Are you singular or plural? Number choice and the construction of the addressee

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Standard Peninsular Spanish offers four different second-person grammatical paradigms, including two singular ones—represented by and usted—and two plural ones—vosotros and ustedes. Whereas the choice between  and usted as forms of social treatment has for long been a popular topic of dialectal, sociolinguistic and pragmatic studies of Spanish, not so much attention has been paid to the fact that speakers can also choose between singular and plural forms in order to index individual addressees. Plurals can help highlight the insertion of the latter within some contextually relevant group; however, in contexts where reference is not clearly delimited, they can also correlate with pragmatic strategies related to politeness. For example, a teacher can rebuke a student who has committed a mistake by saying Esto nunca lo hacéis bien ‘This you people never do well’; it is easy to perceive that the plural, together with other choices such as the temporal adverb and the present tense, will help desubjectivize the criticism and thus avoid its straightforward personalization. Such uses would be pragmatically similar to the better-known and more conventionalized ones of the plural first person whereby speakers blur their own involvement in discourse, often characterized as ‘modesty’ or ‘authorial’ plurals in Spanish. This entry will discuss some findings made amidst an ongoing investigation of second-person choice in the Corpus de Lenguaje de los Medios de Comunicación de Salamanca (MEDIASA), including its written-press and radio sections.

Individual identity is a complex issue in media interactions, which cannot but have some reflection on the use of both first and second persons. It is frequent for participants to appear as representatives of relatively delimited human groups other participants do not belong to. This way, journalists often speak on behalf of their companies or work teams; politicians represent their parties or the public administration; public figures often stand for companies, associations or sports teams; anonymous individuals can even accord themselves the role of spokespeople for the whole citizenry. In such cases, the relevant contextual identity of these participants is assumed to go beyond themselves, which will often result in their indexation through plural forms by their partners. The broadcaster in (1), talking to the spokeswoman of a local association of housewives, shifts from the plural second person to the singular one across two consecutive turns. Her responses mirror the choices made in the questions: plural first person in the first turn, singular in the se
cond one.

(1) <A> porque teníaisteníais la: percepción de que: / asuntos como la violencia: / el trabajo: la conciliación de la vida labora:l: / y: familiar / están / desde luego en el ánimo de las amas de casa y en el ánimo de todas las familias ¿no? / <B> claro que sí / tenemos que estar también al día de todo ello / aunque estamos po:r los medios de comunicación / pero: / queremos estarlo más direztamente / <A> ¿crees <…> que: / de esta:- / e: de este congreso / saldrá: la autoesti:ma de nuestras amas de casa: / reforzada? <B> yo creo que sí  <Var-SE-230903-12:45>

‘A: Because you people had the notion that issues like domestic violence, work, the balance between work and family life, are in the minds of housewives and in those of all families, right? – B: Sure. We need to keep up with all those issues. Well, we already do, thanks to the media, but we are seeking stronger engagement. – A: Do you think […] that this conference will help reinforce the self-esteem of our housewives? – B: I do think so.’

Miguel Ángel Aijón Oliva
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