Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring   2007    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  11, Issue  1

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Married Women’s Address Forms Variation in China

Miao Yang, Shantou University Medical College, China


Yang, MA TESOL, is English lecturer in the Foreign Languages Department of Shantou University Medical College, China.



The tradition that married women in Chaoshan, China address their husbands’ families in the same way as their children implies the ranking of women as subordinate. An apparent time research on the abandonment of this tradition shows that education background is related to this variation. It is proved that there is co-variation between social change and linguistic choice.



By tradition, married women in Chaoshan in southern China are required to use the same address forms used by their children to call their husbands’ families. It reveals that married women are ranked as their children. But these address forms are gradually discarded. An apparent time research was conducted to investigate the variation and its reason. It was found that the prevalence of higher education aroused stronger consciousness of equality among married women, which in turn led to the variation in address forms.


Women’s social status reflected by the address forms:


Power and solidarity, two governing factors

Language does more than helps people understand the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. By using language in a subtle way, people define their relationship to each other and identify themselves as part of a social group. “In no area of sociolinguistics is this second function of language more clearly highlighted than in address forms.” (Fasold, 1984:1) So there is an increasing emphasis on the study of the second person pronouns and address systems in different languages. One of the most influential study was conducted by Brown and Gilman in 1960, which, for the first time, brought the concept of “power and solidarity” into the field of sociolinguistics and identified their correlation and the pronominal usage. Their research was confirmed and developed by other scholars in different languages (e.g. Friedrich, 1966; Bates and Benigni, 1975; Paulston, 1976).

Brown and Gilman (1968) found that the use of the familiar pronoun T and the deferential pronoun V in European languages were governed by two forces: power and solidarity. If one person has power over another in the degree that he is able to control the behavior of the other, he may give T and receive V. The bases of power can be physical strength, wealth, age, sex, institutionalized role in the church, the state, the army or within the family. On the other hand, solidarity implies intimacy and “shared fate” and is reciprocal. If the interlocutors are close or intimate to each other, they will mutually exchange T or V.

The address system of American English has been analyzed by Brown & Ford (1961/1964) and Ervin-Tripp (1972). According to Brown and Ford’s study, the principal choices in American English are between first name (FN) and title with last name (TLN). There are two reciprocal patterns which are governed by a single dimension, ranging from acquaintance to intimacy. And the third pattern, a nonreciprocal one, is governed by two dimensions: age and occupational status. If we interpret the dimension ranging from acquaintance to intimacy as scales of “solidarity” and age and occupational status the manifestation of power, the main pattern are remarkably similar to Brown and Gilman’s earlier work. Ervin-Tripp (1972) uses a flow chart to present the address form system as a series of choices. Her modal includes decision points on whether the addressee is an adult, whether “status marked settings” are involved, whether the addressee’s name is known. Most importantly, it requires the speaker to decide whether the addressee is a “friend or colleague”, and whether the addressee is in higher rank or older. Again the address system falls into the pattern of “power and solidarity”.

Thus address forms can be regarded as linguistic signals of the power-solidarity relations between the interlocutors. Such relations can also be regarded as “a special case of a more general phenomenon, concerning the speaker’s relation of power and solidarity with the world at large” (Hudson, 1980:128). The norms of address systems are formed in our speech and then turn to govern our speech. When thinking of how to address a person, we are forced to follow the norms. Thus the linguistic signaling of power and solidarity can be seen as the way in which speakers locate themselves in the social world.


Ages and ranks in Chinese address system

One of the bases of power is the institutionalized role within the family. “The V of reverence entered European speech as a form of address to the principal power in the state and eventually generalized to the powers within that microcosm of the state----the nuclear family.” (Brown and Gilman, 1968:256) The connotation of power has changed in response to social changes. A more commercialized society tends to attach more importance to occupational ranks in business organizations, as is revealed in Brown & Ford’s and Ervin-Tripp’s study. But family is still an important field where power practices.

As Brown and Gilman (1968) state, the power semantic was closely tied with the feudal and manorial system. The patriarchal-feudal society lasted for more than 2000 years in China and has profound influence on every aspects of social life. A patriarchal family is the microcosm of a society with rigid hierarchy of power. Such a sense of hierarchy is not so strong now, but the traces can still be found. In Chaoshan, a lot of traditions are kept due to historical and geographic reasons (Chen, 1990). The Chaoshan natives worship and commemorate their ancestors in every traditional festival. The privilege of lighting the incense is granted to the father or the eldest son of a family.

Inside the families, the relations between the older and the younger, the senior and the junior are very important. These relations contribute to a very complicated kin terms system (Chen Ke, 1993). An elder brother is called “ ge”, a little brother “ di”, an elder sister “jiê jie”, and a little sister “mèi mei”. When there are several elder brothers, more subtle distinctions are made: “ ” (frist elder brother), “èr ”(second elder brother), and so on. Men’s dominating status inside the family is reflected in the clear distinction made between relatives on father’s side and mother’s side. Relatives of mother’s side are considered to be less close and are addressed differently. For example, the male relatives on father’s side are “ ”, “shü ” and “ ”, those on mother’s side are “jiù jiu” and “ ”. These terms are equal to “uncle” in English. Moreover, there are different terms among cousins: the children of the father’s brother are called “táng”, and the children of the father’s sister and the mother’s brother or sister are called “biâo”. In contrast, the English kin terms system is comparatively simple. “brother” or “sister” has no implication of age distinction. “Uncle” and “Aunt” refer to all the collateral relatives of one’s parents’ generation.

Such a complicated kin terms system naturally leads to an address system focusing on ages and ranks. Further evidence comes from Zhu Wanjin’s study. Zhu follows Ervin-Tripp’s study modal and designs a computer flow chart to generalize the Chinese address system. The chart shows that ages and positions in family hierarchy are of utmost importance in the determination of choice to name a person among the Chinese (Zhu Wanjin, 1990).


Women’s social status reflected by the address forms

The following is “a scene on a public street in contemporary US” mentioned by Ervin-Tripp in her discussion of American rules and address:

“What’s your name, boy?” the policeman asked…

“Dr Poussaint. I’m a physician…”

“What’s your first name, boy?…”


According to Ervin-Tripp, the policeman insulted Dr Poussaint three times. He treated TLN as failure to answer his question and demanding FN. And he used the term “boy” twice to address a physician, which is a social stigmatic term used only for “a child, youth, or menial regarded as a non-person “. By addressing a black adult “boy”, the policeman reveals the racial discrimination: “Blacks are wrong to claim adult status or occupational rank. You are children.” (Ervin-Tripp, 1972:230)

So there seems to be a norm of treating children differentially. Children are deprived of reverential treatment adults usually receive. The first selector in Ervin-Tripp’s computer flow chart checks whether the addressee is a child or not. If he/she is a child, only first name will be used. If the first name is not known, no name will be used. The present study of women’s address forms in Chaoshan areas is actually the study of women’s social status in a traditional society. When required to use the same address forms as their children, women are more or less stripped of adult status, similar to Dr Poussaint’s being called “boy”. In this way, such a tradition is a powerful evidence of placing women in the same subordinate position as children.


Explanation to the change and investigation


The synchronic research of linguistic change in progress

Language change used to be regarded as unobservable by the majority of linguists. Leonard Bloomfield stated that “the process of linguistic change has never been directly observed----we shall see that such observations with our present facilities are inconceivable.” (Bloomfield, 1933: 347, quoted from Aitchison, 1991:12) But it has been realized that language change is observable: the diachronic linguistic change is reflected in the synchronic change of language and thus can be studied through the synchronic change.

The pioneer in this field is William Labov. His study in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, shows that there is a change in progress in the diphthongs of words such as right, wife, house, out in the Vineyard. His later study in the three New York stores indicates that a new prestige pattern characterized by the reinsertion of r in words such as car, bear, beard is being adopted. “The hypercorrect behavior of the lower middle class is seen as a synchronic indicator of linguistic change in progress.”  (Labov, 1968:115) More detailed study of the pronunciation habits in New York City, combined with his former study, contribute to a classic Labov variation modal: the correlation of language use and the user’s social status (social variation) and the correlation of language use and stylistic change (stylistic variation ). Such a modal explains how language change is actuated and studied (Labov, 1968; Aitchison, 1991; Fasold, 1984; Xu, al. et.). Peter Trudgill follows Labov’s methods in his study of Norwich speech and confirms that “when there is both class and stylistic variation, a change is likely to be in progress” (Aitchison, 1991:64).

Apparent Time Research of Language Change in Progress

William Labov’s research in the Vineyard is a famous example showing how to study language change in progress through linguistic variation in different ages. The 69 subjects are subdivided into 5 age groups in every 15 years. Labov’s study shows that from the over-seventy-five age group down to the thirty-one-to-forty-five age group, the percentage of the centralization of vowels rises. The negative correlation of vowel change and age change reflects that the centralization of vowels is in progress. This synchronic research through linguistic variation in different age groups is called apparent time research by Labov.

A preliminary inquiry of the present study shows that the tradition of using the same address forms as children is being discarded by some young married women. In order to prove that there is change in progress, Labov’s modal of apparent time research is followed. The selection of subjects is based on the following principle: half of the subjects must live in the countryside, the other half in the urban areas; they must be with different professions and in different ages varying from 20s to 50s. Altogether, 74 local married women are investigated, who are subdivided into 4 age groups: 20—29, 30—39, 40—49 and 50—59. The questionnaire analyzed with SPSS 11.0 (Statistics Package for Social Science) reflects a positive correlation between age groups and the percentage of married women using the same address forms as their children: the percentage declines from the 50-to-59 age group down to the 20-to-29 age group. So there is indeed a change in progress: less and less married women follow the traditional way of addressing.


The Causation of Language Change

Sociolinguists have found that the change of language is not simply initiated by the internal structure of a language such as assimilation, simplification, etc. and that every language change is triggered by certain social factors so that it happens in a specific historical time (Aitchison, 1991; Xu, al. et. 1997; Holmes, 2001). Taken Labov’s study in the Vineyard again. The centralization of some vowels used to exist in the dialect of the island for several hundred years but almost disappeared in the 1930s’. Its revival was connected with the rise in popularity of the island as a tourist resort after World War Two and the disapproval of the summer people by the old inhabitants, especially the fishermen. They exaggerated the centralization of vowels to distinguish themselves from the despised summer visitors. This was followed by the staunch defenders of the island’s way of life, mostly in the 30-to-45 age group. As for those in the 14-to-30 age group, most of them planned to leave the island and live on the mainland and thus adopt a more standard form of pronunciation.

Then, what has caused some married women to abandon the age-old tradition in Chaoshan? Economic development is a possible reason. In Chaoyang County, where most peasants have switched to the processing business, married women lead a much richer life than those in mountainous Raoping County. Among the subjects, five women are from Chaouyang and four from Raoping. They unanimously claim to follow the tradition. So economic development cannot explain the change.

Another possible reason is educational background. Nowadays the Chinese society is getting more and more open and equalitarian with more and more women receiving higher education and taking up professions as men. “The development of open societies with an equalitarian ideology acted against the non-reciprocal power semantic and in favor of solidarity.” (Brown & Gilman, 1968:230) If women are more status-conscious than men (Trudgill, 1974:88), then educated women are more conscious of their social status implied by the linguistic choice. When being asked to address her husband’s families in the same way as their children, well-educated women will inevitably identify themselves as being in a subordinate position as children. The equalitarian ideology will then be aroused, leading to the abandonment of this tradition. In short, higher education leads to stronger consciousness of equality. Such consciousness contributes to the dropping of the tradition that places women in the same position as children.

The subjects’ educational background (ranging from doctor/master degree holder to illiterate) was stratified and scored. The lower the index was, the higher the educational level. In this way the average education index of each age group was calculated. Analysis shows positive correlation between the percentage of women following the tradition and the average education index, confirming the assumption that higher education leads to higher possibility of abandoning the tradition. Education is the social factor that actuates the change in the address system of married women in Chaoshan areas.

Conclusion and Implication

The traditional value that women are regarded as a subordinate group in the society is reflected by their use of address forms. This is especially the case when we observe how married women in Chaoshan areas address the family members from their husbands’ side. The fact once again confirms that language is the mirror of social values. And the change that such a requirement is being discarded indicates the co-variation between social change and linguistic choice. With the development of the society, more and more married women receive higher education and their consciousness of equality becomes stronger, thus more and more married women abandon the tradition that requires them to address the family members from their husbands’ side as their children.

The present study might not provide significant insight into the teaching of language skills, but it can serve as a good case in language classroom discussion so that classroom activities can become content-based and authentic. For example, when the English learners were involved in a unit about sex-role revolution in contemporary society, the researcher introduced the study and suggested the learners to conduct surveys of address systems in different parts of China. The results of these surveys were then exchanged in class discussion and later reported in written forms. Beside this pedagogical implication, the study investigates address system in a particular context and is of academic value to sociolinguistics.



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