Powerful plurals: Pronouns and statuS

Vivian Cook  
Online Writings 
Words site

Once 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.

This 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 yous.

Other 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.

In 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.

This 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.

In 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.

So 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.

These 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.

Some 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.

Japanese 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 is chaén, 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.

Languages 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.

The 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 important.

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