From Community to Conversation - and Back: Generic use of second person pronouns in Danish

Søren Beck Nielsen, Christina Fogtmann, Torben Juel Jensen

LANCHART, University of Copehagen, Denmark


From Community to Conversation – and Back: Generic use of second person pronouns in Danish

In modern Danish, a handful of pronouns can be used to refer to a generic referent, i.e. to a group of persons not further defined, in some cases mankind in general. In Standard Danish, the most fre-quently used pronoun with generic reference is man, developed from the noun man(d) (≈ English man). In recent decades, though, the second person singular pronoun du has gained ground, in parallel to similar recent developments in other languages.

A large scale study based on recordings from four different geographical locations (including the capital Copenhagen) of the same speakers recorded in the 1970ies or 1980ies and again in 2005/06 has documented a rise in the use of generic du. The study indicates that the increased use has spread from the Copenhagen area and outwards to the rest of the Danish speech community, and that the use is correlated with the gender and social class of the speaker. But a quantitative study alone is not sufficient to uncover why speakers of Danish have been increasing their use of generic du during the period studied. In order to understand this increased use the paper suggests exploring social meanings of generic du.

One way of exploring social meanings of variants – which we will use the case of generic du to demonstrate – is to combine the quantitative analysis with a qualitative approach. This happens through the following three steps:

1. The results of the quantitative survey are used for selecting speakers (conversations) for further analysis, and quantitative analysis of these conversations is used for identifying passages with relatively high frequencies of a particular variant.

2. By means of an interaction analytic approach, the passages are analyzed qualitatively. Firstly, the use of du and man is analysed when they vary within the same passage. Secondly, the use of du and man respectively is analysed in passages where the variants do not appear in the same surroundings. Hereby, it is possible to understand central aspects of the social meaning of generic du: The use of du in regulating the social relations between interlocutors, the use of du to convey a particular stance toward the current topic of the conversation and, relatedly, the use of du as a resource for construing identities.

3. The results of the quantitative analysis are reinterpreted in the light of both the results of the qualitative analysis and sociological theories of societal changes in late modernity.

Session: Paper session
Change / Variation
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 12