British Sign Name Customs

By Day, Linda; Sutton-Spence, Rachel | Sign Language Studies, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

British Sign Name Customs


Day, Linda, Sutton-Spence, Rachel, Sign Language Studies


THE NAMING CllSTOMS of a society tell us a lot about its values and its general oudook. This article considers personal names for what they reveal about the values and views of British Sign Language users in the British Deaf community, emphasizing the creativity of BSL and the processes of metaphor, visual motivation, and influences from EngHsh that go into creating the names. Especially, we investigate in more depth the naming customs in the relatively uncommon situation of deaf parents' naming their own deaf children.

We start with an overview of how the British Deaf community gives and uses names and compare this practice with that in other communities, especially British mainstream hearing communities and other Deaf communities. We review the motivation behind certain names, the way that names are allocated, and the degree of acceptance of the names. The specifics of British Deaf naming customs are discussed, and we use examples from data collected within the British Deaf community. One area of concentration is the way in which Deaf people from Deaf families are given sign names and how these might change during the course of their Hves. We also consider the way that the use of teaching materials from other Deaf cultures has affected sign naming traditions.

Unlike most people in Britain, the large majority of Deaf people do not get their sign names from people in their families; this is because they have hearing parents who have no knowledge of Deaf customs. Instead, they tend to acquire them from other deaf children on entering school or even later in life from friends and other Deaf community members. The school children have developed their own naming customs, which have become part of community life. On the other hand, we might expect that naming practices in the small number of British Deaf famines (where parents and at least some of the children are Deaf) to be different. Deaf parents might give sign names to their Deaf children based on a famiHarity with Deaf naming customs. However, our research consistendy finds that Deaf famines in the UK do not customarily give sign names based on the BSL lexicon to their children. Instead, they use fingerspelHng of the English names. In the interviews conducted for the study here, none of the participants from Deaf femilies was given a nonfingerspelled sign name at birth or in early childhood.

Much of the information on the use and origin of sign names in Britain has come from stories passed on from generation to generation, as it is part of the folklore of the British Deaf community. It could be argued that these stories cannot be taken as concrete research evidence if they are merely hearsay. However, the stories can serve as an invaluable and indeed indispensable source of material when supported by careful cross-validation from other sources . The first author of this article, Linda Day, is Deaf and comes from a Deaf family, and much of the insight into this topic comes from her own experience and indepth knowledge of the heritage and customs of the British Deaf community. To this extent she is an ideal participant observer. Additionally, however, she has recruited other members of the community in order to test and build on her insights.

Personal Names

Personal names reflect a society's concerns and values, so people often use their language in richly inventive ways to show their cultural, poHtical, and reHgious values. Understanding naming practices thus allows us to understand a community's cultural beliefs, Hnguistic practices, social structures, and family relationships. Appreciating the reasons behind naming in other cultures allows us to place current Western naming practices in context and enables us to see the wide range of meanings behind the choice of names and their use in contrast to other cultures. Naming practices within Deaf communities, because they are situated simultaneously both within the larger hearing society and outside it in independent minority communities, show characteristics that blend elements from the two cultures and the two languages used in the communities. …

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