The many ways to say ‘you’ in Spanish

The article «Not just you: The construction of radio audiences through second-person choice in Peninsular Spanish», by Miguel A. Aijón Oliva, has just been published in issue 60 of Language and Communication. The full text of the article can be freely accessed for a limited period here.

The study is concerned with the choice among second-person grammatical paradigms when addressing nonspecific audiences in radio discourse. Standard Peninsular Spanish has four different sets of morphematical elements allowing for a second-person characterization, which are respectively represented by the pronouns , usted, vosotros, and ustedes. These can be classified into two different persons—here labelled prototypical and displaced—and numbers—singular and plural. As is known, the displaced variants usted and ustedes result from the use of third-person forms to index addressees (see further discussion here). The prototypical plural vosotros is basically restricted to Peninsular varieties in present-day Spanish, most others having ustedes as their only plural subparadigm. It is interesting to note the difference between Spanish and a typologically close language such as English, which, at least in its standard form, has only you to explicitly address any sort of addressee or audience.

The basic hypothesis is that the four choices considered are hardly synonymous or interchangeable, as traditional approaches to variation and choice would have it; rather, each one entails the construction of a particular meaning at all possible semiotic levels, including the pragmatic and cognitive ones. When selecting some grammatical paradigm to index others, speakers will be defining a shared system of communicative rights and duties for all participants including themselves. In the specific case of radio discourse, second-person choice helps construct radio audiences, but it simultaneously affects the self-presentation of speakers themselves and the configuration of radio programs as communicative contexts. Through their particular combinations of person and number features, these choices make it possible to construct the audience in different ways—as either ‘individuals’ or ‘groups’—just as speakers themselves—as either ‘close’ or ‘distanced’ from the audience—and the very textual genres where they appear—as either ‘interaction-’ or ‘information-oriented’.

Among other significant facts, the analysis of the MEDIASA corpus shows that some persons are never used in certain radio genres, whereas they are strongly preferred in others, with ustedes reaching categoricity in news reports. Besides, two of the paradigms— and ustedes—together account for the vast majority of nonspecific audience indexations (86.8%), while the other two, and especially usted (4.2%), turn out to be exceptional choices. The quantitative and qualitative analysis of the four second persons across genres makes it posible to unveil the most significant discursive and cognitive values of each one.

In news reports, the choice of ustedes, generally encoded as a syntactic object, helps simultaneously construct the identity of the target audience as a human group receiving information, that of the broadcaster and his team as the professionals producing it, and the communicative context as a unidirectional flow of conceptual contents. Any deviations from this pattern are scarcely expectable in a genre with such a fixed structure and recurrent communicative mechanisms. Sports programs show similar results, but vosotros is introduced in the speech of a broadcaster whose program is structured as a dialogue with a fellow sports journalist. Music programs clearly differ from the rest of radio genres in the strong dominance of the prototypical singular , which in fact only appears in this kind of programs. The choice is usually parallel to a conversational style whereby broadcasters suggest personal closeness and interaction with their audience, constructed as an individual listener. In turn, the view of the speaker as a professional and of communication as a transaction of information—meanings jointly constructed through the choice of ustedes—are substituted by the highlighting of personal features of identity and the construction of the context as interaction between participants. Finally, talk magazines mostly reproduce the patterns observed in news reports, but in this case there are occasional shifts from ustedes to singular usted, always suggesting an intention to individualize the listener, enhance interactivity and/or exploit some emotional value.

In general terms, it is remarkable that the two most frequent paradigms should be the ones with opposed meanings, apparently occupying the poles of a discursive-cognitive continuum along the second persons. While ustedes is associated with professional identity, audience generalization and distance between the participants, highlights personal identity, addressee individuation and closeness. These choices can be seen as representing two different ways of doing radio discourse, one of them based on the transmission of information and drawing on psychosocial values such as professionalism, efficiency and seriousness, the other one enhancing interaction—obviously fostered by the development of new communication channels, including the Internet—and taking advantage of emotional suggestions. For their part, vosotros and usted, having mixed values as regards the dimensions considered, prove to be much rarer choices across the corpus.

Cases of person switching across the same discourse stretch are particularly revealing. Many broadcasters in music programs and talk magazines shift between the plural and singular paradigms of a given grammatical person. This can always be put in connection with some change in the construction of the participants and of the relationship between them (see also here). However, no instances of switching were found between the prototypical and displaced persons across the corpus analyzed. It would appear that the choice between and usted is a more basic or less flexible one than that between singular and plural persons, at least in communicative situations of the sort analyzed. It will be necessary to investigate other contexts and types of speaker identity in order to ascertain the extent to which such switches are possible and how they should be interpreted.

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