PR, Films and Fantasies

I, We, You, You, He/She, They…

Posted on: February 25, 2010

You, You??

Since I started to learn English (probably 14 years ago), I was a little bit puzzled about the second person plural of it. I know many have talked about this, but I feel that in my challenge to understand England better, I should start by examining a few pieces of its language. After all, as many theorist claimed, language portrays the “way” we see the world, or better said, our culture.

In most languages, the second person pronoun has two forms, one for the singular and one for the plural. There is one word when addressing one person and another for groups (more than two people). Now, this is not only related to pronouns but it spreads towards verbs and other parts. It definitely makes the languages a lot more complicated, but it generally makes communication more clear and direct, erasing any sing of confusion.

However, the difference between one and many is not my main concern. In languages like Romanian, French or Spanish, the second person plural is used as a polite form for a single individual when that person is to be shown respect. This would mean anyone older or from a higher position (this doesn’t refer to social distinction but to authority and all kinds of power – like bosses, teachers, experts, intellectually superior persons etc.). So, for example, when addressing a lecturer in class, one would use the more polite form, the plural. This also implies an automatic rule for using the last name instead of the first name of that person.

I found the transition form one side to the other a bit difficult, as on my first days of Uni in the UK I was calling all my tutors by their first name. I know this might seem strange for my English colleagues, but in Romania we would never call Pete, Pete, but Mr Willby : ).

However, this is starting to change and more and more people demand they are called by their common name instead of the official form. Many actually accuse the Communist regime for this convention and claim that changing the rules would be more modern and up-to-date with the Western ideas of democracy (US actually) but I really don’t agree with that.

I don’t want to be mean, but I think that it would lead to a change in the moral and behaviour code and why not to social confusion. In the long run, the young generation will loose most of its respect for the old. I know that respect should be earned and not dictated by linguistic rules, but they surely help in keeping a social balance.

The distance to power (see Geert Hofstede – Small vs. large power distance) is one of the things that influence this, or has been influenced by it (it’s hard to tell which came first sometimes). This is a bit confusing as England who has always been related to monarchy and kings and queens should be more of a strict language. I found out that some dialects of the English language have some sort of a “respectful” pronoun, but it has faded away with the globalization of the language. However, if we push things forward, we can also put it on the distinction between the individualist and collectivist cultures.

A whole encyclopaedia could be written on this topic so I’ll just stop here. I will however try to understand more on the topic with further research. Also, another very interesting aspect of the English language is the gender of nouns (or its absence more precisely), but I won’t get into that now…

“I love you” in Arabic:

said to a male — uħibbuka (أُحِبُّكََ)

said to a female — uħibbuki (أُحِبُّكِ)

“Thank you very much” in Portuguese:

said by a male — muito obrigado

said by a female — muito obrigada


1 Response to "I, We, You, You, He/She, They…"

My English high school teacher told us how American students greeted the Principal:
Freshmen: Good morning, Mr. Brown!
Sophomores: Good morning, Mike!
Juniors: Hey, Mike!
Seniors: You may fill in the blanks according to your imagination!

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