German pronominal systems in conflict: the discursive negotiation of du and Sie.

AuthorWinchatz, Michaela R.


Using Delisle's (1986) formulation of two coexisting systems of pronominal address in German (A1 and A2) as an analytic framework, the present study examines German speakers discursive negotiation of conflicting social meanings for the informal and formal pronouns "du" and "Sie". Data was collected from ethnographic fieldwork and semi-structured interviews conducted with 62 native German speakers during multiple research periods between 1995 and 2006. The present study explores native speakers' metapragmatic talk about their pronoun use in specific communication situations in which they perceived a conflict of differing social meanings. The study addresses a) what distinct social meanings members of each pronominal system apply to the pronouns du and Sie, b) how interlocutors discursively negotiate social meaning misalignments, c) what the communicative consequences are that develop when two differing pronominal systems of social meaning collide in human interaction, and finally, d) what the two systems of meaning reveal about German speakers' views of appropriate and/or desirable relationships within German society.

Keywords: German language, ethnography, social meaning, discursive conflict


In his Editorial Introduction to the Journal, Language in Society, Dell Hymes (1972) calls for researchers in sociolinguistics to take "social meaning as a starting point" (p. 6). After reading this call, several questions come to mind: Of what importance is the study of social meaning in general, and is the call to study social meaning one that scholars of human communication should find worthy of pursuit? Is social meaning purely a cognitive occurrence in the heads of interlocutors with little or no significance to the field of communication, or does it, in fact, reveal something very real about the discursive choices speakers make and the strategies they employ in daily interactions?

Keith Basso (1979) in his book Portraits of "The Whiteman" defines social meaning as those utterances interlocutors employ that "express [something] about themselves and their situated relationships with others" (p. 17). He contrasts this with a second type of nonreferential meaning he calls cultural meaning. Cultural meanings or textual meanings transcend the social realm and utter certain cultural themes that are available in the respective code. Basso emphasizes that this distinction is purely an analytical one, but the separation of social meanings and cultural meanings distinguishes those metacommunicative messages "that communicate about the structural and affective components of situated social relationships" and "those that communicate about the conceptual content of cultural symbols" (p. 99). Indeed, in every interaction in which interlocutors participate, social meaning plays a central role. Each time an interlocutor enters a conversation with another, she or he takes into account who she or he is in relation to the person with whom she or he is speaking (see Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson 1967). Social meaning, or as I will define it for the purposes of the present study, an expression of understanding of self, other, and the relationship between self and other, either motivates, guides, constrains, and/or restricts communication in any given interaction. If the social meanings are similar and shared between interlocutors, communication will have a base on which it can flow smoothly. If this understanding is not shared, miscommunication and misunderstanding are more likely to occur. This point is made by Blom and Gumperz (1972) when they write, "Effective communication requires that speakers and audiences agree both on the meaning of words and on the social import or values attached to choice of expression" (p. 417). The social value attached to an utterance is what Blom and Gumperz refer to as social significance or social meaning. If we accept that social meanings are at the very base of most daily interactions and are of general importance, then the question follows: What implications, if any, does the study of social meanings have for understanding the nature of human communication? Is the available system of social meanings that can be linguistically expressed infinite or finite? If there is a limited known set of linguistically expressible social meanings, then is this set universal, or do there exist very different systems of social meaning distinctive to particular cultures? The line of research implied by these questions has important practical and theoretical implications for intercultural communication. If social meanings are based in culturally-distinctive systems, then it is of vital importance to uncover these systems of social meaning. If researchers of language can grasp the distinctive systems of social meaning available from culture to culture, then through comparative studies, such researchers could ultimately gain important insight into the role that culture plays in the differing ways human beings relate to one another through the communicative choices that they make.

In this study I examine social meaning in the German context, i.e., as it is communicatively expressed, negotiated and understood by German native speakers. Specifically, I focus on various examples taken from a more extensive, long-term study on social meaning that provide insight into the varying systems that appear to coexist and, at times, conflict in the daily communication of German speakers. I hope that by examining German speakers' talk about their language use and the kinds of social relationships they understand themselves to be discursively enacting, we will gain insight into culture's role in the communicative choices interlocutors make in their daily interactions.


Social meaning between interlocutors is not purely a cognitive occurrence. It is in and through specific communicative resources that we express our understandings of who we are in relation to others. Because social meanings are often intertwined with interlocutors' communicative choices, in order to study social meaning, it is imperative to choose a communicative resource on which to focus one's research. There exists a variety of communicative means through which social meanings are expressed, such as speech events, speech genres, tone of voice and other nonverbal behaviors, etc. For instance, if I engage in the speech genre of joking with another individual, one understanding that I am expressing is that I am in a relationship with this person that permits me to joke with him/her. What my joking says to this other person is twofold. First, the joke itself, i.e., its content, whether or not it was funny, etc., will be of some importance to the person. Second, what my joking says to him/her about how I perceive our relationship to each other will also have an effect on the subsequent communication between us. If the other individual does not perceive our relationship in the same way that I do, i.e., that we are close enough to be joking, then subsequent communicative moves on this person's part may include ignoring the joke, or verbally and/or nonverbally communicating anger to me. The communicative resource is the speech genre "joking," and what results in and from this resource is an expression of social meaning between the interlocutors. This displays the direct link between the communicative resource and expressed and expressible social meanings between speakers.

One communicative resource that effectively expresses social meaning is the personal pronoun, particularly as it is used in personal address. Danziger (1976) states that there are many concrete examples of the presentation of interpersonal relationships in interlocutors' daily communication; however, he believes that "the analysis of the rules of personal address probably constitutes the most developed part of this field of study" (p. 38). Due to the abundance of terms of address studies, with many focusing on pronouns of address, there is already a large corpus of knowledge documented about pronominal systems in a variety of languages.

In his book Social Psychology, Brown (1965) proposes a very specific link between pronouns of address and social meaning. Based on various pronominal studies, including the seminal Brown and Gilman (1960), Brown (1965) proposes that all expressions of social meaning can be mapped onto a two-dimensional space with the vertical axis representing power and the horizontal axis representing solidarity. According to Brown's theory, all expressions of social meaning in any language can be found somewhere on the power/solidarity axis. In other words, there exist two semantic dimensions of social meaning that are universal to all languages. Brown and Gilman (1960) define the power semantic as asymmetrical. In order for power to be an issue, "both [interlocutors] cannot have power in the same area of behavior" (p. 255). Further, Brown and Gilman write, "Since the nonreciprocal power semantic only prescribes usage between superior and inferior, it calls for a social structure in which there are unique power ranks for every individual" (p. 256). When an imbalance of power is symbolized in speech, it is usually accomplished by those with more power speaking the informal pronoun and receiving the formal pronoun from those with less power. The solidarity semantic, on the other hand, represents more balance between individuals and is symmetrical. Brown and Gilman (1960) write, "The similarities that matter [for the solidarity semantic] seem to be those that make for like-mindedness or similar behavior dispositions" (p. 258).

Brown (1965) states that address forms in all languages will always be governed by solidarity and power; however, the two underlying dimensions will not always be used in the same way in every language. Brown refers to each dimension as having certain characteristics. For instance, the...

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