Sign Names | ASL Ponderings + Deaf Awareness Month


So… I’m finally getting around to Deaf Awareness Month videos. Oops!

Hello and welcome to a crash course in sign names. This is an ASL Ponderings slash Deaf Awareness Month video.

I’m going to start with the basics: what is a sign name? In the signing community, sign names are a way to identify who you’re talking about. Like in spoken languages, there are spoken names. Sign names are what we use in sign. Why? So we don’t have to spell out names all the time. And an added bonus, if the spoken names are the same–for example, Matt–with the sign names, they may have different sign names.

Sign names are given based on many different reasons. Personality. For example, laughing, friendly, smiling, happy. It can be based on appearances: curly, curly/frizzy, dimple, beard, scar. Many different ways. Or it can be based on a story, like my sign name. My sign name has nothing to do with personality, nothing to do with my appearance, but has everything to do with a story.

One big thing about sign names: ONLY deaf people can give you one. Why is this important? A hearing person can’t give another hearing person or another deaf person a sign name. A hearing person can’t give themselves a sign name. A deaf person can’t give themselves a sign name. The reason is the same as spoken names. You don’t give yourself a spoken name (except in some cases). In general, your name is from someone else. It’s the same with sign names. It must be from someone else, and in the signing community, it has to come from another deaf person.

Some people say, “That’s not fair! I want a sign name!” My response: too bad. If you want a sign name, you have to actually be part of the deaf community. You can’t just go up and say, “Hey, I want a sign name, give me one now.” Get one, and that’s it. No. Be part of the deaf community. Maybe you suck with sign, that’s fine. The important thing is you’re still learning. Yeah, some deaf people don’t have a sign name growing up, their whole life, until they’re in their thirties, and finally get a sign name. (And some never get one! It might be because their name is short or easy to spell.) Maybe up to that point, it was because they weren’t involved with the deaf community. That’s the way it is.

In my opinion, I think some deaf people should be banned from giving sign names. I have my reasons. I have seen some sign names that hearing people have, or other deaf people have, that were given to them by a deaf person. But that sign name… Is not a good one. Not because that sign name is lousy and doesn’t fit that person, no. Because that sign name violates the rules of ASL. So… That leads into my next thing, rules.

I will tell you a few basic rules that I know. If you know of more, please comment below and add, discuss! If you disagree with anything that I say, please comment. I want to discuss, get your ideas, thoughts. (For this section, I would strongly suggest you watch the video so you can understand what I’m talking about. It starts at 2:54.)

  1. Sign names are allowed only one handshape. Max two, IF those handshapes flow. Let me give you a few examples. For all of the examples from now on, I will either use a generic, really common sign name, or sign names that are of people who are well-known by the community. Rikki Poynter, her sign name is [Rikki.] That’s one handshape. The middle finger moves, that’s allowed. Acceptable, perfect. An example of two handshapes: my sign name, [Rogan]. O-5, O-5, [Rogan]. That’s allowed because it flows well. Another example of a sign name using two handshapes that flow well is someone who’s been on this channel before. Jules (Dameron). [Jules]. 1-Y, [Jules]. That’s allowed because it flows really well. Another… Josh Castille. His sign name is [Josh]. 9-5, [Josh]. That’s allowed because it transitions really well. Now, an example of maybe not so good: M-0-5. It’s awkward. If you want to use “sun” maybe just do [sun], that’s it, and not use letters in it.
  2. Sign names generally must be chest and up. My sign name is in the middle, right here. That’s allowed. So, a sign can go below ONLY if it begins above. For example, a common one: [M-diagonal], [N-diagonal]. That’s allowed because it starts here, above-chest, and ends below. That’s fine. But if it starts below, no.
  3. Avoid common words in sign. For example: [I-love-you or ILY]. I’ve seen some people use this in sign names, and it’s fine if it’s like, for example, [ILY-dimple], [ILY-wavy], something. But if it’s [ILY], too similar to the actual sign, no. You can’t do that. A great example of preventing this from happening: when I was in Europe, and I got that new sign name, [Rogan], that wasn’t the first one they came up with. The first one they came up with was [fine]. This was because I said fine a lot. Ah. That is something common in ASL. Not in International, but in ASL, yes. We use that sign, [fine], a LOT in ASL. So, that being my sign name, mmm. Internationally, maybe it’d work fine. But in the US, it wouldn’t work. So I said no, and explained it. “Oh okay.” Discussed some, and then gave me [Rogan].

That’s it for the rules, I want to make a few comments about sign names in general. Comparing the US with internationally, the US uses a lot of letters in sign names, historically. But now, it’s shifting, changing. People are starting to remove them, like mine. I’ve seen many start to remove the letters, create sign names that don’t use letters. Internationally, it’s been that way for a long time. Some other countries still have sign names with letters, of course, but more generally leaning toward no letters.

I want to be clear, what I said here about rules and things about sign names applies only to the US and ASL. Because some of them won’t apply in other countries. My sign name here in the US is fine, but it’s a curse word in other countries. So… I have to either spell, or change my sign name a little bit in those countries. There are some sign names in other countries that I was taken aback by, but okay, that’s that country. But if they come to the US, I warned them that if they sign that in the US, not good, don’t do that. So… That’s one thing you have to be aware with sign names.

There are a few more things I would love to say about sign names, but I will hold it for another video. Hope you enjoyed this, and learned something from it!

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Published by Rogan Shannon

Hello there! I'm Rogan, a queer deaf guy who has a passion for leadership and advocacy. I create YouTube videos about a lot of different topics - being deaf, queer, reading, language, and whatever else interests me!

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