Moving towards the realm of the other

A scientific and explanatory analysis of variation in language begs for an acknowledgement of its intrinsically meaningful nature—whenever speakers opt to say something, they are creating some meaning in a context. Our most recent investigations on the choice of grammatical subjects show that such a choice helps establish a particular viewpoint of discourse, which in turn will strongly condition its interpretation.

Some implications of these basic facts are dealt with in the paper “The singular second person as a resource for objectivization in Spanish media discourse”, by Miguel A. Aijón Oliva and María José Serrano, which is to be presented at the III International Conference on Meaning Construction, Meaning Interpretation: Applications and Implications (CRAL 2013) (Universidad de La Rioja, Spain, July 2013). The aim of the study is to analyze the use of non-specific singular second-person subjects in Spanish—variably formulated through the pronoun ‘you’—and the basic meanings generated through this use in oral mass-media (radio and TV) discourse.

First, if grammatical forms are seen as indissolubly linked to their meanings, it makes little sense to assume the existence of canonical—i.e. specific—vs. deviant—non-specific—uses of the second person, as descriptive grammars have sometimes suggested. The choice of this person always implies anchoring discourse in the perspective of an actual or ideal addressee. That is, there are not really two different types of second persons, but just one encapsulating the general notion of ‘the other’. It is the communicative repercussions of its choice that can be quite varied according to the context. When it is used amidst the discussion of personal experiences or views of the speaker, it seems to be prompted by an intention to dissociate such contents from his/her particular circumstances, opinions or values, extending them to a wider audience, as in the following example:

  • Queremos valorar el resultado de este telescopio\ cuando Ø haces una cosa de esta Ø tratas de usar al máximo la herramienta que tienes\y Ø limitas el uso de otras máquinas nuevas\ pero siempre hay algo que Ø puedes aprovechar\ (CCEC Med12)
  • ‘We want to evaluate the results of this telescope. When [you] fabricate something like this [you] try to make the most of the device, just as [you] restrict the use of other new machines; but there is always something [you] can take advantage of.’

The intuitive and somewhat vague terms traditionally used to characterize this resource, such as generic, nonspecific or impersonal tú can be replaced with that of objectivizing second person in order to achieve better understanding of its use. Interestingly, there are abundant non-specific second persons that appear while exposing personal experiences and opinions that do not seem to be readily generalizable. The speakers in the following excerpts are addressing matters that can hardly be said to affect most people—the personal experience of long-term illness and nostalgy for a well-known enclave of his hometown, respectively—, but anyway opt for a second-person perspective.

  • Va pasando el tiempo y después de un mes\dos meses\tres meses de enfermedad\piensas que tu situación es normal\yo siempre decía que si me veían mermado de facultades que me lo dijeran\ (CCEC Med12)
  • ‘Time goes by and after one month, two months, three months of disease [you] come to think that your situation is a normal one. I always asked others to warn me if they noticed any deterioration of my abilities.’
  • nunca he echado tanto de menos a la Plaza Mayor como cuando estuve fuera / cuando Ø la ves po:r televisión y: demás / y es: e: / uno de los recuerdos así que tengo de la Plaza Mayor má:s: // que más recuerdo vamos (MEDIASA )
  • ‘I’ve never missed the major square so much as when I was abroad. When [you] see it on TV and so. And this is in fact one of my strongest memories of the major square.’

The variable expression of the second-person subject also appears to have repercussions on objectivizing strategies, as previous studies in our project have suggested. Expressed subjects perform a more personal kind of objectivization; that is, they help present the contents as more connected to the particular speakers. This points to the existence of gradually-differentiated types of discourse objectivization.

  • La música se ha convertido en un derecho social\ yo creo que la humanidad se ha sensibilizado en esto/ cuando tú comprendes eso, Ø te sientes mejor y parte del concierto\ (CCEC Med12)
  • ‘Music has become a social right. I think mankind has become aware of that. When you understand it, [you] feel better, like a part of the concert.’

Most importantly, the investigation shows that the cognitive implications of the objectivizing second person also have some connection to its patterning across different speaker groups and speech situations. It is in fact a sociostylistically meaningful element that can help speakers construct a particular self-image, as well as serve the communicative goals of particular textual genres. Among other facts, the resource is fairly common in the speech of public figures and private individuals participating in radio and TV programs; by contrast, it is rarely used by journalists, who appear not to consider it useful or appropriate for the kind of discourse they usually intend to construct. Also, in both of the corpora under study there are higher overall frequencies for female speakers, which seems to support previous findings on some tendency of women to downplay subjectivity. This woman calling to a radio program complains that she is often not allowed to give her opinion in other stations:

  • desde luego es en la Única cadena / que se: puede hablar / porque en las otras / (en) cuanto Ø empiezas a decir algo de esto / te cortan (MEDIASA )
  • ‘Truly, this is the only station where one can speak freely. In all the others, as soon as [you] start saying something like this, they’ll cut you off.’

These and other findings represent further steps towards deeper knowledge of person choice as a relevant domain of cognitively-based and sociostylistically-projected syntactic variation in Spanish.

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