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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: August 2020

4 - Addressing: “All Right, My Man … Keep Your Hands on the Steering Wheel”


A shout of “Come here, boy” treats its target as both male and inferior. An adult man brought into a linguistic exchange by that direct address (vocative) is thereby shoved beneath the shouter, positioned below them. ‘Racial etiquette’ once made boy a common address from white people to black men, who were expected/required to return deferential or respectful forms of address like sir or ma’am. Work on European languages with grammatically singular and plural second-person pronouns that now function mainly to position those being addressed (called T/V, as in French tu and vous) has explored two distinct axes of social position influencing address, power and solidarity. Power is nonreciprocal, solidarity goes in both directions. English now has only grammatically plural you as a direct address pronoun, but it has other address resources people use to position one another: given and family names, endearments, mock insults, professional titles, kinship terms, and more. Nicknaming asserts power, which may be affectionate (e.g., a fond parent’s pet name for their child) or coercive. Addressing is part of a larger system of linguistic (im)politeness involved in interactions. Large data studies found police (no matter what their own racial identity) speaking more politely to white than to black motorists during traffic stops.