Musings on formal and informal address


My entry about Good-Bye, Lenin! appears to have turned into a discussion of formal and informal terms of address in various languages and cultures.

Sweden effectively abolished the "du"/"ni" distinction in the 1970's during the so-called "du-reform", getting rid of the formal "ni" and having everybody address each other as "du" - even the king and prime minister. (I'm told this is the same movement that also got people to greet each other with a simple "Hej!") There's a nice discussion of the du-reform from Language Hat. I found it particularly interesting that

Swedes traditionally addressed anyone with a title by that title, using the third person: "Would the professor like more tea?" Thus the use of "Ni" was slightly derogatory, implying that one's interlocutor had no title or office worth bothering about.

Of course, I didn't discover this until I had already addressed some people as "ni" and probably either amused or insulted them. (Possibly both.)

In English, the use of third person address as a substitute for "you" is long gone, unless you intend to be obsequious to the point of being insulting: "Would the gentleman please take a seat." (I believe German has a similar insultingly-polite construction: "Wollen der Herr bitte Platz nehmen.")

It seems to me that the use of the pure title as a form of direct address is largely gone in American English, with the exceptions of Speaker of the House, President, and Vice President, who are still "Madame Speaker" or "Mr. [Vice] President". Other public servants typically retain their office in addition to their surname, such as "Governor Smith", "Senator Jones", or "Secretary Green".

In addition to public service, there are still a handful of other environments where titles are still used. Off the top of my head, I can think of religion ("Reverend Brown"), academia ("Professor Wilson"), medicine ("Dr. Miller"), and the military ("General Williams"). But you are not going to hear "Mr. Night Shift Manager" or "Account Representative Harrison".

Comments (22)
  1. Anonymous says:

    True, except for the part where the title refers to the Onion like yesterday :)

  2. Anonymous says:

    One related thing I found really curious about Danish is that there’s no word (or expression) to mean "please". Sweedish is probably similar in this respect, too. Instead, you need to use alternate phrases to be polite when asking something, similar to English phrases like "would you be so kind…" or "would you mind if…".

  3. Anonymous says:

    "Wollen der Herr bitte Platz nehmen." is not that unpolite. But there is the way of calling people by the third form which is very insulting: "Wird er wohl Platz nehmen."

    But this is long gone, nobody does this anymore. Most people remember this only from a famous (old) German novel called Woyzeck: "Ißt er sei Erbse?"

  4. Anonymous says:

    Of course English has largely lost its informal pronoun (‘thou’). Another nice article from Language Hat: http://www.languagehat.com/archives/000431.php.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I find it curious that in most languages, it is the formal version that is fading away, but in English it was the informal that vanished.

  6. Anonymous says:

    That’s because it has to be used by a huge population not sharing a common history/culture. Therefore shoot for the LCD. You will find the opposite in closed circles – Debating Societies, Clubs, etc. – a strict adherence to formal constructs as the population has a high understanding of each others’ background and social status. Thus, the HCF may be use safely.

  7. Anonymous says:

    In italian, you have THREE ways to address someone: second person (tu) is used in informal settings, third female person (lei, and it beats me why the female form is used) is formal, second plural (voi) is hyperformal and mostly not used anymore.

  8. Anonymous says:

    How about talking about yourself in 3rd person ? Is it common in other languages ?

    Jimmy likes Elain. George is getting upset.

  9. Anonymous says:

    There must certainly be a cool Greek or Latin rhetorical term for referring to oneself in the third person, like Elmo or Bob Dole, but I couldn’t find one. It’s not often done in English; doing so sounds either childlike (Elmo) or deranged (Bob Dole).

  10. Anonymous says:

    Of course English has largely lost its

    > informal pronoun (‘thou’).

    Ahhhh… the Yorkshire ‘thou’… how I have missed thee… ;-)

  11. Anonymous says:

    In Dutch, it is quite normal to talk about yourself in the second person. So in Dutch, this is what i would be doing: You talk about yourself in the third person while you are typing a comment in Raymond’s blog.

    It exists in other languages such as English too, but not to the same extent.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Referring to oneself in the third person is common in Japanese, among younger speakers. One also often uses the other person’s name in place of a form of "you" — and there are numerous forms of "you" and "I", spanning the spectrum of politeness. It would be easy to have an hour-long seminar just on forms of address in Japanese.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Here in the UK the formal form is on occasion approximated by (of all things) the reflexive pronoun. I’m not sure when this started, but needless to say it doesn’t work very well.

    (I couldn’t find anything on Google about the fall of the Republic of England being the death knell for thou, as people actively avoided Quakerisms afterwards, but that’s what we were told at primary school :)

  14. Anonymous says:

    4/26/2004 9:59 AM B.Y.:

    > How about talking about yourself in 3rd person ? Is it common in other languages ?

    In Thai it is common to refer to oneself in third person, either by using one’s name (most common in female talk I’ve been told) or title or by refering to oneself as "this person". Of course you can use the same of the one you talk to (instead of "you").

    When I think about it, it sounds really strange but when one actually talk it feels quite natural.

  15. Anonymous says:

    One finds that when one starts referring to oneself using impersonal pronouns, it initially sounds kind of weird. But then one gets used to it. Eventually one can hardly tell that one is doing it!

  16. Anonymous says:

    The Swedish king is often referred to as your majesty, ‘ers majestät’, but, as you say, the prime minister is ‘du’, eventhough our current one refers to himself as us, ‘vi’.

  17. Anonymous says:

    i’m interested to note that no-one has yet mentioned the direct link with highly hierarchical cultures like the old british empire, boarding school and communism – ie institutions.

    ‘night watchman oleg’ is was eaxactly what you might have been called under communism either to put you in your place or to raise yourself above above your neighbour.

    the army is another interesting example where there are 1st, 2nd and 3rd lieutenants (or there were).

    i think its probably an indicator of the decline of these institutions that formality and addressing by title is disappearing.

  18. Anonymous says:

    My subjective notes about Russian:

    – referring to himself/herself in 3rd person is not used (may be except for small children)

    – using title instead of "you" is a very formal form; can be used for very respectable persons (example with professor and tea is ok); coworkers rarely use this form – it’s too formal; like in English, it can be used in ironical and offensive way

    – title+name instead of "you" is rarely used; may be for professors, doctors and in army; but because there is a strong influence of English, it’s possible that using of this form will be gradually expanded

  19. Anonymous says:

    > Thus the use of "Ni" was slightly

    > derogatory, implying that one’s

    > interlocutor had no title or office

    > worth bothering about.

    Could the "Knights that say Ni" joke in "Monty Python’s Holy Grail" be inspired by this, perchance?

  20. Anonymous says:

    4/26/2004 6:15 PM Eric Lippert:

    > One finds that when one starts referring to oneself using impersonal pronouns, it initially sounds kind of weird.

    Only I wasn’t referring to myself…(I think using personal pronouns in my above post would’ve been more awkward).

  21. Anonymous says:

    "There must certainly be a cool Greek or Latin rhetorical term for referring to oneself in the third person"

    Yes, there is: illeist (IL-ee-ist) noun = One who refers to oneself in the third person.

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