ASL Names and How They’re Chosen

What would your name be?

You may have noticed when reading Yesterday’s Tides that each character who interacts with Elsie (who is deaf and speaks American Sign Language) is given a sign for their name…

In the deaf community, names can be tricky things. When first introducing someone or mentioning them, you first have to finger-spell their name…but that would be tedious to do every time a person is mentioned in conversation.

Because of that, signs are assigned to people, usually by the deaf person who is speaking to or about them. But how are they selected?

Sometimes a name has a particular meaning already. For instance Sterling is a word closely related to silver. It makes sense, then, for Elsie to have given him a sign that is basically the word for “silver.”

Many names, however, don’t have so obvious a meaning. In those cases, the namer will usually choose a word that describes the person–thinker, doctor, dancer, beautiful, tall, playful, funny, bright, sweet etc. They will then form their fingers into the first letter of the person’s name and make that sign.

For Louisa, then, who loved princess stories and was always twirling for joy, one would form one’s fingers into an L and then make the sign for royaly, tracing a sash from left shoulder to right waist, but with a loop in the middle.

When I was thirteen, I went on a mission trip to help build an orphanage and school for the deaf community in Montego Bay, Jamaica. One of the highlights of the trip for me was when one of the workers gave us all names. My mom, Karen, was the sign for beautiful, but with fingers forming a K. My sign was an R for Roseanna, but then that same sash sign for royalty that I gave to Louisa. Talk about a compliment to this royalty-loving writer! I have cherished that name ever since.

What characteristics do others say define you? Maybe you’re a writer or a teacher or a nurse. Maybe you’re full of laughter or contemplative or fast. Maybe you’re tall or beautiful or musical. Look up the sign for that thing, put your fingers in the shape of the first letter of your name, and there you go! Of course, sometimes it’s hard to identify those things about ourselves…that’s what it’s so much nicer to give a sign name to others and let them name you. Which makes this the perfect activity to do with your family!

Do you have a sign name? Please share its explanation below!

Finger Spelling

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