Address terms in Tehran Persian: Gender, politeness, and language attitudes.

Golnaz Nanbakhsh

Edinburgh University, United Kingdom


Persian, has two personal pronouns for singular address, to ([to]) the familiar or intimate ‘you’ and šoma ([shoma:]) the deferential or formal ‘you’ (historically the second person plural but now also used as second person singular). Since the 1979 revolution, public ideologies about politeness and address have been radically reframed in egalitarian terms. But to what extent are these macro-social ideologies reflected in the micro-sociolinguistic behaviour of individuals?

Previous literature on address forms in Persian (Keshavarz 1988, 2001) focussed only on pronouns, and applied an overly simplistic model of to (signifying intimacy) or šoma (signifying formality) to the data. Moreover, Persian is a pro-drop language, so the interaction between pronouns and agreement marking must be taken into account. My research demonstrates the importance of this, documenting a hitherto unnoticed possibility of having šoma with 2s (to) agreement.

I report on two sets of data. A pilot study with 7 Iranian families in Edinburgh, among whom use of to has increased. This means that to is used more often than šoma in family domains, which is not discussed in existing work on the Persian address system (Keshavarz 1988, 2001, Ardehali 1990). There also appeared to be a significant difference between men and women, on the basis of age, education and attitudes in their use of to and šoma. I also report on spontaneous speech collected in more than 15 family dinner table conversations and 20 interactions in the media recorded during recent fieldwork in Tehran. I suggest that these changes of address term usage are due to changes in how social solidarity is marked in the post-79 generation. I combine qualitative and quantitative analysis and argue that address terms are categorised as familiar and deferential in idiosyncratic ways, based on individuals’ habitus and identity.

It is rare to be able to study changes in language and cultural norms of such magnitude as those following the Iranian revolution. This study both illuminates the impact of local social change on language variation, and also revitalises the study of address terms and politeness by considering novel data from Persian.

Ardehali, P.-E. (1990) Pronoun exchange as a barometer of social change. Dialectical Anthropology, 15:1 82-86.

Brown, P. and Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keshavarz, H.M. (1988). Forms of address in post-revolutionary Iranian Persian: a sociolinguistic analysis. Language in Society 17: 565-575.

Keshavarz, H. M (2001). The role of social context, intimacy, and distance in the choice of forms of address. International Journal Social Language. 148: 5-18.

Session: POSTERS:Focus on language policy, literacy, education, identity
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:00-15:45
room: foyer