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Politeness



     Elena Danielson brings up a double problem: the use of polite forms and similar languages. She cites the case of Scandinavian languages. I have often wondered how far they are mutually comprehensible. I gather educated people are more likely to understand each other. She writes:
     English is a useful lingua franca for many reasons. Not the least is that it does not force you to choose between the formal and familiar forms. In German the familiar form commits you to the obligations of friendship, but the formal feels impossibly awkward once you've shared a meal or a glass of wine together. It was wise of English speakers to dispense with this difficult choice altogether, and the Swedes have largely abandoned the distinction as well. But I've noticed even Swedes and Danes communicating in English although their languages are mutually comprehensible, they just don't like the sound of the other Scandinavian pronunciation. [Norwegian, I think, is more distant.RH]


     My comments:

1. Polite usage is a widespread problem. In French the switch from "tu" to "vous" can be embarrassing. I once did that with a French academic friend and switched back when I realized that he felt it diminished is importance. In Spanish "tu" was replaced by "vos," but that in polite usage was replaced by Vd. (your mercy), and vos became impolite and disappeared, but "vosotros" is still used for the plural. "Tu" survives as a polite form in the Caribbean, and "vos" in Argentina. We have a new politeness problem in English. Young people and salesmen call me "Ronald," and I suffer in silence. Not so my wife, when such people call her Mary. In either case, the salesman makes no sale.

2. The Scandinavian case is paralleled by the relationship between Portuguese and Spanish. Usually Portuguese-speaking people can understand Spanish, but not vice-versa. In the past they shunned each other's language, but now, with the development of "Iberoamerica," the delegates make an effort to speak or at least to understand the other's language. Many Dutch understand German but do not like to speak it.

Ronald Hilton - 11/30/99


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