Anatol Stefanowitsch – Totally T/V

April 12, 2007

[A translation of a post by Anatol Stefanowitsch of Bremer Sprachblog. The original is here.]

Language doesn’t only allow us to exchange information about the world, it also serves to negotiate and signal interpersonal relationships.

This is something we do by means, amongst others, of so-called polite-forms (or honorifics). In the simplest cases, they can involve special forms of address, like sir and ma’am, which are frequently found in American English, or the somewhat superannuated mein Herr or gnädige Frau in German.

But they can also occur as inflectional endings, which constitute a stable component of the grammar of a language, as, for instance, in Korean. If I should like simply to say “I eat lunch” in Korean then the neutral form is as follows:

Na-nun cemsim-ul mek-nun-ta
I-TOP lunch-ACC eat-INDICATIVE-DECLARATIVE

But there are five further levels of politeness:

“deferential”
Na-nun cemsim-ul mek-sup-ni-ta
I-TOP lunch-ACC eat-RESPECT-INDICATIVE-DECLARATIVE
“polite”
Na-nun cemsim-ul mek-e-yo
I-TOP lunch-ACC eat-INTIMACY-POLITENESS
“familiar”
Na-nun cemsim-ul mek-ney
I-TOP lunch-ACC eat-FAMILIARITY
“intimate”
Na-nun cemsim-ul mek-e
I-TOP lunch-ACC eat-INTIMACY
“abrupt/direct”
Na-nun cemsim-ul mek-so/-uo
I-TOP lunch-ACC eat-DIRECT

To explain the intricacies of this very complex system would take us too far. A few years ago I was at a party in Berkeley, which apart from me was attended only by Koreans. We spent a large part of the evening imagining various situations and asking ourselves who would use which level of politeness in those situations. It quickly became clear that there are big individual differences, but also that which form is appropriate when depends on gender, age, profession and many other things. That somewhat crude classification of examples does demonstrate one thing, however. At least two different dimensions play a role here: respect and distance.

In German and in other European languages honorifics in the pronoun-system play a role. There are typically two different forms for the second person, often refered to in linguistics as the T-form and the V-form (named after the French tu and vous):

  T-form V-form
French tu vous
Spanish tu usted
Italian tu Lei
Russian ty vy
Swedish du ni
Hungarian te maga
German du Sie

The frequency of the V-forms varies strongly across the different languages. Whilst they are very frequent in French, that are hardly found any longer in the Scandanavian languages. The particular situations and social relationships that are marked by the use of the V form diverge also (a freely available paper on the topic is Helmbracht 2005). In general, however, it can be established that the same two dimensions that were mentioned above play a role: respect and distance.

The potential for friction, in all of this, lies in the fact that those two dimensions are expressed by means of a single distinction. Each of the two forms therefore has a double function: du can express closeness, but also lack of respect; Sie can express respect, but also distance. In each case, which dimension is intended depends on the situation and the relationship between the speaker and the addressee.

Which brings me to my topic. As a reader of this blog [Bremer Sprachblog], you [Sie] will certainly have noticed that in our posts and also in our responses to your comments we address you as ‘Sie‘. That’s not unheard of in the blogosphere, but it is definitely rare. And a few days ago, it elicited the annoyance of a reader, A.T.: he came to us via a link from Nils Reiters Goetheblog 3 (Nils, many thanks by the way for the link and first and foremost for the flattering comparison with Language Log) and then left the following comment:

Thanks for the link, but is that done in any other country, a blogger addressing his readers with ‘Sie’ in the comments?

I let myself in on the discussion and wrote the following:

Well, when I entered the blogosphere I gave some conscious thought to forms of address. Of course it’s clear to me that communication on the internet usually has a more informal character, especially in forums and blogs. Which would suggest that a general “Du” would certainly not be inappropriate (and I’m never offended when a reader calls me du). But still I thought that it can’t hurt to cultivate a polite tone, seeing as bloggers and readers are, to begin with, strangers.

That was formulated extremely imprecisely, and I can only excuse that by saying that I’ve no qualifications in pragmatics (pragmatics is a sub-discipline of linguistics which investigates T/V-forms, amongst other things). The V-form doesn’t codify politeness per se, but rather respect or distance, according to the situation. A.T. saw through my imprecise formulation immediately, and replied:

So that would make me impolite, because I call my readers du?
By the way, it can cause trouble, because on the internet using Sie is usually much rather considered to be impolite, ultimately it creates a certain distance, which in the blogosphere at least is uncommon. It’s like here in Sweden. If I used Sie I’d get funny looks, so consider yourself the recipient of a funny look ;)

For A.T. the internet itself (or at least the interactive part, so blogs and forums) creates such a great closeness between users that using Sie becomes primarily a signal of distance (an interesting discussion in this direction can also be found here). This distance is then felt to be impolite.

But for me, as I suggested in my response, quoted above, the internet is more a place where users initially encounter one another as strangers, strangers who may have a common interest, but who will not automatically become close friends. Foremost in my mind when I decided on Sie was the cultivatation of a respectful interaction between like-minded people. By no means do I wish to express distance thereby — I feel myself closely bound to the readers of the Bremer Sprachblog, say through a common interest in language and languages, and through the fact that together we constitute a part of the blogging subculture. For those reasons I shall definitely stick with Sie, however I am very interested to learn what your opinion is on the use of du and Sie on the internet.

HELMBRECHT, Johannes (2005). Typologie und Diffusion von Höflichkeitspronomina in Europa. Arbeitspapiere des Seminars für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Erfurt Nr. 18 [PDF].

STRAUSS, Susan & EUN, Jong Oh (2005). Indexicality and honorific speech level choice in Korean. Linguistics 43(3), 611–651.

Translated from the German by Marc Hiatt, 9.04.07. Published under this Creative Commons license.

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5 Responses to “Anatol Stefanowitsch – Totally T/V

  1. […] Stefanowitsch. Seit gestern kann man dort den Beitrag T/V Total in englischer Übersetzung lesen: Totally T/V. Herr Hiatt unterrichtet auch Deutsch und will den Beitrag verwenden, um seinen Schülern die […]

  2. Latke said

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation :) Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Latke
    .

  3. Halo said

    most informative. i have always been curious of the German language. thank you!

  4. Marc said

    Elisabeth Wagner, Sie? Du! Du? Sie!, Tagesspiegel 7.1.12.

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