Intimate Language

Languages are strange things. There are rather a lot of them, for starters – several thousand worldwide, by some estimates. Of course, where the cut-off line is between a dialect and an actual language is, I’m led to udnerstand, somewhat controversial. (One definition is along the lines that a language is a dialect with an army!) Anyway, academic squabbles aside, it is clear that there are a lot of them, and many of them have very distinct properties.

One intriguing idea is the possibility that a society’s beliefs and ideology might be to some extent mirrored in its language. By learning the language, you could in a sense learn something of the worldview too.

One example is the treatment of social status.

Asian languages tend to have an emphasis on respect and hierarchy. Arguably the extreme end might be Japanese, which places a significant emphasis on the relevant status of speaker and listener. Korean also has an elaborate system of titles of relative respect, all of which carry with them specific connotations. One thing that these countries have in common is that they were all influenced by Confucian theory, with its emphasis on ‘respect’ toward those of higher status – which came first, one wonders, the social theory or the titles?

This tendency is rather less pronounced in the West. Perhaps this reflects Western society’s greater emphasis on the individual and on personal liberty. However, even on the Continent, one finds a clear and strong distinction in the second person. One does not address one’s family and friends as one would business or professional acquaintances. To make a mistaken use of ‘du’ in German, for instance, is to commit a significant social faux pas! So far, so dignified.

But there’s an anarchist lurking around the fringes of the Continent.

Weirdly enough, that anarchist is called English. You see, modern English seems to put next to no emphasis on the relative stations off addresser and addressee. We only ever refer to each other as ‘you’ – there is no vous and tu and no du or Sie. We refer to our friends and family in the same grammatical manner as we would use for business colleagues or high-ranking public officials. This is quite unusual.

Except, interestingly, we did once have an intimate second-person form – thee and thou. ‘You’, very strictly speaking, is actually the formal variant of the second person. In the Middle Ages, one would address public officials and strangers as ‘you’ – theeing and thouing was reserved for private acquaintances, much like on the Continent.

But then, for some reason, something happened. The ‘informal’ second person fell out of use. There is one theory that I’ve heard. This notion holds that the intimate second-person fell out of use due to the Industrial Revolution. Put simply, the abrupt and fast changes in the economic structure had a knock-on effect on the social structure, as people of modest means could suddenly become fabulously wealthy (not possible before). Suddenly it was no longer absolutely clear who had status relative to whom, and people started using the formal second-person as a way of hdeging their bets.

I don’t know how true this suggestion is, but it would tie in with the idea that language and culture are intertwined.

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2 Responses to “Intimate Language”

  1. Martin Bienvenu Says:

    My great-grandmother, who most certainly spoke modern English, referred to every younger person she knew as ‘thee’ and, indeed, they were expected to refer to her as ‘you’. As I understand it she accepted ‘thee’ from other elderly ladies, and that was about it.

    Of course, this is Yorkshire we’re talking about, but ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and so on were around long after the industrial revolution.

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