My Name Doesn’t Matter

The inside joke around my friends and I is that names don’t matter in my world because I use sign language more than English. I hate admitting this, but… it’s actually true. You should feel impeccably special if I can remember your spoken, English name after the first time we’ve met because, well, in Sign Language (what I call my heart language) names are flexible. Literally.

It’s too culturally endearing to fully describe, but the reality is, when you walk into a room of Sign Language dependent people, they give each other a sign that represents that person. You can have a “Sign name”, but if anyone else’s Sign name looks like yours, one of you has to adopt a different one for the night…. Have I lost you yet?

Regardless of what all that meant, my point still stands. I’m not being disrespectful by not learning your name… I’ve just learned to act as if it’s not the number one important thing about you cuz it can change.

My boyfriend Peter is learning how to sign. Some days I’m astonished at what he knows after 3 months of learning and some days I want to hurt him for not knowing enough. He got all the patience and logic between the two of us. It’s slightly unfair. When it comes to learning the cultural understanding behind Sign names he’s just as confused about the whole thing as anyone else.

Yesterday, he was informed by someone else who uses Sign Language that a person can have more than one name depending on the circumstance. For whatever reason, he took that to mean he got the right to “name me.”

I don’t think he understood what he did when he randomly switched to a signed conversation in the middle of our friends’ kitchen (who praise God, don’t know Sign Language) and let me know what I get to be in his mind.

Once I caught on, I just about started crying…. Peter named me. In deaf culture you just don’t do that on a whim very often. If you have the audacity to give someone a different Sign name, especially when they don’t need one at the moment, it better mean something and better be for a darn good reason.

I had to fight back tears even more when I walked away and I heard God chuckle. I could almost hear Him saying,

“If you get choked up about ‘secret names’ now; I can’t wait to tell you the name only I have for you. Just wait, Baby Girl… this is only the beginning.”

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5 thoughts on “My Name Doesn’t Matter

  1. Your post adds a lot of nuance to what I’d learned about sign names. Thanks so much for sharing!

    I’m so sorry to hear what happened with your boyfriend. I had no idea that would be such a painful experience. I’ll take that lesson to heart.

    Is there any situation in which a name change *would* be acceptable? (Other than because you share a sign name, I mean.) Something meaningful and important?

    Is it true that only Deaf people should give sign names? That rule would probably help avoid situations like this one, if everyone knew about it.

    Is it possible for a hearing person to earn a sign name, if s/he is fluent in ASL, has Deaf friends, and supports the Deaf community however possible?

    (If any of my questions are naive or offensive, please let me know. I’m trying to learn as much as possible about Deaf culture, and I’m sure I don’t know all the boundaries yet.)

    • Ha! I love that you’re trying to learn rather than just assuming life– I have no idea who you are and I’m darn proud of you for that. THANK YOU.

      First off, those tears were good tears. So it was completely acceptable to be given a different name…. it was more just shocking that he understood he *could* do that and that it’d mean something different than just a “I’m gonna call you Babe” kind of thing.

      No, it wasn’t inappropriate for him to give me a new name… it just wasn’t expected. Naming someone is either seen as a means of necessity (E.G… interpreting for someone who keeps saying a certain name or introducing a random friend to the deaf community) or a very intimate, “I know you and if I give you *this* sign name… it encapsulates something about you that I love.”) That last example is why being “named” by Peter overwhelmed me. His sign name for me said something he’d never actually voiced before… so using my heart language to tell me what he really thought and then basically saying, “It’s you…. it’s totally you” it was just intense. Sign Language isn’t just a language – especially between significant others. It’s just about as intimate as you can get because it’s such an emotionally driven language.

      My best friend as a kid who was deaf gave me my sign name (that I’ll still use till the day I die. Peter’s sign name for me is just… his name for me.) So, the way I was always taught was first priority was given to the deaf person for a sign name, but then if you’re fluent enough… you can very loosely “snag a name” knowing that a deaf person may do something different if they have to sign your name on a frequent basis.

      Keep in mind, please, that I’m not deaf. I consider myself sign dependent because, at 25, I’ve been signing since I was two. A lot of times I’m told by deaf friends that I “sign like I’m deaf”. Regardless of that compliment, my beliefs and traditions behind ASL are subject to change because of region, culture or family traditions within a prominently deaf family. 🙂

      • 😀 That’s my goal. I studied cultural anthropology. Always ask, question, critique — never assume or stay complacent.

        Oh! Totally misread your post, then! Lol, I’m glad I asked.

        Wow, that makes a lot of sense. It’s intimate, personal, loving.

        One author I read said she thinks ASL is a distant, cool kind of language. That never seemed right to me – it always seemed full of emotion, expressive, poetic. But I noticed people’s perspective on a language sometimes depends which they learned first. As far as I’ve read, birth languages tend to seem more emotional and raw, while second (and/or societally dominant) languages tend to seem distant, cool, and clinical. Whereas for me, I find English (mother tongue) to be precise, information-rich, and *heavily* idiomatic; Spanish (fluent, my 2nd language) to be quirky, charming, and full of regionalisms; and ASL to be visual, intimate, grounded, and at times disarmingly poetic. Wonder how I’ll think about ASL when I’m fluent.

        Ah, I didn’t realize! Thanks for clearing that up. Still, I trust your broader knowledge of Deaf culture. I’ll try to remember to ask my Deaf friends as well at my next meetup.

        That’s cool! Which family members are Deaf?

      • None, actually. I was taught how to sign because of my disabilities. It was seen as therapy, but I adored the people it connected me to.

  2. I had no idea!! Learning something new everyday!

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