LINGUIST List 14.3049

Sun Nov 9 2003

Review: Pragmatics/HistoricalLing: Taavitsainen, et al.

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  • Margaret Sonmez, Diachronic Perspectives on Address Term Systems

    Message 1: Diachronic Perspectives on Address Term Systems

    Date: Sat, 08 Nov 2003 23:21:58 +0000
    From: Margaret Sonmez <>
    Subject: Diachronic Perspectives on Address Term Systems

    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 it.

    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 M�rquez Reiter and many others have noted, 'it has up to now constituted the only comprehensive and explicit empirical theory of politeness' (M�rquez 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.

    M�rquez 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.