Book Review: The Book of Name Signs

This was a fascinating book, although it’s very easy to overlook. It’s a slender little book, barely 100 pages including the intro, text, list of signs, and references. Plus, fully half the book simply lists acceptable name-signs in alphabetic order. So if you’re a fluent ASL speaker, this book probably won’t even register on your radar.

Of course, I got the book because if there’s one thing I know about cultures (having lived abroad myself) is that it’s the little things that trip you up. Everyone knows the “big” things about a given culture, but then trip right over the fine print. All the comments in passing I’ve seen about “bad” or “ill formed” name signs made it clear to me this was one such thing, so I got the book.

And as far as name signs go, it delivers just that. The types of name signs, the preferences Deaf families have for which ones, and listings of acceptable name signs using initialed letter. There are two main systems in Deaf culture: Arbitrary Name Signs (ANS) which are an initial that’s positioned in neutral space (front of body), positioned at a particular position (touching body), or moves between two positions; and Descriptive Name Signs (DNS) which are single signs that describe a person. He discussed some of the exceptions that occur, usually in a humorous vein. Thus I was delighted to learn that the sign that refers to Nixon combines the sign for “lie” with the letter “N”! Ha! Anyway, that part’s straightforward. The fun part is in the details, because Supalla delves into the history of name signs and in doing so illuminates aspects of the development of ASL itself.

One of the things he attempted to determine was whether ANS, preferred by American Deaf families, is a tradition that developed here, or came over here from France via Clerc and Gallaudet in the early 19th century. The fact that modern French signers use descriptive name signs, and that the known name signs for L’Epeé, Clerc, and Gallaudet are descriptive, argue that the initialed name sign tradition originated here, and after the Clerc/Gallaudet introduction of sign language, since the initials used are of course from the French manual alphabet which ASL uses. Here’s the fascinating part, which I will quote:

The ANS for Elizabeth Clerc [daughter of Eliza and Laurent Clerc] appears to be the oldest recorded name sign found in the United States. It is noted tha the name signs for Clerc’s and Gallaudet’s children are ANSes, not DNSes, even though both Clerc and Gallaudet possessed DNSes. One possible explanation for their choice of ANSes in naming their children is that they both were involved in so-called language planning regarding the role of signing, and they were promoting the English version of Epeé’s Methodical Sign. Initialization of signs was an approach which changed the handshape of a sign to that of the manual alphabet to conform to the initial of a written French or English word. Although, in both France and the United States, Methodical Sign was soon abandoned due to its ineffectiveness as a sign system, many of the modern ASL signs remain initialized from that time. More recently, ASL signs have been subject to a further initialization process though the introduction of Manually Coded English, the modern version of Methodical Sign. Through initialized signs, alphabetical handshapes have been accepted as a part of ASL, and it appears they have found their place in ASL, thus making the ANS System possible. [Emphasis mine]

This quoted paragraph references Lane’s When the Mind Hears twice and an earlier book of Supalla’s in 1990, The Arbitrary Name Sign System in American Sign Language. At any rate, the notations about Methodical Signing blew me away. Now I’ve heard about Methodical Signing, but what I didn’t know was that it introduced initialized signs! So this explains all of these initialized ASL signs that predate SEE and other ill conceived Manually Coded English efforts of the 20th century. That’s why we have “family” initialized with an “f”, “green” initialized with a “g”, “blue” with “b”, and even “search” with “c” (French “chercher”), “with” with “a” (French “avec”), “aunt”, “uncle”, “cousin”, “nephew”, “niece” and so on and on. Even “how” (French “comment”) can be seen as two C’s. At least they seem to have had more sense in the 19th century to abandon this approach then they have had in the 20th century. Those who don’t know history are indeed repeating it, aren’t they?

Another absolutely fascinating aspect he discussed was the rise of “improper” name signs, what with large numbers of hearing and non-Deaf culture people learning ASL in recent years. It occurs to me that if this does not go away, it could well become established as a marker of someone who is not native to the Deaf culture and/or is hearing (since there are cases of Deaf individuals giving “improper” names to hearing people). In the United States among hearing people, names can convey a certain amount of information about the person and his or her probable background. For example, consider the differences between the names Abigail, Jeffrey, LaTricia, Mary Jane, Billy Bob. I wonder if the “improper” names will wind up staying around to identify a certain subgroup of ASL signers. Time will tell, I suppose.

The Book of Name Signs: Naming in American Sign Language by Samuel J. Supalla

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3 Responses to Book Review: The Book of Name Signs

  1. Lantana says:

    I have this book you mentioned. I try and keep most of the more popular ASL books in my “library” for reference and for hearies who want me to settle an argument begun in Sign Language Class.

    I went to school with the Supala Kids’ mother (and aunt and uncle). So there is a long deaf history there, if you cannot trust Sam, who can you trust? You cannot get any “deafer” than that family.

    My only peeve is hearies who choose to give THEMSELVES name signs. That is just not done! Your name sign is a gift from those you know you better than you know yourself.


    Lantana, Lantana’s Latitude.

  2. Cousin Vinny says:

    Thank you for an illuminating discussion! I had no idea such a book even existed. I’ll try to look it up one day. Also, I did a 1:25 video entry on this subject a while ago; I invite you to look at it and give a comment or two. (Don’t worry; it’s captioned.)

    Much Ado About Namesigns

    And thank you for providing a couple of initialized French signs we’ve borrowed, such as ‘comment’, ‘avec’, & ‘chercher’. It does give us a deeper insight into our ASL language.

  3. Oh, I can’t claim credit for all these listed French equivalents. I first read about them here and then just earlier today over here, particularly in the comments. But since I do know French, it’s easy for me to remember these as well.

    I do think you should get this book (available on amazon, if you check the last link in my post above) and look through it, because this systematically lists names, just like you were saying hearing people have lists of names, etc. Although, remember, there’s a sizeable segment of the population that creatively make up names (and they tend to be looked down for it, just like people who have names that do not fit ANS or DNS systems in ASL…)