Our place: Geographical signs in the Online Dictionary of NZSL

Place name signs in NZSL were researched by the NZSL Online Dictionary team at Victoria University with a grant from Round 1 of the NZSL Fund.

In 2015, the NZSL Dictionary editors at Victoria University received an enquiry from the New Zealand Geographical Board about how they could make NZSL place names more available to the public, since it is an official language. This prompted the dictionary team to think about increasing the number of place names in the Online NZSL Dictionary, which contained 39 New Zealand place names at that time.

The NZSL Fund provided $135,412 to support a project to collect signs from Deaf community groups in 11 locations, from Whangarei to Invercargill. As a result, 443 place name signs have recently been added to the Online Dictionary. Making a new entry for each new sign in the dictionary involves studio filming the sign, making a drawing, and entering information into the dictionary database. The project took over a year to complete.

Expanding place names in the dictionary expands knowledge about NZSL and shows the unique ways that Deaf people name local places relevant to their own everyday life and history. Place names signs have special importance for Māori Deaf who want to express whakapapa that identifies their connections in Te Ao Māori.

Having more place name signs in the dictionary supports the use of NZSL in education by deaf and hearing learners. Place name vocabulary can improve Deaf people’s access to information in NZSL (for example, when making video relay calls to emergency services, or watching interpreted information about New Zealand events on media).

The project also looked for patterns in how place names signs are made in NZSL and found they are very similar to personal name signs in the NZSL - for example:

refer to visual feature of place    
  Rangitoto, Taranaki (mountains) Whenuapai, Wigram, Ohakea (airbases)
refer to typical activity or famous
at place
  Kerikeri, Motueka (fruitpicking) Waitangi (treaty scroll)
play on the word
– sound or look
  Dinsdale (D-‘tail’) Katikati (cat)
translate part of the written name    
  Te Aroha (aroha) Mornington (morning)
fingerspelling letters    
  Whanganui (W-river) Johnsonville (J-V)


Strategies for making make name signs for places show that Deaf people combine their knowledge of the visible world with knowledge of written/spoken languages (English & Māori) and signed languages (NZSL, and ASL fingerspelling). Whether place names originate in English or Māori, NZSL place name signs are created using the same strategies. Name signs are not usually based on the historical or linguistic ‘meaning’ of a place name, but relate to visual features of the place itself or the look of the written name. Many place names on the New Zealand map do not have an NZSL sign, since Deaf people tend to create signs only for the places that they regularly go to, live in, or talk about with other Deaf people. The project also showed variation in how Deaf people refer to local places. Different groups of Deaf people in the same area may use different signs from each other. There is also change through time, with differences in older and younger people’s signs for the same places. Younger people seem to prefer signs based on a visual landmark or reputation of a place, for example, GUMBOOT for Taihape, while older signers use more name signs based on a feature of the spoken/written name.

Place name signs can be searched in NZSL Online at http://nzsl.vuw.ac.nz  

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