How do you use ‘you’? by Terence Dunne

In our School of Languages and Cultures it is safe to assume that most of us have been involved in learning at least one other language. Native speakers of English may run into difficulty when learning another language because it can be difficult differentiating between the Terms of Address used in other languages. What are Terms of Address (ToA)? They encompass a wide range of words including pronouns such as ‘you’, but also nouns like ‘madam’ and ‘sir’, or even combinations of words, for example a title and last name (Dr Brown). However, here we will focus on pronouns. A great deal of cultural knowledge is needed in order to know when and with whom one should use the different forms.

Examples of pronominal Terms of Address in some languages:

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The different forms of ToA have become known as T- and V-forms. Brown and Gilman devised this terminology from the Latin pronouns tu and vos. Vos was originally used only with the emperor, while tu was used among people on familiar terms. Gradually the use of vos was extended to address other powerful figures. This is important as it encoded vos (and hence V-forms) with a power semantic, while tu (T-forms) showed solidarity. This means that in order to be polite we should be careful about how we use these forms. It is difficult to give exact equivalents in English, but think about when you would use a person’s title and last name – perhaps in a job interview. Depending on the situation and the interviewers it could be inappropriate to use first names.

However, Brown and Gilman’s central message focused on the changing relationship between these forms. They concluded that solidarity had become dominant. This shift probably had a lot to do with the other changes that were taking place in society in the 1960s. So if this is the case, why do we still bother learning V-forms?

The simple answer is that current ToA usage is somewhat more complicated that outline here. It takes a long time and much observation in order to use T/V-forms correctly. My research currently concentrates on Dutch which has four ToA (je, jij, jullie, u) and I decided to look at how these were used in television interviews. From recent studies on ToA it has been suggested that universities have continued to prefer V-forms. It is expected that professors would be addressed with ‘u’. When I looked at an interview with Professor Anita Elberse, a Dutch professor working at Harvard University, I was surprised to find that the presenter did not adhere to any traditional hard and fast rules about ToA usage. The presenter mostly used T-forms. This illustrates that these forms may have other functions.

What is interesting is the vacillation between the two forms. For general topics T-forms were used. However, when the presenter brought the conversation around to the professor’s role as an academic he changed to a V-form. This suggests that the form change had other functions. By changing to a V-form, the interviewee’s professional role was made central in the conversation. This marks a step away from the traditional power/solidarity divide to a more functional based view of T- and V-forms.

My research is at a very early stage and therefore warrants further investigation. Perhaps learners should be taught to focus more on the functional roles of ToA instead of the traditional formal/familiar dichotomy. We should pay more attention to how we all use ‘you’.


This blog grew from a presentation I delivered at the SLC Postgraduate Colloquium on 10th May 2013.

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