Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Signed Names in Japanese Sign Language: Linguistic and Cultural Analyses

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Signed Names in Japanese Sign Language: Linguistic and Cultural Analyses

Article excerpt


This article describes the types of signed names given and used by deaf users of Japanese Sign Language. Drawing from a dataset of 216 signed names, we identify and describe nine strategies for signed name formation. Notably, seven of these represent written Japanese surnames. We explain how language contact with written Japanese characters (kanji) and syllabograms (kana) gives rise to a distinctive set of naming strategies. We further discuss the culture of literacy in Japan that emphasizes the written forms of surnames and consider its influential role in Japanese deaf education when sustained contact between many deaf people made naming a central concern.

THIS ARTICLE DESCRIBES the naming or onomastic system of Japanese Sign Language (JSL), a natural language, distinct from spoken Japanese, used by more than sixty thousand deaf people and their hearing co-signers in Japan (Ichida 2001). Like members of all linguistic communities, users of JSL refer to themselves and to each other by name. Deaf JSL signers typically have at least one signed name and may have nicknames for use in informal contexts. With few exceptions (typically, nicknames),JSL signed names represent the bearers surname, reflecting the emphasis on family names as the primary terms of reference in Japan (Gaudart 1999). Notably, JSL signed names depict the written form of the bearer's surname, a fact, we maintain, that is the product of a literacy culture dating to the Meiji period in Japan and pervasive in the Japanese educational system, including deaf education.

A growing body of research considers the linguistic structure of JSL (see, among others, Peng 1974; Osugi and Supalla 1998; Fukuda et al. i999;Torigoe andTakei 2001; Morgan 2006, 2008; Fischer 2008; Fischer and Gong 2010; Mori 2010; Sagara and Yang 2013) and the culture and discourse strategies of its users, both deaf and hearing (Nakamura 1995, 2006; Nonaka 1997; George 2011). Another line of research is dedicated to developing sign language recognition technology (Sagawa and Takeuchi 2000a, 2000b, 2002; Xu et al. 2000), with applications for JSL teaching, interpreting, and linguistic analysis (Tokuda and Okumura 1998; Sagawa and Takeuchi 2002; Koizumi, Sagawa, and Takeuchi 2002). While these two research fields have significantly expanded the description of JSL, neither has taken into consideration the onomastic system of the language.

A broad description of JSL signed names has been provided in some educational materials designed for second language acquisition. Minna No Shuwa ((ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)) (Japan Broadcasting Corporation 1990), Everyone's Sign Language, and Shuwa Kyoushitsu (...) (Japanese Federation of the Deaf 1984), Sign Language Classroom, are textbook and video short courses for second-language learners of JSL. Minna No Shuwa identifies three bases for JSL signed names: (1) kanji kara narumono (...) "things derived from kanji characters," (2) rekishi jou no jimbutsu kara totta mono (...) "things taken from historical figures," and (3) yubi moji ya kuusho de hyougen suru mono (...) "things expressed through fingerspelling or writing in the air." Shuwa Kyoushitsu lists six ways to derive signed names in JSL: (1) moji kuusho hikki (...) "characters written in the air," (2) yubi moji (...) "fingerspelling," (3) kanji no katachi yori hyougen shita shuwa no kumiawase (...) "combinations of signs that express the shape of kanji," (4) douon igo no shuwa ni yori arawasu (...) "sign language expression of a homophone," (5) nikkuneimu (...), a borrowed English word,"nicknames," and (6) ichi kara go no kumiawase (...) "combinations of #1-5."

While both sources identify at least some of the ways in which JSL signed names are derived, neither provides an in-depth description or analysis of the language's onomastic system of the sort provided here. In collecting and analyzing a set of more than two hundred JSL signed names, we aimed to expand on the prior description of the JSL onomastic system by providing a detailed account of the strategies for signed name formation in the language and discussing the relative frequency of each strategy. …

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