In British Sign Language, names are pretty awesome things. Represented by both a fingerspelling, and often by a unique sign.
I’ve learned this about the culture regarding sign names in Britain. Much of it may be true in other sign languages as well, but I don’t have much exposure to other deaf cultures.
First: The sign name must have a strong visual meaning associated with it. Hair (facial or otherwise) can be a great identifier for someone, the first name ever suggested for me was very similar to the sign for Dutch.
- I met a man named Robert recently, who very commonly wears scarfs, and so the signs for his name was very close to “loves scarfs”.
- An interpreter friend had been referring to me just with a quick tracing of my facial hair patterns as a quick “This is who C’tri is” for those who knew my face but not my name.
- One of my classmates always wears blue, and has captured the sign for blue as her name.
- As a result of my keen interest in dungeons and dragons, my classmates suggested I pick up a fantasy title like “The Destroyer” when we learned the sign. A little melodramatic, and also only makes sense once you know me, not before.
- Another of my Classmates, Sarah, has long thick black hair which often obscures her face when viewed from the side. We jokingly refer to her as “long hair – hidden.”
These signs are all visually descriptive of an appearance, or a common feature of the person. In one of my classes we covered the three categories of sign.
Now, I have forgotten the technical terms for this, so I’ll use “Obvious Meaning, Subtle Meaning, and Arbitrary Meaning”.
Signs can either have an obvious meaning (swimming, car, food), which don’t require any degree of context to immediately understand what the sign means if you’ve never seen it before. Some can have a more subtle meaning that becomes apparent with context, (sing, fire, assess), and some of which have an arbitrary meaning (always, park (land, not cars), thing)
Second: Sign names are given by signers, and are not chosen. Part of the reason for this is their visual nature must be descriptive to an external viewer.
Distinguishing features, traits, and patterns of behaviour are easiest to recognise by the people we regularly interact with. Likewise, those who use BSL as their first language understand fully how everything works, and aren’t going to give a name that might be syntactically confusing.
This is where the fairly well known adage about sign names comes from “Yours needs to be given to you by a deaf person”.
There’s more to this though: deaf strangers aren’t well placed to give you a sign name. Someone who sees you regularly, or has known you for a long time will be able to see the common denominators about you that make the best sign names.
Also, it doesn’t have to be a deaf person. Interpreters or other people who are constantly surrounded by the deaf and are fluent users of BSL are also skilled enough with the language to be able to pick or create a sign that is appropriate.
A girl I knew had been given a sign name in her previous job that was the z-snap, because she had an incredibly sassy personality and body language. She’d gotten it from office colleagues who were hearing and bilingual, rather than from a deaf person; yet it was still distinctive and visually expressive.
So, on Sunday the 23rd I found out what mine was:
Name-<My> C T R I or <C’tri>
It was first used by someone at last weekend’s deaf conference, though I was not witness to this. The note taker was trying to find out who everyone’s name was, and her reaction to “c-t-r-i” was one of understandable confusion. The lady did something similar to the above, and a nearby interpreter adjusted it to the above!
Names are very important, and I’m super happy to have found that in BSL my sign-name is both a bit of a pun, and not something directly anchored to my appearance.