A Comparative Sociolinguistic Study  

Why do research about terms of address? - Relevance and Theoretical Framework of the Project

Any language has rules that go beyond grammar and syntax. In any society, a set of cultural norms determine how people are supposed to act in certain contexts. We can take everyday examples to see how a lot of these politeness conventions are realized in language, or more general, in communication. If you step on somebody's toe (literally and metaphorically), for instance, you are expected to apologize. Or, to use another commonplace example, you ought to address a judge in court by a certain title (e.g. "Your Honor," or the like). Obviously, in how far people conform with these norms depends on their personal intentions also. In linguistic terms, all these issues are within the realm of pragmatics, a sub-discipline that investigates the meaning and effects of utterances and the conditions of their usage.1 In short, it not only investigates the linguistic form (e.g. vocabulary, syntax) of an utterance, but its relation to the context and the speaker's intention.
While court is a rather obvious context in which terms of address are crucial for politeness reasons, there is no doubt that they play an important role in other aspects of life, too. A quick look at any book on business communication shows that the appropriate use of address is considered vital for successful interaction. Especially in professional contexts, address has to be polite, build goodwill and be non-sexist (e.g. as exemplified by the use of Ms., a neutral form for addressing females without reference to marital status, in business).2
As we have seen, address then is an important part of a language's politeness conventions. But what, in linguistic terms, is politeness? According to Brown's and Levinson's usage of the term, politeness is one of the major underlying motives or principles organizing human discourse.3 That means that the effort to be polite (or the lack thereof) determines the choice of words and phrases (linguistic variants) for expressing specific ideas or meanings (linguistic variables) in a given context.
Brown and Levinson analyze these conversational strategies in terms of a mutual effort of speaker and addressee to save their own and each other's face.4 This is considered a general interest (usually of both parties) in any conversation. Problems (and thus the reason why most politeness strategies become necessary in the first place) arise when messages have to be communicated that pose a face-threathening act (FTA) to at least one participant, i.e. infringe his or her freedom of action (negative face) or threaten an individual's feeling of being socially accepted5 (positive face). This is when politeness strategies come into play. In addition to the possibility of not doing an FTA at all, Brown and Levinson distinguish four basic options of performing it.6
1. bald on record: without redressive action (i.e. an effort to soften the FTA), direct communication of FTA
2. on record, but with redressive action
a) positive politeness: claiming common ground between speaker and addressee or implying that they are cooperators
b) negative politeness: stating unwillingness to impinge on addressee, apologizing for doing so, minimizing the imposition, impersonalizing the FTA, ...7
3. off record: FTA not stated explicitly, only implied
Within this theoretical framework for politeness in communication, the role of address is not to be underestimated. Most of the communicative problems related to the (mis-)use of terms of address occur because a speaker threatens the hearer's positive face by misidentifying him or her in an offensive or embarassing way.8 The wide range of possible examples may include not using a status-marked title (such as Dr.), inappropriately using a form of address that is an in-group marker (e.g. a white person addressing an African American as "brother" or "sister") or, in many societies, simply calling an adult stranger by first name. In a considerable number of instances, of course, the use of an inappropriate form of address will not directly offend anybody. Nevertheless, it will sound at least awkward or stiff to a native speaker. The rules for address are largely determined by:9
1. the relationship of speaker and addressee (called the "dyad")
a) their degree of familiarity
b) their power in relation to each other, i.e. social status, rank, occupation, or the like
2. the context (e.g. members of the German Social Democrats addressing each other as "Genosse" [= comrade] on official occasions)10
3. the speaker's intentions/strategies (which need not always be conscious)11

Although this rule-governed system is complex as well as dynamic in its details, it is nevertheless possible to develop quite reliable strategies for an appropriate use of address in most situations.12Generally speaking, the choice of a form of address may build goodwill or create tensions, convey familiarity or show respect. In short, it can be the basis for success or failure in a conversation. Therefore learners of a foreign language (in this project: English) need to be well aware of such pragmatic rules. Unfortunately, it seems like pragmatic competence is often paid little attention to in foreign language teaching.13 This project is designed to investigate in how far English learners at selected German and Kyrgyz universities have already developed pragmatic skills in the realm of terms of address.


This project is an empirical research on the usage of terms of address in English. A questionnaire with 22 sample situations from the everyday life of a student was distributed to U.S. students on the one and German and Kyrgyz students of English on the other hand. The questionnaire consisted of 10 “fill in the blank” questions and 12 situations in which informants had to mark whether they found a given set of possible answers appropriate for the respective context.

The groups of informants from all three countries constitute convenience samples rather than sociologically representative random samples. The range of informants is restricted to university students (in Kyrgyzstan and Germany to students of English), but these students were chosen for practical reasons. Most U.S. informants are students at the University of Tennessee and all Germans are students at the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt. The Kyrgyz informants all study in the capital Bishkek, but are from four different universities. The majority are students at Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University, Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University and Kyrgyz National J. Balasagyn University. Overall 33 U.S., 25 German, and 37 Kyrgyz informants are included in this project. While the similar background of informants from all three nations (students, roughly the same age) allows for a certain comparability of their answers, the size and nature of the sample obviously require that the conclusions drawn from the data cannot claim universal validity for the respective countries' student populations.


Scholars have repeatedly stated that even proficient foreign language speakers lack necessary pragmatic competence.14 To make things worse, pragmatic mistakes are far less acceptable to native speakers than linguistic errors, especially when they go along with high proficiency in the foreign language.15 A non-native speaker is usually not expected to constantly get his grammar right, but native speakers are much more liable to feel offended when he or she (intentionally or not) disregards politeness conventions. Therefore (especially proficient) foreign language speakers lacking pragmatic skills "run the risk of appearing uncooperative at least, or [...] insulting."16

The observation that many EFL (English as a Foreign Language) speakers lack pragmatic competence, largely because textbooks "usually fail to provide the necessary input,"17 provides the starting point for this project. Its larger context is thus the question in how far English learners in Germany and Kyrgyzstan have acquired not only linguistic, but also pragmatic competence in the foreign language they learn. In other words, the aim is to investigate to which degree these students have acquired an active knowledge of specific conversational rules and politeness conventions prevalent in their target society (here: the United States). Within this larger framework, terms of address are the specific aspect of pragmatic competence that will be tested. Therefore this project investigates the use of address18 by German and Kyrgyz university students of English in comparison to native speaker usage (in American English).


1 See Herbst, Thomas, Rita Stoll and Rudolf Westermayr. Terminologie der Sprachbeschreibung (Ismaning 1991), p. 168. In A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (Oxford 1985), David Crystal gives the following precise definition: "Pragmatics is the study of language from the point of view of users, especially of the choices they make, the constraints they encounter in using language in social interaction and the effects their use of language has on other participants in the act of communication." (p. 240)

2 See Locker, Kitty. Business and Administrative Communication (New York 2003), pp. 43, 45ff.

3 See Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. Politeness. Some Universals in Language Usage (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne 1987), p. 55ff.

4 The terms "face" and "face-threatening act" were coined by Erving Goffman. See for instance his essay "On Face Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction" (1967). Along these lines, the analysis of this survey's results is based on the assumption that all informants want to be polite by choosing their answers. While this is not always the case in real life because anybody can be angry or annoyed and therefore not interested in being polite, none of the sample situations implies anything like that.

5 Brown/ Levinson (1987) define positive face more abstractly as "the want of every member [of society] that his wants be desirable to at least some others." (62)

6 Ibid., p. 68ff.

7 Note: There are a number of other negative politeness strategies that can not all be listed here for reasons of their heterogeneity and complexity. For a detailed account of these, see Brown/Levinson 129-210.

8 see Ibid., p. 67.

9 Ibid., p. 18.

10 According to Wildner-Bassett ("Anredeverhalten," 1995) and Kohz ("Markiertheit, Normalität und Natürlichkeit von Anredeformen," 1984), the most important aspects of context are setting (time and place), topic and channel (speaking or writing). See Wildner-Bassett, p. 183.

11 Ibid., p. 85.

12 See e.g. Ibid., p. 185.

13 See e.g. Edwards, Melinda and Kata Csizér. "Developing Pragmatic Competence in the EFL Classroom" (2004).

14 See e.g. Ibid.

15 See e.g. Grzega, Joachim. Eurolinguistischer Parcours: Kernwissen zur europäischen Sprachkultur (Frankfurt am Main 2005), p. 188.

16 Bardovi-Harlig, K., B. S. Hartford, R. Mahan-Taylor, M. J. Morgan, and D. W. Reynolds. "Developing Awareness: Closing the Conversation," p. 324. Similar statements are made in Kasper, Gabriele. Can Pragmatic Competence be taught? (Honolulu 1997)

17 Edwards/Csizér (2004).

18 Since English does not have the T/V pronoun distinction (i.e. a polite and an informal pronoun for addressing a single person, e.g. French "tu" and "vous"), nominal address (e.g. "Mr.," "Mrs.," professional titles) is the center of attention of this research.