you know the various pronouns in a language like he
and she, you need to choose the right
pronoun to fit a particular speech situation. He and she are singular and so are
used when you are talking about one person at a time: She is here. We and they are plural and so are used when you are talking about more than one person: They
are here. However the apparently straightforward distinction between singular I/she
and plural we/they can be overlaid
with other meanings.
is particularly true of the difference between potential singular and plural
forms of you in languages such
as French and Italian. Modern
English makes no difference between singular you
and plural you, apart from a few
marginal survivals of thou and ye.
Only in Newcastle will you still hear people in shops making a difference
between singular thank you and plural thank
languages, however, regularly distinguish singular and plural yous, but in a way that does not depend on the number of people
involved. In French, individuals who are close to the speaker socially are
called singular tu, Tu joues bien (you
play well); individuals who are more distant from the speaker are addressed with
plural vous, Vous jouez bien (you play
well). The difference between tu and vous,
ostensibly singular versus plural, is nothing of the kind: a single individual
can be referred to by a plural pronoun.
modern French singular tu acts as a
sign of closeness between friends, fellow-students, colleagues, and particularly
members of the family. Switching from calling someone vous to calling them tu shows
a change in the relationship of the speaker and listener or in the circumstances
of speaking. Mountain climbers are said to change from vous to tu above a certain
altitude when the common danger brings them closer together. In addition tu
has demonstrated political solidarity between speakers and listeners since at
least the days when the French Revolution insisted that all citizens addressed
each other as tu. At a French-speaking
academic conference in a left-wing university in the 1980s, tu was the only form used
in the talks and public discussions, clearly still a sign of social solidarity.
A second use of tu in French is for talking down to another person, say a child or an animal; tu implies the speaker has a higher social status. Teachers for example call their pupils tu. The sign that this is a matter of power is that the use of tu is not reciprocated; while one speaker says tu, the other vous, rather than both using tu. If you address your equal with tu, he or she may respond with the singular tu; if inferior, with the plural vous. In French-speaking Canada children address grandparents, priests and employers with vous, but the adults answer them with tu. So it is not just what you call other people that defines the relationship but what they call you. The social status function of tu in French has diminished in recent years, being partly undermined by the use of tu to show solidarity.
use of the singular plural you
distinction to show status and solidarity is so common in different languages
that it is known as the T V system, after the Latin tu
(T) and vos (V). Other languages in
Europe as well as French use singular T to show social closeness/solidarity
and plural V to show social distance/status. The Spanish T form is tu, the V form Usted; the
German T form is du, the V form Sie;
the Russian T form is ty, the V form vy; and so on. In languages such as Spanish the V form is the same
as a singular third person pronoun, Usted;
in others such as German, it is the same as a third person plural Sie.
all of these languages, T and V pronouns fit the social relationships between
speaker and listener, with slightly different overtones in each language. In the
German version of the good guy/bad guy police interrogation technique, the good
guy allegedly uses the V form Sie as a
sign of politeness, the bad guy uses the T form du to assert power over the suspect. Often the written form of the V
pronoun has a capital letter, as in German T du versus V Sie and
Italian T tu versus V Lei.
Speakers of these languages find it puzzling that English capitalises the first
person singular I rather than the
second person you.
how did this odd idea that plural you
means high status come about? One explanation is that it is an extension of the
royal we – We are not amused; kings
claiming to be plural established it as a sign of power and status, a usage
which gradually percolated down to other levels of society. Another is that,
during the fourth century AD there were two Roman emperors at the same time, one
in Rome and one in Constantinople. It was diplomatic to address either of them
in the plural, and so power came to be associated with plural.
reasons cannot, however, explain why this T V system occurs in languages
unconnected to Latin, such as Turkish, Basque, and Bengali. Nor is it
necessarily status and solidarity alone that are involved in the choice between
T and V. In Russian, choosing the appropriate T ty
or V vy form depends inter alia on the
topic of conversation, the age, generation and sex of the speaker, and the
precise family relationship.
languages use pronouns to reflect a complex range of social roles. In Japanese,
the choice between different pronoun forms is dictated by complex social
relationships between speaker and listener. The first person singular ‘I’
can be either watakushi, watashi, boku,
ore or atashi, according to the relative status and sex of the speaker and
listener. Watakushi is the most
formal form, used say to a social superior. The pronoun watashi is more neutral. Next come boku, which is the norm for men under 21, and ore, used only to close friends. In 1957 the Japanese Ministry of
Education approved boku for men
students but recommended they switched to watashi when they graduated. The choice of Japanese pronoun marks
the speaker’s and listener’s positions on a social scale. One first person
form chin, may only be used by the
Emperor. A further complication is the difference between the sexes. Men use the
first person pronouns watakushi, boku
or ore; either sex uses watashi;
but only women use atashi, which would
be a sign of gayness coming from a man. There are therefore difficulties for
male English students who are taught Japanese by a woman and never hear the male
status pronouns used naturally.
is not the only language to signal sex and status through choice of the first
person pronoun. In Thai the correct first person singular for addressing a
stranger is phoém
from a man, dìchaén from a woman; in informal conversation with family and friends, it
but kan if all the speakers are the
same sex; a child speaking to an adult uses nuéu.
Other first person forms are needed for addressing the king, kramçm’
coming from a man, kramçm’ chá from a woman. Thai speakers in fact have around 25
different first person pronouns to choose from in everyday circumstances.
then use pronouns to reflect diverse social relationships between the
participants. Until Japanese speakers know the social relationship between
them and the other participants, they do not know which pronouns to use to refer
to themselves or to the others. This is one reason for the frequent handing out
of name-cards to people; staring politely at the card allows you to work out
your relative position to them.
concept of social relationship is also important in European languages like
Polish. Anna Wierzbicka, a Polish linguist living in Australia, tells of two
expatriate Poles who had only talked English to each other for many years
suddenly having to talk in Polish and not knowing which pronouns to use because
they had never before had to think of each other in terms of the Polish pronoun
system. To an English speaker, the crucial aspects of the speech situation are
person and number. Other languages treat various social roles as being just as