Monthly Archives: March 2011

Language and human relations

Language and human relations: Styles of address in contemporary language. By Michael Clyne, Catrin Norrby, and Jane Warren. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 184. ISBN 9780521182379. $39.99.

Reviewed by Susan Meredith Burt, Illinois State University

This volume focuses on the sociopragmatics of choosing appropriate terms of address, both nominal and pronominal, in German, French, English, and Swedish. The authors’ team recruited and recorded focus groups of native speakers in several cities for each language, collected questionnaires, and conducted interviews with speakers and members of their social networks on choosing address terms in a variety of situations.

Ch. 1 provides basic information about the address term repertoire of each of the four languages. French, German, and Swedish all have two second person pronouns, a V (as in vous) and a T (as in tu) form; modern standard English dialects lack the distinction, but in common with the other three languages have first names, last names, titles (Doctor, Professor), and what the authors call honorifics, the Ms., Mrs., Miss, and Mr. equivalents. While French and German are somewhat similar in the distribution of T and V, Swedish is presented as more ‘radical’, having changed from ‘high formality’ in address to generalized use of T.

Ch. 2 reviews literature on address terms since 1960, the date of Roger Brown and Albert Gilman’s seminal paper that linked T with a ‘solidarity’ semantic and V with a ‘power’ semantic. Subsequent research has shown this to be somewhat oversimplified; even with only one second-person pronoun (disregarding regional thou and you-plural variants), English address terms offer a variety of choices, from endearments and familiarized first names (Susie), to title-plus-surname and nominal honorifics (Madam). In addition, each of the four languages has its own address form history. Finally, the chapter reviews address forms in terms of politeness, social distance, status or power, style, and identity.

Ch. 3 argues for the ‘need to search beyond static social variables to explain choice of address’ (37). Thus, V is the default address pronoun in French and German, but in Swedish T is expected and V is marked. The goal of the chapter is to explore motivations that prompt less-expected address pronouns and the methods used to move to a T relationship. The factors of age and status are explored for all four languages, and in a section on ‘perceived commonalities’ it is shown how similar backgrounds, interests, attitudes, or affinities can lead to T in French or German despite age or status differences, while perception of social distance or economic status difference can lead Swedish speakers to choose the marked V form.

Ch. 4 argues that address term choices are also a function of domains, and explore address for all four languages in the family, school, university, and workplace, in which issues of signaling social distance or inclusion are primary. In addition, the authors discuss the complexities of address term choice in service transactions, letters, and computer-mediated communication. Ch. 5 explores national variants, such as greater use of T in former East Germany, non-reciprocal address conventions at Viennese universities, use of V in Finland Swedish with younger addressees than in Sweden, and greater use of Sir and Madam in England than in Ireland.

The final chapter offers a model for address term choice designed to reflect the multidimensionality of address phenomena, and a discussion of sociopolitical factors (including language contact) that can change address systems of pluricentric languages. Although the organization of material by subtopic rather than by language is occasionally disconcerting, overall this volume will be of great interest and value to scholars in sociolinguistics, sociopragmatics, politeness, and relational practice.

Language usage and language structure

Language usage and language structure. Ed. by Kasper Boye and Elisabeth Engberg-Pedersen. (Trends in linguistics. Studies and monographs 213.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2010. Pp. xiv, 354. ISBN 9783110219173. $140 (Hb).

Reviewed by Eitan Grossman, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

This thematic volume, a Festschrift for Peter Harder, deals with one of the liveliest questions in contemporary linguistics, the nature of the relationship between usage and structure. While the authors work in a variety of frameworks, most adopt a usage-based approach in some form; only one contribution is written from a generative point of view. The studies in this volume reflect the growing acknowledgment of an intermediate position in which structure emerges from usage, which in turn presupposes and is constrained by structure. A common thread is the rejection of the radical ‘emergent grammar’ position that generative critics often take as representative of usage-based approaches as a whole.

Part 1 deals with clausal complementation. Frederick Newmeyer argues that Sandra Thompson’s treatment of complement-taking predicates is untenable and that the facts support a Chomskyan conception of grammar. Arie Verhagen responds to Newmeyer, proposing that the Chomskyan principles of autonomy and abstractness can be explained by a usage-based approach. On the basis of discourse prominence, Kasper Boye distinguishes between raising verbs and auxiliaries.
Part 2 is devoted to the emergence of structure. Ronald Langacker proposes a dynamic conception of structure and critiques ‘emergent grammar’. Lars Heltoft re-integrates the notions of paradigm and paradigmatic structure into usage-based approaches, providing a welcome bridge between structuralist and functionalist thought. Talmy Givón asks ‘Where do simple clauses come from?’ from an ontogenetic and phylogenetic point of view. He proposes that there are two co-existing language processing modes, the ‘grammatical’ and ‘pre-grammatical’, and that multi-word verbal clauses evolved out of one-word non-verbal clauses through the pervasive mechanism of transferring information from context to code.

The papers in Part 3 are concerned with the relationships between structure, usage, and variation. Elisabeth Engberg and Mads Poulsen deal with variation in the agreement (‘trigger-happy agreement’) of predicate adjectives, based on a corpus-based study and a reading-time experiment. They conclude that deviations from subject agreement are probably production errors that might serve as starting points for sociolinguistically or functionally motivated language change.

Dick Geeraerts emphasizes Harder’s recognition of social variation as a contribution to the usage-based model. Based on a study of spoken Dutch, he argues for a variationist model of language, with networks of lectal systems replacing ‘the’ language. J. Lachlan Mackenzie reacts to Harder’s reservations about the integration of processing notions like incrementality into language structure in functional discourse grammar. Maj-Britt Mosegaard Hansen attempts to reconcile structure and usage. She argues that this can be done by replacing the Saussurean conception of the linguistic sign with a Peircean one, which has the advantage of accounting for variation (and thus language change) by incorporating a pragmatic dimension into the sign itself.

In the final essay, William Croft exposes ‘Ten unwarranted assumptions in syntactic argumentation’ that syntacticians would be better off without.

The editors and authors have done an outstanding job of making a coherent and focused thematic volume with many excellent papers. The book is a fitting tribute and a significant contribution to the ongoing debate about the interrelationship between usage and structure.

American English: History, structure, and usage

American English: History, structure, and usage. By Julie S. Amberg and Deborah J. Vause. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xix, 223. ISBN 9780521617888. $34.99.

Reviewed by Mark J. Elson, University of Virginia

For purposes of review, it is convenient to divide the ten chapters of this book thematically into three groups: the structure and history of American English (including matters of usage); variation within it; and language policy in the United States, including American English as a second language. Although the treatment of language policy is satisfactory (if politicized), there is little attempt at an impartial discussion of language planning as such. The imposition of standard languages is a world-wide phenomenon; its occurrence in the United States requires contextualization, not to excuse or justify the imposition of English, but to make students aware of the phenomenon and its consequences more generally.

In contrast to the treatment of policy, that of structure, history, meaning/usage, and variation is weak, even for an introductory text. The inadequacy is twofold: too little detail and explanation, especially in linguistic theory, to enable the reader to advance to material treating the data in more detail; and too little attention to American English as such, particularly the structural attributes of the standard language, as opposed to other varieties of American English and other standard Englishes. Thus, the discussion of generative grammar (91–97), which the authors oppose to prescriptive and descriptive approaches, is too sparsely presented and out of date to be of pedagogical value. Moreover, very little of the treatment of the phonology, grammar, syntax, and to some extent the history of Standard American English (SAE) would not appear in a book on other standard Englishes. Nor does the authors’ general description of SAE (28–30; 91) succeed in clarifying the concept of standard language, its relationship to prescriptivism (84–86), or the status of SAE in American society. Instead, we find questionable claims like ‘SAE has become the expected norm for communications in a public forum, such as the government, education, or media’ (29); this might have been defensible as recently as a decade ago, but the chatty register adopted by the authors for their book itself demonstrates it is questionable now. Their reference to more than one variety of SAE (91) is also questionable.

Finally, the authors belabor the definition of American English only to avoid the obvious definition suitable for beginners, i.e. the English spoken natively in the United States and Canada, supplemented by important structural traits distinguishing American English from English spoken elsewhere. The historically based definition they propose (36) adds nothing useful or enlightening to the discussion. The details of adaptation over time that form the focus of the authors’ definition do not change the fact that no one doubts the existence of American English as a synchronically identifiable variety that therefore needs a synchronic definition.

In addition to weaknesses in content, those considering adoption of this book should also be aware of the existence of questionable phraseology throughout; e.g. ‘Sometimes American English vowel sounds include diphthongs’ (110), in which either ‘include’ is used for ‘are’ or ‘diphthongs’ is misused for ‘glides’. Such carelessness is especially regrettable for marring the clarity expected of an introductory textbook.