Sociolinguistics, solidarity and politeness

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 Generalisations concerning address systems
2.1 Basic concepts and origin of T/V distinction and address terms
2.2 Semantic differences and similarities among French and German T/V usage

3 Key topics in social interaction
3.1 Politeness
3.1.1 Positive realizations of politeness
3.1.2 Negative realizations of politeness
3.2 Face
3.3 Solidarity

4 Politeness and solidarity patterns in male/female discourse

5 Conclusion


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The purpose of the present paper from a sociolinguistic stance is to consider the aspects of solidarity and politeness including face-threatening acts from the point of view of their linguistic components, relevance for social interaction and their usage in male/female discourse. In addition, the apparent complexity of the sociolinguistic dimension of solidarity and politeness will be dealt with to give details to the function and consequence which arises from the use of address terms as well as politeness and solidarity patterns reflecting complex social relationships linguistically. In essence, this paper will show that certain linguistic choices a speaker makes indicate the social relationship that the speaker perceives to exist between his or her interlocutor

2 Generalisations concerning address systems

Aspects of social relationships, such as distance, solidarity or intimacy are given linguistic expression by address systems consisting of a T/V distinction and address terms. This way, speakers are given the chance to either be more formal or less formal with their interlocutor on certain occasions (Hickey 2007: 3). Hence, the aim of this chapter is to consider the basic concepts and terminology of a T/V distinction as well as forms of address and so pointing out the only two pronominal variants tu and vous of address in French and German which either represent social distance or intimacy between interlocutors. In addition, a general description of the semantic evolution of the two pronouns of address will be offered. In dealing with the pronouns of address in French and German from the point of view of their function in actual speech, this chapter describes on the one hand the semantic differences existing today among the pronouns of address and on the other hand contrasts these two languages in regard to their different usage of address pronouns in social relationships

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2.1 Basic concepts and origin of T/V distinction and address terms

Before I come to speak of the semantic differences of address pronouns in French and German, the sociolinguistically significant term of address as such needs to be defined as the basic concept of address theory (Braun 1988: 7). The term address denotes a speaker’s linguistic reference to his/her interlocutor. It does not include, according to Braun’s definition, linguistic means of opening interaction or of establishing first contact as compared to the contrast of anreden and ansprechen in German. Though forms of address may serve as a means of initiating contact, frequently other forms are used:

Hey! (English)

Sag mal,… (German)

Pardon! (French)

All these forms, as well as verbal and non-verbal greeting, is to be excluded from the given definition of address, so that address meaning only the main linguistic interaction without opening forms of address. Speaking of forms of address includes words and phrases that are used for addressing. These words and phrases refer to the interlocutor and thus contain deictic expressions designating the interlocutors, but not necessarily so, since their lexical meaning can differ from or even contradict the addressee’s characteristics. A pronoun of address such as English you can designate any person, alive or dead, without implying information about one’s social status. Besides, English you can also refer to ghosts, animals, to beings of any kind as well as to objects. So, if the function of address was to designate the individual interlocutor by means of a linguistic form, a name would do. But since one and the same person is addressed in many different ways by different speakers or even by one and the same speaker, the same address variant can be used for different addressees. Consequently, the person of the referent cannot be considered the “embodiment” of the meaning of an address variant, which is why the lexical meaning of the address variant can differ (1988: 258). Therefore, in most languages forms of address concentrate on three word classes: (1) pronoun, (2) verb and (3) noun, which are

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by words that are syntactically dependent on them. Concerning pronouns of address, it has to be mentioned that pronouns referring to the interlocutors are meant. These pronouns are second person pronouns such as English you, German du and Ihr, French tu and vous. Besides, the fact that modern English knows only you as a pronoun of address makes it rather difficult for English speakers to understand the ways in which most other languages express both the status of and the intimacy with the hearer unless they know other languages as well (Adler 1978: 170). As a consequence, other grammatical persons can act as pronouns of address if only they refer to the communication partner (Braun 1988: 7). As Brown and Gilman point out, the semantic evolution of the two singular pronouns of address begins with the Latin tu and vos with vos being used as a plural pronoun and later because of Diocletian’s reforms which administratively unified the imperial office, although governed by two men, vos came to be used as a singular pronoun of address designating social distance (1960: 255). In the following, these Latin tu and vos pronouns became tu and voi in Italian (with Lei eventually largely displacing voi); in French tu and vous; in Spanish tu and usted. In German the distinction began with du and Ihr but Ihr gave way to er and later to Sie. Similarly, English speakers first used thou and ye and later replaced ye with you which is why Brown and Gilman suggested to use the symbols T and V (derived from the Latin tu and vos) for convenience sake in order to thus designate a pronoun that either refers to social distance (V) or intimacy (T) in any language (1960: 254).[1] Considering the consequence and the semantic evolution of the usage of T and V pronouns of address, it was apparent that by medieval times the upper classes began to use V forms with each other to show “mutual respect and politeness” (Wardhaugh 1992: 259). Nevertheless, T forms of social intimacy or rather solidarity persisted among the lower classes with the upper classes using T forms only when addressing the lower classes. Contrary to this, V forms were on the one hand used by the upper classes amongst themselves to show respect

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rather politeness and on the other hand V forms were used by the lower classes when addressing the upper classes so that a social distance was established between these classes. In referring to Brown and Gilman (1960), Wardhaugh points out at that this T/V usage of upper classes addressing lower ones with T but receiving V forms of respect resulted in a non-reciprocal usage of asymmetrical patterns of address that therefore came to semantically symbolize a ‘power’ relationship such as officer to soldier, priest to penitent or master/mistress to servants (1992: 259; author’s emphasis). This power semantic is based upon a strict rule in which the superior says T and the inferior addresses the superior with the V form. In contrast to this power semantic of the non-reciprocal usage of T/V pronouns of address usage, the reciprocal V usage of symmetrical address terms, that is when both interlocutors independent of class address each other with the V pronoun of address, then this usage of V forms, as Wardhaugh puts it, becomes ‘polite’ usage. On the basis of this statement, the V form can be used by both interlocutors to indicate politeness as well as social distance along with the T form now being used by both to show solidarity (Lambert/Tucker 1976: 2). But the non-reciprocal T/V usage can still be used to express status differences, at least in American English when for instance, one person addresses another with a first name and expects a title plus last name in return, for example: ‘Is that you, Max?’ ‘Yes, Mr. Adams.’ (1976: 2). Besides, the non-reciprocal T/V usage in American English can express power or condescension as in the following example when Dr. Alvin Poussaint, an African American psychiatrist, tells of being accosted by police and asked, “What’s your name, boy?” to which he replied “Dr. Poussaint,” “No”, the cops responded, “what’s your first name, boy?”. Both the insistence on a first name and the use of boy as an address form showed that adult black men were being consigned to the lowly status of children, denied the respect accorded their white peers (Eckert/McConnell-Ginet 2003: 162). In English, all kinds of T/V usage or rather address terms combinations, whether reciprocal or non- reciprocal, are possible: Dr Smith, John Smith, Smith, John, Johnnie, Doc, Sir, Mack and so on, with Dr Smith himself expecting to be addressed Doctor from a patient, Dad from his son, John from his brother, Dear from his wife and Sir

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a police officer (Wardhaugh 1992: 265; author’s emphasis). Nonetheless, even if non-reciprocal T/V usage can still be found, the solidarity pronoun of address T has tended to replace the power semantic of the non-reciprocal T/V usage as well as the mutual V form of politeness since solidarity is, according to Wardhaugh, often more important than politeness in personal relationships such as father and son, and employer and employee (259). Now, after having described in detail the basic concepts, the terminology and the semantic evolution of the two pronouns of address, I will go on to discuss the T/V usage of pronouns of address by contrasting French and German

2.2 Semantic differences and similarities among French and German T/V

According to Brown and Gilman, the many particular differences among these two languages are “susceptible of a general characterization” (1960: 263). One contrast concerning French and German T/V usage is that the German T is more reliably applied within the family whereas the French T is frequently used when addressing the grandfather and the elder brother’s wife. Apart from that, the differences in T/V usage become also evident since German T is automatically applied on father, mother, wife, married elder brother and remote male cousin. In contrast to that, the French T is not automatically applied to remote relatives, but, unlike the German du pronoun, it is more often used to express the camaraderie of fellow students, fellow clerks, fellow countrymen abroad and fellow soldiers. In general, as Brown and Gilman put it, the solidarity coded by the German T is an ascribed solidarity of family relationships, whereas the French T stands for an acquired solidarity which is not founded on family relationship but based on some sort of shared fate. Here, it made obvious that there is a semantic rule governing T and V usage similarly in French and German. The rule is that, as I already mentioned before, the usage is reciprocal, that is both interlocutors using symmetrical address patterns which is why the usage of T in French and G

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becomes increasingly probable of solidarity-producing attributes shared by two people in contrast to V usage which becomes less probable (264). In short, the reason why French and German differ from one another lies in the various attributes of persons which can serve to generate solidarity. Therefore, the important attribute for German T usage is based on the ascribed family membership while acquired fellow characteristics are important attributes for French T usage. Next, I will point out the non-reciprocal T/V forms of address still used in German and in French in which these languages are similar to each other. First, there is the non-reciprocal address used to the superior person: the older, the female, or the hierarchical superior in French usage with the pronoun il or elle giving the extraordinary respect: Monsieur veut-il prender son petit déjeuner? (Does gentleman wish to have his breakfast?) or Madame prendra du café? (Will the lady have some coffee?). Social distance is, according to this example, also indicated by the use of titles and names (Ager 1990: 210). This is similar to German since it has professional address forms, which are yet more specific in contrast to French address forms restriction to academic titles or government positions since German uses the position of an individual in address, e.g. Herr Pförtner, können Sie bitte die Tür aufmachen? (Mr. porter, could you open the door?) (Hickey 2007: 6). This given Denomination of one’s professional position is typical of a German non-reciprocal address form and doesn’t exist in French (or in English as the translation shows). But nonetheless, names or titles similar to the French Monsieur or Madame are also used in German between waiters and their customers as in, Hat die Dame noch einen Wunsch? (Does the lady have another wish?) (Braun 1988: 11). Second, the usage of the unsolicited T form in French and German is likewise problematic. While many non-standard French speakers, for example those from Africa, use T more widely and thus come to conflict with social norms in France, since an unsolicited T is perceived as an insult (Ager 1990: 210), in Germany the usage of the unsolicited T without the consent of the addressee entails a lack of respect or a severe imposition as well (Hickey 2007: 11). For example the common used apology in German Ich hoffe, ich bin Ihnen nicht zunahegetreten (I hope I did not impose on you) implies that unsolicited T

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has been used before which is only permitted if the addressee shows mutual consent. To conclude, both in French and German there are differences concerning the attribute for German and French T usage but in regard to the non-reciprocal address and the usage of the unsolicited T, French and German show similarities


[1] Throughout my paper, I will make use of these T and V symbols for tu and vous whenever comparing which function of solidarity or politeness of the pronouns of address is used

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Sociolinguistics, solidarity and politeness
University of Duisburg-Essen
Language Variation and Change
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Sociolinguistics, Language, Variation, Change
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Hildegard Schnell (Author), 2007, Sociolinguistics, solidarity and politeness, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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