3.4. Social deixis

Social deixis marks “social relationships in linguistic expressions […] with reference to the social status or role of participants in the speech event” (Levinson 2005, 119). Some linguistics therefore see social deixis as a part of person deixis.

The way we organize our utterances is influenced by our and our addressee´s social rank and our relationship to the other participants of the speech event. In many languages this fact is reflected in the pronominal system which distinguishes between a formal and an informal address in the second personal pronoun. Such a differentiation is called T/V distinction inspired by the French forms tu et vous (Grundy 2000, 26; Mey 2001, 274; Yule 1996, 10). As is generally known the contemporary English does not follow such a distinction though the Early Modern English did.

Look at the following examples. Can you infer a rule on how the pronominal system was used in Early Modern English? You can learn more about the speaker´s social status and his relationship to the addressee by clicking on the particular person.

a) Much Ado About Nothing, Act III, Scene 3

Borachio : Seest thou not, I say, what a deformed thief this
fashion is? how giddily a' turns about all the hot
bloods between fourteen and five-and-thirty?
sometimes fashioning them like Pharaoh's soldiers
in the reeky painting, sometime like god Bel's
priests in the old church-window, sometime like the
shaven Hercules in the smirched worm-eaten tapestry,
where his codpiece seems as massy as his club?
Conrade : All this I see; and I see that the fashion wears
out more apparel than the man. But art not thou
thyself giddy with the fashion too, that thou hast
shifted out of thy tale into telling me of the fashion?

b) King Lear, Act I, Scene 1

Goneril: Sir, I love you more than words can ->wield the matter;
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e'er lov'd, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable.
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.
Lear : Of all these bounds, even from this line to this,
With shadowy forests and with champains rich'd,
With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads,
We make thee lady. To thine and Albany's issue
Be this perpetual.- What says our second daughter,
Our dearest Regan, wife to Cornwall? Speak.

c) Much Ado About Nothing, Act I, Scene 2

Leonato : How now, brother! Where is my cousin, your son?
hath he provided this music?
Antonio: He is very busy about it. But, brother, I can tell
you strange news that you yet dreamt not of.

You have certainly noticed that thou was an informal while you was a formal and a more neutral address. Powerful characters such as “monarchs, the rich, men, parents, masters and mistresses [could] be expected to give thou and receive you when interacting with […] subjects, the poor, women, children, servants. […] Characters of equal power, or social class, […] exchange[d] reciprocal you if they [were] upper class, and thou if they [were] lower.” (Fries 1994, 142).

However, this system could be manipulated. For instance one could address somebody with thou to insult him by degrading him socially and morally. Therewith social deixis is as an important aspect of linguistic politeness (Fitzmaurice 2002, 45; Fries 1994, 144).

Not only the use of the formal address you but also other forms of address were usual to underline a person´s higher social status. It was quite common to address authorities with attributes they were said to possess: Your Grace for dukes, Your Eminence for cardinals and Your Holiness for the pope, just to cite some examples (Mey 2001, 275). Such “expression[s] which mark[…] that the addressee is of higher status” are called honorifics (Yule 1996, 130).