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Tu Vous Power Solidarity Notes

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Olivia Alter

MT10 Dr Temple

Brown and Gilman appeal to notions of 'power' and 'solidarity' to account for the use of tu and vous as pronouns of address in French. How successful is an explanation in these terms?

From a traditionalist perspective in the early twentieth century, pronouns were seen simply as a substitution for nouns and nominals. However, it was only later in the century with the development of pragmatics and linguistic anthropology, linking the analysis of linguistic forms and processes to the interpretation of sociological processes, that people started to view pronouns as linguistic signs through which multiple meanings can be expressed. In French, for instance, pronouns are now generally seen as a key linguistic device in the expression of social distinction, where 'tu' is the marked singular for a particular sort of intimacy or informality, and 'vous' is not only the unmarked plural, but also the unmarked singular for relatively formal conversation. The choice entailed in the usage of second-person pronouns as a form of address suggests, from a sociological point of view, that there is an underlying meaning the speaker is aware of, or may even create, and which is thus acknowledged through the preference of one form over another. Brown and Gilman's study of major European languages in 19601 was one the first works recognizing that speakers can demonstrate or even negotiate their attitudes towards others through employing different pronouns. They account for the varying emergence of either 'tu' or 'vous' in French pronominal address by discerning the determining factors of 'power' and 'solidarity', whereby speakers with a superior social status use 'tu' towards others and receive 'vous' (and vice versa for speakers of a lower status), but in situations where the power value is roughly equal, reciprocal usage appears. They also felt that a description of the system in these terms could explain an apparent shift towards a more generalized usage of 'tu'. Nevertheless, Brown and Gilman have come up against criticism more recently, since some linguists consider the notions of 'power' and 'solidarity' to be somewhat lacking in the depth of sociopsychological analysis. Non-reciprocal social relationships may appear to be conducive to non-reciprocal forms of address, but the pronominal system in French is much more complex than this, and a semantic approach such as theirs may not necessarily take into 1

Brown, R. & A. Gilman (1976)

Olivia Alter

MT10 Dr Temple

account the fact that social relations are not just reflected in language usage, but may actually be defined by that very usage itself. In 'Pronouns of Power and Solidarity', Brown and Gilman map out a history of French, German and Italian in terms of how these languages developed their pronominal address system from the Latin terms 'tu' and 'vos'. They base their account of the employment of different pronouns on a two-dimensional system of power and solidarity, so that the greater the distance between two people on either dimension, the greater the probability of V usage (where V refers to 'vos' or, in French, 'vous'). Power, they explain, establishes a non-reciprocal relationship, distinguishing between different social statuses. The distinction began as one of number, where the Latin 'vos' was employed as a reverential form for emperors. Head's study, comparing pronominal reference in over a hundred languages, confirms that the pluralized form is a basic marker of deference in many languages, not simply those which Brown and Gilman consider to be linked2. Thus 'vos' may have been used because there were joint rulers in Latin antiquity, but could also be explained by the idea that an emperor represents the people, highlighting how speakers use language as a means to indicate their social environment. Whichever explanation holds, Brown and Gilman continue on to describe how, by medieval times, this V form in French had extended to power structures within the social hierarchy, and having been introduced at the top, 'tu' then became characterized as a lower class form, so that in the interaction of different classes, a nonreciprocal address system was established. This asymmetric pattern, whereby upper class speakers referred to those lower in the hierarchy as 'tu', and the lower classes used 'vous' for anyone higher than them, is therefore assumed to symbolize a power relationship, but has also spread in modern French to any social relationship determined by factors that could place interlocutors on a scale to signal distance, such as age (parent-child) or social function (priest-penitent). At the same time as this power semantic spread through the hierarchy of medieval society, Brown and Gilman note a 'solidarity' semantic in the symmetrical pattern of pronominal usage. Upper classes used a reciprocal V form amongst themselves, since not all social differences implied a difference in power, but rather, similarities regarding more 2

Head, B. E. (1978)

Olivia Alter

MT10 Dr Temple

socially determined behavior such as religious or political membership, meant 'vous' could be a marker of mutual respect. Brown and Gilman believe that, nowadays, the notion of solidarity has become the more important concept determining a French speaker's choice, since a 'solidary' does not necessarily refer to an intimate group of blood-relations, but can reflect social groupings on the wider level of the community as a whole. 'Tu' remained as a variable feature in medieval times, but was always associated with a very particular, intimate social relationship, whilst 'vous' suggested formality. Hence 'tu' is now used by people of equivalent status who may be interacting over an extended period of time, such as neighbors or co-workers, and Brown and Gilman even go so far as to suggest that a mutual 'tu' will inevitably replace mutual 'vous' as the expression of solidarity. Asymmetrical usage determined by a social hierarchy will always indicate power relations of some sort, yet non-reciprocity is disappearing from Western European languages, as has happened in English where 'thou' is recognized only as an antiquated pronominal form. In a modern, democratic, post-war world where the use of 'tu' is less restricted in both public and private contexts, and there is an increase in the number of relationships which could result from a 'common fate', relative intimacy has a greater influence on the pronominal address system. Brown and Gilman support this with evidence of the behavior of upper class youths attempting to establish a generalised 'tu', which then identifies them with more liberal political ideologies. Eckert's research of Pyrenean communities3, where the local Gascon is ceding to French, also found that youths were starting to 'tutoyer' their parents even when they spoke Gascon, illustrating rules of solidarity rather than respecting an established hierarchy. Bates and Begnini's confirms this idea on a larger scale as well, since their study was of Italian pronominal usage, but they find an interesting paradox whereby lower class youths are more formal, employing the V form more frequently than their upper class peers, perhaps in an attempt to present themselves as upwardly mobile4. However, this behavior reflects hypercorrection, since these speakers believe they are imitating the upper classes, whilst the usage of people their age but higher up the social hierarchy is actually changing. This 3

Eckert, P. (1981), 'Notes on pronominal strategies in a bilingual community', quoted in Gardner-Chloros, P. (1991) 4 Bates, E. & L. Begnini (1975)

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