Sunday, August 15, 2010

I De-ed her...

Been reading Wallace Stegner's 1976 National Book Award winning novel The Spectator Bird for my book club (must. finish. monday...). The author makes some cute observations about the incoherence of the Danish glottal stop (famous amongst tortured first year linguistics grad students who often are assigned to wrestle with its distributive intricacies). But the linguistic observations are not limited to phonology.

As part of the narrative, the main character, a literary agent named Joe Allston, travels to Denmark and meets a proper, if minor, Danish aristocrat Astrid Wredel-Krarup. While reviewing his journals about the time with her, he makes the following declaration to his wife Ruth:

Ruth: I called her by her first name after the first day or so.

Joe: Well, I didn't after two or three months. Ever. She called me Mr. Allston and I gave her back the full business. When I tried Danish, I didn't Du her, I De-ed her.

It's a cute illustration of how people negotiate linguistic forms, especially politeness forms. This reminded me of a former house-mate of mine who moved to DC after a year teaching ESL in France. He took a summer sublet with an older, very proper French speaking Belgian lady and he told me he didn't use the informal tu with her until late in the summer after she explicitly told him it was okay to use it.

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