The Linguist

The Linguist 54,3

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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20 The Linguist Vol/54 No/3 2015 FEATURES Where does the neutral pronoun 'you' fit within the T-V binary? Manuela Cook considers the 'N' dimension A ddress pronouns and other forms of address are linguistic tools people use to position themselves in relation to others when talking or writing. Interpreters and translators know only too well how hard it can be to find an equivalent across languages and cultures. Particular challenges arise when encoding the English single address pronoun 'you' into a language where there is a pronominal distinction. Situational context may help the interpreter or translator to decide whether to choose, for instance, French tu and German du or French vous and German Sie, but a perfect sociolinguistic match may not be possible. The reverse poses challenges too, as meaning is likely to be lost when encoding different address pronouns into a single 'you'. By way of help, there is the customary T-V model, where T symbolises a familiar/informal approach and V symbolises a polite/formal approach. This framework provides a basic guideline for languages with more than one address pronoun, as French with its tu-vous and German with its du-Sie. But what about the English single pronoun? It's simply left out. In fact, 'you' is neutral: it does not belong in T or V but in a dimension of neutrality, which might be denoted as N. When we think in terms of N-V-T as a framework of assessment, we may find it easier to interpret and translate between the English single pronoun and pronominal alternatives in other languages. In addition to providing a home for 'you', the N dimension can help us appreciate how some old address pronouns may be performing new duties. Please join me on a visit to the website of British retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S;, and do so wearing N-V-T lenses. You will see that translation from the English is available into a number of languages. Potential customers in France and Germany are addressed in V but those in Spain in T. 'Sign up to our email newsletter' (N) is translated into French as Inscrivez-vous à notre newsletter (V), into German as Melden Sie sich für unseren E-Mail-Newsletter an (V), but into Spanish as Suscríbete a nuestra newsletter (T). Why have divergent approaches apparently been taken? Perhaps we are not looking at divergent approaches, as it may seem. The encoders that appear to be at opposite poles, T and V, may not be so in their semantic contents. In order to appreciate this possibility, we need to consider the social side of forms of address, i.e. that factors of power and solidarity can influence the decisions that are taken, the expectations that are encountered and the responses that are received, concerning how people position themselves in relation to others when talking or writing. T and V forms are originally associated with power and solidarity in a stratified societal context where individuals of the same status and authority would interact in T or V, while an inferior would address a superior in V but receive T. However things may well be changing. Where an egalitarian ethic impacts on forms of address, the politically correct posture may be one that shows solidarity. On the M&S website, the French and German V option and the Spanish T option can both be seen as promoting solidarity, the former by granting personal space and the latter by promoting a convivial tone. In a case like this, traditional T and V pronouns may be playing a revised role. Also, if these encoders are circulating as a default form, then they may be moving towards the N dimension. Avoiding the distinction There is also the possibility of getting near to, or even entering, the N dimension via another route. Languages with T-V pronouns are often able to avoid the binary contrast by manipulating their own grammatical system, with strategies such as person switch, zero subject, passive voice, infinitive etc. This time we can go to the website of Swedish furniture retailer IKEA (, where A home for you

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