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

Fecha: 01/9/17 - Autor: Miguel Ángel Aijón Oliva

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.’

The inclusion of a participant in some human group is not always made explicit in advance; neither need it remain relevant across a whole interaction. In this sense, Spanish grammar makes it possible to adjoin lexical NPs in coreference with plural first- and second-person inflected verbs as a strategy for referential specification in particular contexts. These NPs appear to fill the slot of overt subject or object pronouns while delimiting the intended reference of verbal agreement morphemes. In (2), the broadcaster discusses an injury suffered by the interviewee during a soccer game, subsequently including him within los futbolistas ‘soccer players’.

(2) cuando: sentistes el pinchazo: vamos / los: futbolistas para eso / sois: / bastante inteligentes: / <pensaste> “me he roto” / desde el: primer: e: / instante  <Dep-On-141204-15:10>

‘When you felt the pain, well, (you people) soccer players are quite intuitive with such things. [You thought] “I just broke” from the very first moment.’

The fluctuation between singular and plural viewpoints illustrated by (1) and (2) is characteristic of press and radio interviews, where a dual identity of interviewees is often constructed—they are individual people with expertise and opinions of their own, but at the same time are being featured because they can be considered representative of their group. Again, number alternations will often affect both second- and first-person forms. In (3), the reporter formulates his question in the plural, alluding to the whole soccer team, while the answer by the player shifts between the singular viewpoint—in the modalizer yo creo ‘I think—and the plural one. This suggests the merging between the responsibility of the individual and that of the group in this context.

(3) <A> ¿qué le puede estar pasando al equipo estáis nervioso:s:? / <B> N:O: yo creo que:- / que: estamos jugando: / prácticamente igual / durante todo el año ¿no?  <Dep-SE-210504-15:50>

‘A: What can be happening to the team? Are you people nervous? – B: No, I think we’ve been playing basically the same way during the whole season, right?’

As against the referential delimitation through lexical NPs illustrated in (3), the plurals used by interviewers can also appear as a strategy to draw on referential ambiguity when it is not clear whether the addressee stands for him/herself alone or also for others in the context. In (4), a journalist talking to the owner of a shop uses the plural second person, suggesting that it is a larger team that works there even if this need not be the case in the extradiscursive world—the plural could have been chosen just to enhance the image of a one-person business by implying it is a larger one. Interestingly, the interviewee starts from a plural first-person viewpoint (vendemos ‘we sell’), then shifts to the singular (yo lo vendo ‘I sell it’).

(4) -¿Habéis notado un incremento en las ventas de abanicos? -Sí, la verdad que vendemos bastantes y de todos los tamaños. El pasado año ya se empezó a notar el auge del abanico, y este verano aún más. Es un complemento del verano, todo el mundo lo usa y yo incluso lo vendo como regalo de boda y comuniones.  <Ent-Ga-160604-20>

‘A: Have you people noticed a rise in fan sales? – B: Yes, we indeed sell quite a lot of them, and of all sizes. The fan boom was already noticeable last year, and much more so this summer. It is a summer accessory, everyone uses it, and I even sell it as a wedding or first-communion gift.’

It is in contexts like these that we could speak of ‘addressee-blurring’ uses, in line with the speaker-blurring plural first persons traditionally characterized as ‘modesty’ or ‘authorial’ ones, even if the strategy seems to be less frequent and conventionalized with the second persons, which explains why it should have received much lesser attention in the literature. The contextual possibilities of number choice for journalists and broadcasters go much farther and can also be related to the management of the subjects under discussion as a way of securing the adequate development of the interaction. Emotional and potentially controversial issues tend to be approached from a plural viewpoint, which suggests that vosotros and ustedes can act as desubjectivizing choices with respect to their singular counterparts. In (5), from a journal interview with the spokeswoman of an association of victims of terrorism, a question that deals with an emotionally uncomfortable issue is approached from the viewpoint of the group rather than that of the individual. In the answer, the NP las víctimas ‘the victims’ specifies the reference of the plural first person, which actually seems to go beyond the members of the association.

(5) -¿No les da rabia que se les haya comenzado a tener en cuenta después de grandes atentados? -Las víctimas tenemos que utilizar siempre la cabeza porque el corazón nos llevaría a la desesperación.  <Ent-Ga-120604-14>

‘A: Doesn’t it enrage you people+ that society should only have started to keep you people+ in mind after some terrible attacks? – B: We victims need to always use our heads, since giving in to our hearts would lead us to desperation.’

In the rest of this short interview, the journalist focuses on more positive facts and inquires about the personal feelings and stances of the interviewee, in these cases using singular usted (6). However, in her answers she eludes singular first-person indexation, opting instead for infinitives, second persons with a generalizing value and plural first persons.

(6) -Ahora que ya ha recibido el galardón ¿qué siente? -Una gran emoción por haber representado a tantísimas víctimas. En estos momentos te das cuenta de lo que sentirían las madres, los hijos y las esposas de las víctimas de los atentados. -¿Qué mensaje lanzaría a la sociedad? -Tienen que seguir comprendiéndonos porque las víctimas tenemos muchas trabas y es necesario que nos escuchen para que puedan comprendernos.  <Ent-Ga-120604-14>

‘A: Now that you+ have received the award, what do you+ feel? – B: A strong emotion for having stood for so many victims. In moments like these you realize what all the mothers, children and wives of the victims of attacks must have felt. – A: What message would you+ send to society? – B: They need to understand us, since we victims face many barriers, and it is necessary for people to listen to us in order to understand us.’

Therefore, the choice of grammatical number for the indexation of the addressee acts as a resource for the construction of the latter’s contextual identity. The singular and plural persons provide different viewpoints of the content of discourse—that of the individual as against  that of the group, and are revealing of how speakers conceive their interactional partners. Their use is also hardly detachable from the very ways in which speakers construct their own identities, often resorting to the plural first person in order to highlight group allegiance and/or to downplay personal responsibility for the content of discourse by way of referential blurring. Number choice thus has important repercussions on the dimension of stylistic subjectivity, plural indexations helping approach potentially contentious issues in a desubjectivized way, which can prove interactionally profitable in a variety of contexts.

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