a seasoned interpreter, a master teacher, well known presenter, and author of several best selling sign language and interpreting textbooks from the RID Press. For 35 years Brenda was the Chair of the Sign Language Interpreter Program at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan.

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