LINGUIST List 31.1697

Wed May 20 2020

Review: Discourse Analysis; Pragmatics; Sociolinguistics: Bouissac (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 09-Mar-2020
From: Susan Burt <>
Subject: The Social Dynamics of Pronominal Systems
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Paul Bouissac
TITLE: The Social Dynamics of Pronominal Systems
SUBTITLE: A comparative approach
SERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 304
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Susan Meredith Burt, Illinois State University


This volume, which grew out of a 2015 panel at a conference of the International Pragmatics Association (IPrA), sets as its goal to “probe the pragmatic functions of personal pronouns in a representative set of languages and cultures.” (p. 1) The introduction to the volume, by the editor, gives the first indication that the social dynamics of the volume title may indicate the dynamics of interaction rather than the dynamics of system change because only some of the twelve chapters that follow address historical change in pronoun systems. Nevertheless, it is clear that Bouissac has a diachronic perspective in his sights, as he generalizes that pronouns and demonstratives “are rooted in primal indexical acoustic signals” (p. 2), and further notes that usage may change despite the presence of literacy. Furthermore, pronoun systems can be politically sensitive, especially in languages like French, whose pronoun systems reflect the sometimes prescriptive rules of a system with grammatical gender. Bouissac demonstrates other links that pronouns have to social dynamics: 1) they can act as social markers, indicating perceived social distance or hierarchy; 2) echoing Stetter (2013), Bouissac notes that pronouns used in address can function as speech acts, and finally, 3) pronouns reveal information about their societies—is the society egalitarian or hierarchical, for example? In this sense, pronoun usage change may reflect social change, and may be evolutionary or engineered. The rest of the introduction includes a chapter-by-chapter outline of the volume.

The first chapter, “N-V-T, a framework for the analysis of social dynamics in address pronouns,” by Manuela Cook, takes the V and T of its title from Brown and Gilman (1960), who introduce a shorthand V for the French pronoun ‘vous’ and T for ‘tu’, both second person pronouns, the first encompassing plurality, social distance, formality, and respect, the second singularity, social closeness, informality, and familiarity. Cook argues that the current status of English ‘you’, which encompasses none of these distinctions, argues for the need of an N value, for ‘neutral.’ Even languages that maintain the T and V distinction sometimes have need for a neutral choice, such as French impersonal ‘on’. Similarly, languages like English, with only a N pronoun, have recourse to other address terms such as ‘Madam’ or ‘honey’, to signal a V or T relationship. But V and T both have ambiguities (Burt 2002): T can convey intimacy or contempt; V may show respect, but may also push the addressee away into the social distance. For these reasons, Cook argues that N second person pronouns deserve more study.

Nick Wilson takes up pseudo-inclusive ‘we’ in Chapter 2, “When ‘we’ means ‘you’: The social meaning of English pseudo-inclusive personal pronouns.” It is well known that English ‘we’ can be ambiguous as to whether the speaker intends to include the hearer or not, but in this usage, the speaker excludes him/herself, in a usage that may sound condescending. Wilson argues, however, that in the rugby team he researched, the coaches used the pseudo-inclusive to construct a stance that allowed the coaches to critique players’ performance but at the same time to contribute to team solidarity and morale.

In the third chapter, “A social-semiotic approach to the personal pronominal system in Brazilian Portuguese,” Monica Rector and Marcelo da Silva Amorim argue that the pronoun system makes visible particular Brazilian identity and subjectivity. There seems to be both variation and change: second person plural ‘vos’ is claimed to have vanished from urban varieties, while a gender-neutral third person plural ‘elxs’ appears in some written texts. Given a wealth of changes to the pronoun system, the authors urge Brazilians to avoid prescriptivism.

Both English and Portuguese are the focus of Manuela Cook’s Chapter 4, “Address pronouns and alternatives: challenges and solutions when translating between two polycentric languages.” She argues that translators need to know the histories and the variations of pronoun systems in both their languages, since second person pronouns in particular can vary as well as be subject to dynamics of usage. While English has a N (neutral) system in the second person, T and V semantics are nonetheless available to English speakers in the form of address nominals, for example. In contrast, Portuguese has a range of second person realizations available:

Onde estás (T)
Onde está o senhor? (V)
Onde está você (N)

Furthermore, ‘você’ and ‘te’ may be coreferential, as in: Onde está você? Eu nao te vejo (‘Where are you (N)? I don’t see you (T) ’). Translators and interpreters need to be aware of the sociolinguistics of both languages in order to convey the nuances of each.

Chapter 5, “T-V address practices in Italian: Diachronic, diatopic and diastratic analyses,” by Constantino Maeder and Romane Werner, undertook an interesting and complex problem but arrived at at least one questionable conclusion. Using a corpus of fictional narratives written by both women and men, the authors try to account for the distribution of two Italian non-T pronouns, ‘Voi’ and ‘Lei,’ in terms of time, geography, and gender preferences. They find that ‘Lei’ usage has increased over time, at the expense of ‘Voi,’ and is used more in the south of Italy than in the north. However, on the basis of frequency of use in fiction, the authors conclude that woman writers of fiction are less polite than men, given their greater use of T. This conclusion seems to ignore the pragmatic ambiguity of address choices in T-V systems, as well as the fact that the presentation of fiction does not necessarily correspond to the interactional propensities of the authors.

In Chapter 6, “Forms and Functions of French personal pronouns in social interactions and literary texts,” Paul Bouissac notes that the use of personal pronouns can both signal and create or enforce social relationships. This wide-ranging chapter perhaps tries to cover too much, in linking address pronouns to primate alert/call systems, and in linking grammatical person to phoneme type (p. 137). The author is on more certain ground in the pragmatics of present-day usage, noting that “any unexpected use, whether accidental or deliberate, carries more than simple linguistic information” (p. 143), giving examples of relationship-changing reactions to unexpected second-person pronoun choices.

George van Driem, in Chapter 7, “The dynamics of Nepali pronominal distinctions in familiar, casual and formal relationships,” covers a wide-ranging sociopragmatic analysis of second person pronouns and real or fictive kinship terms used for address in Nepali. The system reflects a hierarchical social organization that van Driem acknowledges that Westerners might be uncomfortable with (p. 154); he nevertheless approves asymmetric pronoun usage between husbands and wives: “within this very real asymmetry, intimacy may thrive” (p. 155). A discussion of courtly and royal registers’ address forms leads to a discussion of language change, including some pronunciation developments (a localized in-group variety, perhaps?) that van Driem does not approve of, which he attributes to contact with English, “an Anglo-Saxon twang” (p. 189). He writes: “Nepali stewardesses and some female Nepali ground staff appear to be professionally afflicted with this condition so much that the deformation of their pronunciation in some cases severely compromises the intelligibility of their Nepali “ (p. 189). I was surprised that this blatantly prescriptive and sexist meander into issues not concerned with pronouns escaped the attention of the editors. It marred an otherwise interesting chapter.

Bing Xue and Shaojie Zhang explore varieties of first-person reference terms in Chapter 8, “The Chinese pronominal system and identity construction via self-reference.” While Chinese has a first-person singular pronoun ‘wo’, speakers employ a variety of descriptive expressions to construct their own identities in discourse. Kinship terms, relational terms, even epithets that the interlocutor has used, seriously or jocularly, against the speaker can combine with ‘wo’ or be used without the pronoun to self-refer; the current reviewer notes that English speakers can do this as well.

One of the most interesting chapters is “Pronouns in an Eighteenth Century Chinese Novel” by Cher Leng Lee (Ch. 9). Lee undertakes to explain instances of singular pronouns being used for plural referents, as well as plural pronouns being used for singular referents, in first, second and third persons. Lee uses as a corpus the first 80 chapters of the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, which seems to have an extensive cast of characters emotionally entangled in a complex family hierarchy. Here, a speaker may use a first person plural for self-reference to express humility, distance from or disapproval of others, or to avoid focus on one’s singular self—all very different from the “royal we” semantic in some English-language usage. Similarly, use of a second person plural pronoun to a singular addressee may convey speaker superiority or distance from or displeasure with the addressee—very different from the deference that Brown and Gilman (1960) see in Western European language usages. On the other hand, a singular second person pronoun addressed to more than one person, such as a group of servants, serves to diminish the importance of the group in the eyes of the speaker. Similarly in the third person, use of a singular pronoun to refer to plural referents conveys that those referents are “of little significance” (p. 230) to the speaker.

In Chapter 10, “Me, myself, and ‘ako’: Locating the self in Taglish tweets,” Dana Osborne uses a corpus of 56 publically accessible tweets whose writers codeswitch between English and Tagalog; the goal is to question whether the first person singular forms in both languages index the same self of the tweeter. Osborne argues that the codeswitched tweets give the tweeters the option to set up a Bakhtinian heteroglossia, which allows the tweeter to contrast two different versions or views of her/himself.

Michael C. Ewing and Dwi Noverini Djenar undertake to sort out reference and address in multiparty interactions in Chapter 11, “Address, reference and sequentiality in Indonesian conversation.” The authors argue that pronouns form an open class in Indonesian in that the class can accept new members, including from other languages, fairly easily (p. 256). Thus, speakers of Indonesian have access to a large set of terms to choose from when using address to select the next speaker in a multiparty talk exchange, an enriched set of pronouns as well as names and other nouns. Speakers may use the language’s affordances to select among interlocutors and also to indicate stance, although misunderstandings may of course occur.

In the final chapter, “Pronouns in affinal avoidance registers,” Nicole Kruspe and Niclas Burenhult distinguish between languages with honorifics, which are addressee-focused and reflect a hierarchical social organization, and languages with affinal avoidance, which are bystander-focused and occur in more egalitarian communities. They focus on the Aslian family of languages, spoken in the Malay Peninsula, “an island in what is otherwise a sea of well-described honorific systems” (p. 292), specifically on the pronoun systems of six language communities, Jahai, Ceq Wong, Semaq Beri, Semelai, Mah Meri, and Temian. Each of these languages shows a pronoun system in which the second-person pronoun may be tabooed for cross-sex parent-in-law and cross-sex child-in-law. Each language has its own wrinkles in its avoidance system in terms of proscribing (or not) affinal mention or interaction, and distinguishing how far into the affinal kin network the avoidance or joking behavior extends. Punishment for breaking these taboos is enacted by supernatural forces, though the nature of the supernatural and the nature of the punishments vary among the communities.


As mentioned above, it remains unclear—perhaps through strategic vagueness—whether historical or interactional dynamics of pronoun systems are the focus here; the volume includes chapters with both kinds of questions. The goal of including “representative” (of what?) languages may mean that this is a sample of convenience, rather than an attempt to achieve some kind of “coverage.” The inclusivity of the volume and the breadth of allowable topics and methodologies may be causes of the slight unevenness of focus and quality of the chapters. At the same time, while I often wish that volumes like this one would include a final chapter that makes explicit connections among chapters, languages, discoveries, I realize that such a chapter would be as difficult to craft as it would be valuable to read.

Nonetheless, the volume contains much that will interest any scholar of language usage: Cook’s introduction of the N value in second person pronouns in Chapter 1, and her illustration of the notion’s usefulness in Chapter 4 can do much to develop our understanding of address systems. While Chapter 8 shows a usage option in Chinese that seems to parallel one in English, Chapter 9 shows Chinese usages of second person singular and plural that allow interpretations quite at odds with those of some Western European languages. Chapter 12 provides an intriguing view of the effects of prescribed or at least expected avoidance behavior on a pronoun system, a phenomenon that may merit more attention in theoretical treatments of (im)politeness and interaction. Taken altogether, the volume opens doors for further pursuit of pronominal intricacies in the world’s languages, and is likely to interest scholars not only in pragmatics, but also in linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics, politeness research, and interaction.


Brown, Roger, and Albert Gilman. 1960. The Pronouns of power and solidarity. In Thomas Sebeok, ed., Style in Language, pp. 253-276. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Burt, Susan Meredith. 2002. Maxim Confluence. Journal of Pragmatics 34,8: 993-1001.

Stetter, Christian. 2013. On the case of the vocative. In Barbara Sonnenhauser and Patrizia Noel Aziz Hanna (eds.) Vocative! Addressing between System and Performance, pp. 305-318. Berlin: DeGruyter Mouton.


Susan Meredith Burt is Professor Emerita of Linguistics in the English Department at Illinois State University. When not distracted by ''real-world'' cataclysms, she enjoys learning about language ideologies, linguistic anthropology, address practices, pronouns, and (im)politeness. Her most recent publication is ''Person-referring expressions, reference nominals, and address nominals: Informalization in an Illinois neighborhood social group,'' in Bettina Kluge and María Irene Moyna (2019) It's not all about 'you,''' (Benjamins). Personal pronouns are her favorite part of speech.

Page Updated: 20-May-2020