American Sign Language:
"The use of titles"
In a message dated 3/1/2005 4:34:49 PM Pacific Standard Time, a
I am wondering if there are signs for Mr., Mrs., Miss (an unmarried
woman), and Ms.?
Such "titles of address" are almost never used in ASL.
We refer to people by their
or by spelling their first name or sometimes their last name.
For example an adult student just asked me "Where "T-H-R-A-P-P?"
She was referring to one of my coworkers, a woman with a last
name of "Thrapp."
In the Deaf world even titles such as Dr. are rarely used. This
applies to making formal introductions for speakers. If the title "Dr."
is used then it is done so very sparingly.
(Hmmm, did I use "Dr." in my closing when I just said that
titles are rarely used in ASL? Because I'm typing in
English and English does use such titles.)
The use of titles:
I'm a member of quite a few
"communities." Two of those communities are the "academic"
community and the Deaf community.
In the academic community, titles are
commonplace and generally expected
to be used between students and their teachers. This begins in
elementary school where typically students are required to address their
teachers as "Mr. Soandso" or "Mrs. Soandso." This system of formal
address continues through to the postsecondary school years where
students tend to address their instructors as "Professor Soandso," or
Thus I wear different nametags
depending on which community I'm in.
Academic world: Dr. Vicars, Dr. Bill, Dr. V
Deaf World: B-I-L-L "V." or "V"-(taps side of head)-[namesign]
Cultural norms for these two worlds conflict regarding personal titles.
In one world it is (generally) considered important.
In the other world it is (generally) considered
How do I handle this cultural clash?
First of all, I recognize that many students actually LIKE and want to
address me as "Dr." Vicars because they honestly want to be polite.
They feel comfortable being polite. They also enjoy the thought
that they are hanging out with and being taught by someone who has taken
the time and put forth the effort to earn such a title.
Additionally I realize that the title helps me be a more effective
teacher because it helps engender (bring about) respect. That
"respect" helps me to manage my classroom more effectively and thus
provide a better learning environment for my students.
That being the case, I actively use the title "Dr." when interacting with
Next, I realize that some people may feel intimidated by or "put off" by
such titles and thus I make a point to often refer to myself as "Bill"
and to clarify that I am flexible regarding what I'm called.
Here's a list of what I'm generally called by various populations:
General Deaf: namesign: "V"-(taps side of head) or spell B-I-L-L
and shake a "V."
Students: Dr. Vicars, Dr. Bill, Dr. V, Professor
Students with whom I've interacted on some level beyond purely academic:
Sons and Daughters: Dad
Wife: Bill, Honey, (censored)
Church congregation: Namesign, sign: BROTHER then do namesign.
In correspondence: Brother Vicars, Brother Bill. When I was called
to lead the congregation it became "PRESIDENT + V-(upside the head/namesign).
Family of origination: (My mom, dad, brother, and sister) Billy
Internet Inquiries: Some call me Mr. Vicars -- indicating they
have not taken the time to learn anything at all about me and are generally just trying to get me to do
their high school or college homework for them instead of going to the
library (or accessing the appropriate online databases) and doing their own work.
Emails from ASL Heroes (those true believers out there who are genuinely
seeking to learn and understand ASL): Bill, Dr. Bill, or Dr. Vicars.
(Again, depending on if we have interacted at any length, and or their
own status, age, or cultural background.)
There is a difference between the sign for a medical
doctor and how we refer to an
"academic" doctor. While the Deaf community is not overly concerned
with titles, if you are introducing someone to an audience you would simply spell
the letters "D-R" and then the name.
In a message dated 8/9/2006 2:37:59 PM Pacific Daylight Time, a job
I have an important interview coming up with a Deaf man: "Dr.
I address Dr. Smith?
Should I make the sign for 'doctor' ("M" on wrist) and fingerspell
his last name?
Is it ok for me to ask him what his name sign is and use it?
Dear Job Applicant,
Unless the person is a medical doctor
you should not sign "doctor" on the wrist. The
DOCTOR sign is reserved for medical
professionals only. Other "doctors" (such as academic
professionals) can be referred to via
fingerspelling "D" and "R."
It is not rude to ask a person if they have a name sign. Generally it
is offered during initial greetings.
Actually, how to address him is not an issue.
In general you never need to use his name. Really.
Realistically, the only time you will use his name is when you talk to
about him. Then, if you desire you can spell D-R S-M-I-T-H, or use
his name sign if you know it.
-- Dr. Bill
In a message dated 7/31/2004 8:48:43 PM Pacific Daylight
Time, heydana@_______ writes:
I have taught ASL for about 6 years at a couple of local
colleges and have had the privilege of serving on the Board of
Directors for the local Center for the Deaf. I am hearing, but
have always utilized the wisdom and resources of my Deaf friends
and acquaintances to keep my curriculum relevant and my personal
relationships within the community respectful. In both cases, my
hearing students and my Deaf friends have always referred to me
as just "Dana" and not "Mrs. McCray". Here's why I share that
little bit of background. My husband (who's a middle school
teacher with just an elementary knowledge of ASL) asked me
something the other day that I'd never
had to address before. "If I was to introduce myself to a class
of Deaf students using ASL, how would I sign the word "mister"
as the title before my last name?". I looked at him and
shrugged. What IS the proper way to utilize titles? How do name
signs figure into this? I'm very aware of name signs for FIRST
names, but since all my relationships with Deaf individuals are
rather informal I've never seen anyone introduced as Mr. or Mrs,
Your observations are correct. In the Deaf community we do not
use "courtesy titles" (Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., and so forth) the
same way hearing people do. It is unlikely that you will ever
see a culturally Deaf person introduce another culturally Deaf
person as "Mr. / Mrs." so and so. Just as I started replying to
your email I received an IM (instant message) from a friend of
mine. I asked her if she recalled ever having seen "courtesy
titles" used at the Deaf School she attended. She emphatically
She also pointed out that when she introduces me to people she
does not include the "Dr." but simply spells "Bill Vicars" and
shows my name sign, (the index finger side of a "V" handshape
tapping the side of my head twice).
Hosts at Deaf conventions sometimes introduce their (Ph.D.
holding) guest speakers as "Dr." so and so. It depends on
the audience. If the audience is paying to come be educated by
an expert, then the audience members most likely want the
guest speaker to be introduced as "Dr."
If the convention or workshop is using a flyer or an overhead
projection and if the person has an academic title, we put the
"title" on the program or flyer then during the introduction we
simply spell the first and last name and then show the name sign.
When dealing with written English it is common for students to
use the "Dr." title when sending emails or letters to their
For example, in closing this email I will put "Dr." in front of
my name. Why? Because I'm going to post it at Lifeprint and many
of my readers enjoy calling me Dr. Bill. It is sort of my
As far as introducing your husband, I recommend writing "Mr.
McCray" on the board and then showing your students his name sign.
To the students then, the namesign means "Mr. McCray." To
your colleagues and friends though his name sign will simply mean
whatever his first name is.
TITLES or titles of address:
When signing in the Deaf
community we rarely use the "title" "Dr." as in "Dr. Vicars." We tend to
just use the person's name sign and are much less concerned with
"titles." Also, we only use the
DOCTOR sign when referring to "medical doctors." On those limited
occasions when we do refer to people who hold "doctor of philosophy" or
"doctor of education" degrees (such as introducing them at a conference)
we fingerspell "D-R." In college environments, when sending email to
instructors who hold doctorate degrees students should indeed type "Dr."
But in everyday conversations in the hallway, meetings, or classes it is
generally standard to just use the person's name sign (without adding
the title "Dr."). During formal meetings in academic settings involving
mixed cultural groups (Deaf and Hearing or instructors and students) you
may notice that when professional interpreters see a name sign they tend
to voice the title "Dr." along with the last name of the person being
referenced. That is because such interpreters are skilled at jockeying
between cultures. It is their job to recognize and bridge the cultural
differences. If the meeting is a small faculty meeting with no students
involved then the interpreter is much more likely to voice just the
first name of the person being referenced with a name sign. Again, that
is because the interpreter is aware of the setting and interprets in a
culturally appropriate manner.
Question: What about school settings? Isn't it important
that young children show respect to their teachers, counselors, and
the principal by using proper titles of address?
Answer: In the Deaf world a name sign is the way to
respectfully refer to a person. For example, imagine the first day
of class at a Deaf School. The students come in and the
teacher writes on the board: "Mr. Smith". He then turns around
and signs to the students, "MY NAME S-M-I-TH" and then taps an "S"
on the upper left area of his chest. Here we have a blending
of two cultures. By writing (in English) "Mr. Smith" on the board he
is informing the students of his English name and title. By
tapping an "S" on his chest he is informing the students that the
sign for "Mr. Smith" is an "S" tapped on the chest.
I've seen circumstances involving high-school age (and younger)
students where teachers who previously had a name sign consisting of
their first initial would adopt a new name sign consisting of their
"last" initial for use with their students. Such teachers would then
maintain two name signs. Their traditional, well-established
first-initial name sign for use in the adult community and the new
last-initial name sign for use with their students. For what
it is worth though, I see that sort of thing more in day-program
type settings than I do in traditional State-run residential schools
for the Deaf.
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