Name Signs in American Sign Language*
Swarthmore College. Dept. of Linguistics
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Here, I discuss the history and origin of name signs in American Sign Language from their first appearances in the early 19th century (Supalla 1992:23) to present day. Most name signs in American Sign Language are fully arbitrary, or based off the written name and providing no extra information about the subject, but many are also fully descriptive and do not reference the written name at all. In other signed languages such as French Sign Language and Sign Language of the Netherlands, descriptive name signs or direct translations of the written name like HOPE are preferred. I discuss descriptive name signs and their growing prominence in the ASL-signing Deaf community, the increasing use of combination-type name signs, and finally, I analyze the constraints Samuel Supalla proposed for arbitrary name signs in 1990. In this preliminary analysis, I find evidence for additions to his constraints-nonmanual components; a new location at the contralateral breast, opposite the main hand; and rotational contact in addition to simple and brushing-as well as some constraints that appear to have fallen out of favor, such as articulating a name sign on the contralateral arm or using multiple locations in a single name sign. This evidence is enough to suggest the need for a more in-depth study on name signs in the near future.