In Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth he tells us that the first lessons he received about British customs on arriving in London were: Do not touch others’ possessions, do not ask questions from persons we have just met, do not speak too loudly, and never address gentlemen saying “sir” while talking with them, like in India, because only the servants and subordinates use that form of address.
How much can we learn, more than a century later, from those initial lessons of the young Gandhi, extrapolated, adapting them to our contexts. But we are just going to concentrate on the last observation, the one referring to the forms of address, an issue of customs, education, cultures and, specifically, linguistics.
The forms of address are the lexical modes with which we address persons we are talking to, and can be of the pronominal type: “tu” (you, used informally), “usted” (you, used formally), “vos” (you, mainly used in the area of the River Plate); or nominal, when referring to the name, profession, rank – military, scientific -, relationship, nicknames, etc.
It is quite difficult to explain to a foreigner who gets to Cuba for the first time the forms of address used on the island on a popular level, how the border between the formal and the informal is ignored, how the popular and the vulgar is mixed in the urban language of our present-day society in this second decade of the 21st century.
In this situation, one of the questions that most attracts attention is seeing how the norms that have to do with relations of power and solidarity between people when speaking according to the situation in which they find themselves are unknown: the home, the school, the workplace, a market, a doctor’s office, or a bus stop.
The terms power and solidarity were introduced in sociolinguistics since the 1960s: the first, also called of hierarchy, indicates a relationship of distance, asymmetric, between persons speaking to each other; while the second, solidarity, expresses closeness, intimacy, confidence, a symmetric relationship.
The issue preoccupied us when seeing the last chapters broadcast by Cuban television of the detective series UNO, because we noticed certain confusion in the forms of address in the mentioned audiovisual material, and for me it was disconnected from the represented institution and with the setting where it took place in and the representations made known. I will cite examples.
In one of the televised chapters a very violent band of criminals who attack occupied homes and exercises extremely violent intimidation on the victims is represented. However, when those criminals are caught, the officer in charge of interrogating them, on several occasions uses a verbal address that does not impose the hierarchy that should prevail in them.
That practice on the level of speech, between the police officer and the criminal, shows the officers using an affective nomination when interrogating the criminals, as occurs with the first of those captured, the so-called Manolo. In that chapter, the most violent of the criminals gets to talk and smile openly with the officer interrogating him.
In a later chapter, one of the interrogated, with the nickname of “El Chino,” is also addressed nominally during the interrogation.
Finally, in the last televised chapter, the officers at times resort to the “tu” and at others to the “usted” according to the interrogated criminals’ age group, while the latter are more careful when speaking with the police officers, who project their position of hierarchy when talking, as corresponds in such circumstances.
Curiously, that chapter is called “Confidence”, to precisely mean the enormous mistakes made when the latter – confidence – is allowed to violate the responsibility we must have in a profession, in a workplace, taking into account the saying: dangers lurks in confidence.
The chain of crimes related in “Confidence” begins with events where a con woman rapidly establishes, in the previously chosen companies to commit the crime, a close and familiar relationship in her communication with her interlocutor to be able to make him violate the norms of control and security.
The research carried out in recent years in sociolinguistics have revealed an increase of the so-called core of solidarity – closeness, intimacy, confidence – and a weakening in the power core – distance – as a consequence of the change of perception of the social relations in modern societies.
In the case of Cuba those changes became very evident starting 1959 with the ideological change imposed by the triumphant revolution. Immediately, the words Mr, Mrs were stigmatised, considered proper of the bourgeoisie; while comrade replaced them, as antagonists, and they received the greatest linguistic prestige in the form of address. Two sayings summed up that ideological mark, that struggle, and defined a position, in favour or against, in the 1960s and 1970s: “the misters left the country,” and “comrades are the oxen.”
Many years had to go by for Mr and Mrs to recover prestige in the forms of address, though young people barely use them, much less in popular speech. Neither is comrade frequently used, neither among young people nor in the popular strata.
The tendency of the times toward levelling out, toward the symmetry among interlocutors when speaking, is notorious on the island, and the use of mama, papa, old man with which we are referred to in public spaces is the daily norm for a part of the population. One gets to the point of asking if those who practice those forms of address are aware of how they can confuse, even bother, the elderly or the speakers of other cultures. That is a subject to reflect on because, as we noted before, it has to do with our country’s education and culture. (2016)
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