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Review of  Diachronic Perspectives on Address Term Systems

Reviewer: Margaret J-M Sonmez
Book Title: Diachronic Perspectives on Address Term Systems
Book Author: Irma Taavitsainen Andreas H. Jucker
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Czech
English, Middle
English, Old
Issue Number: 14.3049

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Taavitsainen, Irma and Andreas H Jucker, eds. (2003) Diachronic
Perspectives on Address Term Systems, John Benjamins Publishing
Company, Pragmatics and Beyond New Series 107.

Announced at

Margaret J-M Sonmez, Middle East Technical University, Ankara.

Like the other titles in the Pragmatics and Beyond New Series, this
volume aims at a specialist academic readership. Focussing almost
entirely on issues related to addressing the second person singular,
the papers presented here will appeal to those researching address
terms diachronically and to those who favour a synchronic
approach. The book will also be of use to students of power and
politeness in discourse.

Ordered as chronologically as is possible for material that covers
varying time spans, the chapters cover the following subjects: an
introduction to both the subject and the papers in the volume (Jucker
and Taavitsainen), the pragmatics of T/V usage (less vs. more formal
pronoun forms in the same grammatical person, from French ''tu''
vs. ''vous'') among learned circles in Chaucer's time (Burnley), T/V
in the Anglo-Norman play Seinte Resureccion (Hunt), variations in T/V
and nominal forms in Chaucer's Knight's Tale (Honegger), the
pragmatics of T/V in Middle High German compared to its
grammaticalised usage in Modern Standard German (Simon), Czech T/V and
nominal forms until 1700 (Betsch), salutational and closing address
forms in English family letters of the 15th to 17th century (Nevala),
T/V in 16th century Spanish family letters (Bentivoglio), T/V and
nominal address forms in the Shakespeare Corpus (Busse) and in King
Lear and Othello (Mazzon), markedness in T/V usage in King Lear and As
You Like It (Stein), T/V in two sub-corpora from the Lancaster and
Uppsala Corpus of English Dialogues 1560-1760 (Walker), Second person
plural marking strategies in non-Standard and non-British varieties of
English (Hickey's first paper), the use of and dialectologists'
attitudes to demonstrative pronouns in addressing and referring in
Finnish (Seppanen), subtleties of usage in the present-day standard
German T/V system (Hickey's second paper).

In a way, the book is almost too good. Being thorough in the subjects
it touches upon and showing internal consistency, it is so very nearly
a textbook that one could wish for a measure of rewriting in order to
go the whole way and make it really so. It seems that all that would
be needed would be for the introduction, which already mentions all
the main issues related to the subject, to be expanded to include more
historical background, allowing the subsequent chapters/ papers to
relinquish most of their own historical sections (a source of some
repetition), and for there to be an integrated bibliography and more
comprehensive index. Adjustments to the papers would be minor only,
because most of them already make references to each other, and show a
very high degree of cohesion. A lot more work than this would be
required in reality, of course, and the volume was not meant to be
such a work; but the overriding impression of this book remains one of
such thoroughness within the papers and such cohesion between them
that the shadow of the text-book it is not lies behind the reading of

Factors contributing to this thrice-mentioned cohesion will be taken
as a way of organising the comments that comprise the body of this
review. These are the limited number of languages represented, the
types of material used, a tendency to use the same model of
politeness, and the overall methodological approaches.

The editors note that all the papers are about (geographically)
European languages (3) and, in addition, that the ''collection is
clearly biased towards English'' (5). In spite of an attempt to
redress some sort of balance by presenting ''a brief outline of the
development of the Swedish address term system'' (6) in the
introduction, the eight papers about English combined with one on
Anglo Norman, and two on German result in a book that is refers mostly
to Germanic languages and Western European societies. The remaining
papers fit in well enough, however, given the closely related subject
matter, and are all the more welcome for the insights they provide
into the extents to which some of the social and linguistic factors
discussed in the other papers may be applicable within a broader
European area.

As can be seen from the summary of chapters, almost all of the papers
are concerned in some way or other with T/V systems, and this includes
Nevala's study of opening and closing address forms in letters. Only
Seppanen and Hickey's second paper do not focus on this issue. In
addition, since the writers provide sociohistorical explanations for
their (socio-linguistically and geographically related) data,
descriptions of the social and behavioural settings are included and
these necessarily repeat information given in other papers about the
same societies and periods.

Given the wide range of written materials available for research, it
may surprise readers to find a tendency for these papers to be based
on similar text types. A partial explanation must lie in the fact that
not all writings include high proportions of address terms. It is
nevertheless notable that, in spite of the extension of ''the scope of
acceptable data'' (7) that the editors attribute to the efforts of
pragmaticists, in this collection of papers literature still holds a
premier position. Letters follow as the next most popular source of
address forms, and legal documents are also referred to, as are
metalinguistic writings in the form of constructed dialogues from
Early Modern handbooks. Once more, Seppanen and Hickey (in both his
papers) stand out as different, in this case by reporting samples of
speech from other sources. Seppanen uses dialectological studies and
conversational analysis (377), Hickey in his first paper turns to many
secondary sources as well as corpora, and in his second he relies
again a variety of linguistic studies and, presumably, his own
personal observations. In total, eight out of the fourteen papers use
literary materials, three use letters and Sepannen and the Hickey
chapters account for the remaining three.

It is perhaps surprising to find literature still so much used in
linguistic studies of this kind. Even the 'dialogue' corpus uses such
material - ie plays. This indicates the persistence of the belief
that, to some extent at any rate, ''literary language . . . builds on
and intensified features that are spontaneous and commonplace in
ordinary conversation'' (Tannen 1984, cited in Sifianou 1992:8). The
strongest claim to generalisability of findings out of their own genre
comes from Bentivoglio, who comments on the ''semiformal variety of
speech'' which she finds reflected in the letters she studies,
claiming that her material provides an example of ''parlatto scritto''
(177). While personal response to our native language literatures,
letters or other written material may lead us to agree with such
comments, recent research has shown that the relation between speech
in its natural setting and its representation in any written text is
likely to be variable; extrapolating results from and between other
written genres carries the same limitations, as Taavitsainen and
Jucker note in their introduction (7). The editors discuss the issue
at some length (7-9), reflecting a concern raised by many of the
papers in this book, which note that their results should only be
generalised with caution, or not be generalized at all. Thus we find
Burnley noting that ''letters [. . .] may not reflect spoken usage''
(29), and asking ''How justified are we in expecting fictional figures
to reflect exactly the speech habits of real persons?'' (40). Busse
finds that, even within the drama of one writer, ''the literary genre
[tragedy vs comedy] [. . .] affects pronoun use to a statistically
significant degree''(215), and warns that ''we should not conclude
that the language of drama [. . .] bore any close resemblance to real
people talking [. . .]'' (216). Similar statements may be found in
the papers of Mazzon (223) and Walker (340).

Comments of this nature and the somewhat anxious way in which they are
appended to the results of meticulous research reflect the
unsatisfactory state of affairs in which variation between media,
registers and genres is known about and even well explained, but not
predictable or understood in terms of what happens to which linguistic
factors in which media, registers or genres. A start was made by Biber
1988, and Walker's paper in the present volume makes a useful
contribution in providing a comparison of T/V usage in trials,
depositions, comedy drama and language handbooks, but much more work
of this nature is needed. Meanwhile historical linguists are left with
fine results that cannot be fully utilized. In this case, detailed
pictures of T/V usage in past stages of various languages are
presented but we do not know how representative they may be of general
(spoken and written) usages. More seriously, we do not yet know to
what extent it is linguistically meaningful to speak of ''general
usage'' in speech or writing. If enough studies of individual genres
are carried out it should be possible to understand the relations
between its different genres and perceived norms for written language
as a whole, but it has to be admitted that this is a cumbersome way of
learning, and the relations between written and spoken language have
still hardly been touched upon. In the meantime it remains true that
most discourse research ''undertakes analyses of particular sets of
texts without specifying their relations to other kinds of texts''
(Biber, 206) although it is not here the case that such studies make
''the unwarranted assumption that findings can be generalized to
discourse as a whole'' (ibid.).

Brown and Levinson 1987 remains the dominant theoretical source in
this book as in so many works dealing with discourse and politeness
since its publication (more than half of the papers use a Brown and
Levinson explanatory framework for their findings). Over the years a
few possibly weak areas have been identified in this model but, as
Márquez Reiter and many others have noted, 'it has up to now
constituted the only comprehensive and explicit empirical theory of
politeness' (Márquez Reiter, xv). Most criticism of the Brown and
Levinson model have focussed on possible cultural bias, an area that
hardly concerns the papers in this book, since they all present
research in societies belonging to the same world as that giving rise
to the Brown and Levinson model. Furthermore, although Taavitsainen
and Jucker note that the Brown and Levinson approach ''can only
distinguish between polite and impolite behaviour [. . . not leaving]
room for an unmarked middle ground'' (11), and that Watts has provided
the term '''politic behaviour' for forms of behaviour within this
unmarked middle ground'', it is noteworthy that only two of the
contributors to the present volume (Nevala, Mazzon) use Watts' work,
nor has it proved to be a competitor to Brown and Levinson in the
field in general.

Where the Brown and Levinson model is not prominent, Brown and Gilman
1960 tends to be referred to, and the latter's ''T/V'' labelling of
pronouns is adopted in all papers, in spite of Taavitsainen and
Jucker's reservations concerning the ''simple power and solidarity
semantics proposed'' by their paper (4). Reference to these earlier
works does not always imply agreement with their conclusions or
methods, nor are they referred to by every paper (Betsch, for
instance, presents a detailed and scholarly paper without any need for
them) but it is noticeable that they are the dominant sources of
theoretical discussion in the book as a whole.

While this undoubtedly makes for ease of comparison of papers and the
data presented within them, it could also be seen as a weakness in
this field of study where there are few competing models available for
the interpretation of results from different languages and different
periods of time. There is a certain degree of danger that use of the
same model may conceal those features that the model does not cater
for. At the methodological level, and in theory at least, lack of
competing models is always worrying.

In general this volume exhibits the current popularity of data-driven
research. Reconstructions or reliance on linguistic commentary from
the past are not found here, although, as mentioned previously, in the
absence of other historical evidence Seppanen uses material gathered
by nineteenth century dialectologists.

The ''case-study'' (Stein, 252) approach taken by many of the
contributors to this volume demonstrates the best use of materials in
terms of descriptive finesse, both linguistically and socially. The
number of papers attempting to account for usages dismissed by
previous studies as exceptions or errors is notable. For Busse (215)
''exceptions are more important than mere exceptions . . .'', and even
Seppanen's work, which is not based on the same sort of data base as
those used in the other historical papers, is based upon a refusal to
accept previous scholars' generalisations about usage in the Finnish
language. Honegger raises the crucial issue of how language models
affect the interpretation of empirical findings when he openly
criticises the use of ''the all-purpose category of 'switching' ''as
''an attempt to save the 'systemlinguistik' model by allowing the
neglected 'situational' elements in by the backdoor, yet without
including them in the primary analysis'' (62). The issue of the
influence of theoretical stance on treatment of ''apparently
unsystematic variation'' (Simon, 92) is again raised by Simon, whose
comment that a linguistic ''situation which is characterized by
optionality and a certain amount of freedom is typical of a
pragmatically organized system (in contrast to a grammatialized one)''
(ibid, 93) goes some way to explaining the shift from exclusion of
irregular T/V usage in past studies to the present more
pragmatics-orientated interest in these irregularities.

These papers reveal T/V systems' great flexibility in reflecting
social and other inter-personal nuances, but they have only been able
to show this through techniques of analysis that are at the same time
data-orientated and context-sensitive. The last paper of the
collection, Hickey's work on contemporary German, in asking perhaps
the key question of the whole volume, shows that without their
methodological preferences for collocational study and concentration
on perceived irregularities it would scarcely have been possible for
these papers to reveal how (to adapt the terms of his question) binary
terms can express scalar distinctions.

As a concluding comment, it should perhaps be mentioned that this
book, which is so the very nearly a textbook on changes in European
address term systems, discusses a very dynamic area of language. There
have been many changes in the T/V type systems studied here. In spite
of their frequency in the world's languages, such systems, in European
languages at least, do not seem to be that stable. Their presence in
any of the languages investigated has been a medieval or late medieval
innovation, and they have changed through time. In many cases the
changes are rapid and great: the German system, for instance, where an
early form of T/V situation is found from the late ninth century
(Simon, 88), has shown a major change every century since the early
seventeenth century (illustrated by Simon on page 86). Within only
three centuries the Czech system added five forms to its originally
unique second person singular address form (illustrated by Betsch on
page 141). For French, ''the employment of the T/V forms in Old and
Middle French is often regarded . . .as completely unstable and the
two forms are still often thought of as feely interchangeable'' (Hunt,
47). The written English system developed a complex interaction
between T/V pronouns and other markers of politeness and affect for a
few hundred years starting in the mid 13th Century (Burnley, 28),
before rapidly jettisoning the system along with the useful
singular-plural distinction that 'thou'/'you' had also maintained, in
the 17th century. Since then (as Hickey shows in his first paper),
many non Southern-British dialects have developed alternative ways to
distinguish between singular and plural reference. In spite of
differences in appropriate registers, these relatively recent usages
do not seem to have engendered new T/V systems. In fact the general
pattern witnessed in the papers of this book seems to be one of
gradual simplification of the pronominal address term system, although
not necessarily of other aspects of address term systems, as Hickey's
second paper on contemporary Standard German usage shows.


Biber, Douglas. Variation Across Speech and Writing. Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 1988

Brown, Penelope and Steven C. Levinson Politeness. Some Universals in
Language Usage. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Nevalainen, Terttu and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg. Sociohistorical
Linguistics. London: Longman, 2003.

Márquez Reiter, Rosina Linguistic Politeness in Briatin and Uruguay.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000

Sifianou, Maria. Politeness Phenomena in England and Greece. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1999
Margaret Sonmez is Assistant Professor at the Middle East Technical University, where teaches Linguistics, the History of English, the History of Ideas, Methodology and Literature courses. Her research interests lie in the field of historical sociolinguistics, with a particular interest in Early Modern written English.