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Talk to Elders: Social Structure, Attitudes and Forms of Address

  • Linda A. Wood (a1) and Ellen Bouchard Ryan (a2)


In the present paper we analyse some of the problems in talk to elders by examining evaluative dimensions of talk in general and of address forms in particular. We first introduce status and solidarity as primary dimensions underlying talk. We briefly review research on attitudes and talk to elders, and develop a framework in terms of status and solidarity for understanding the evaluation of talk to elders. The framework, speech accommodation theory, and politeness theory are then employed in a specific analysis of various aspects of problematic address usage: title and last name v. first name; third person; first person plural; and no-naming. The paper concludes with a discussion of the implications of the analysis for future research, for practical applications, and for the extension and integration of theory



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1 Lonner, W. J., The search for psychological universals. In Triandis, H. C. and Lambert, W. W. (eds) Handbook of Cross-cultural Psychology; Vol. 1. Perspectives, pp. 143204. Allyn & Bacon, Rockleigh, NJ., 1980.

2 Brown, R., Social Psychology. Free Press, New York, 1965.

3 Brown, P. and Levinson, S. C., Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987.

4 For example, Brown, P. and Levinson, 1987, op cit.;Dowd, J. J., Conversation and social exchange: managing identities in old age. Human Relations, 34 (1981), 541–53;Ryan, E. B. and Giles, H. (eds) Attitudes Towards Language Variation: Social and Applied Contexts. Edward Arnold, London, 1982.

5 Ryan, and Giles, , 1982, op. cit.

6 Brown, R., 1965, op. cit.

7 Kogan, N., Beliefs, attitudes and stereotypes about old people. Research on Aging, 1 (1979), 1136;McTavish, D. G., Perceptions of old people. In Mangen, D.J. and Peterson, W. A. (eds) Research Instruments in Social Gerontology: Vol. 1. Clinical and Social Gerontology (pp. 533622). University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1982.

8 Kite, M. E. and Johnson, B. T., Attitudes toward older and younger adults: a meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging. 3 (1988), 233–44.

9 See also Crockett, W. H. and Hummert, M. L., Perceptions of aging and the elderly. Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 7 (1987), 217–41.

10 See Harris, L. and Associates. The Myth and Reality of Aging in America. The National Council on Aging, Washington, D.C., 1975.

11 Ryan, E. B. and Heaven, R. K. B., The impact of situational context on agebased attitudes. Social Behaviour, 3 (1988), 105–17.

12 Ashburn, G. and Gordon, A., Features of a simplified register in speech to elderly conversationalists. International Journal of Psycholinguistics, 8 (1981), 731;Caporael, L., The paralanguage of caregiving: baby talk to the institutionalized aged. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40 (1981), 876–84;Coupland, N., Coupland, J., Giles, H. and Henwood, K., Accommodating the elderly: invoking and extending a theory. Language in Society, 17 (1988), 141.

13 Coupland, et al. , 1988, op. cit.;Ryan, E. B., Giles, H., Bartolucci, G. and Henwood, K., Psycholinguistic and social psychological components of communication by and with the elderly. Language and Communication, 6 (1986), 124;Shadden, B. B., Interpersonal communication patterns and strategies in the elderly. In Shadden, B. (ed) Communication Behavior and Aging. A Sourcebook for Clinicians, pp. 182–96. Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, 1988.

14 Rodin, J. and Langer, E. J., Aging labels: the decline of control and the fall of selfesteem. Journal of Social Issues, 36 (1980), 1229;Ryan, et al. , 1986, op. cit.

15 Caporael, 1981, op. cit.;Caporael, L. R. and Culbertson, G. H., Verbal response modes of baby talk and other speech at institutions for the aged. Language and Communication, 6, 1/2 (1986), 99112;Caporael, L., Lukaszewski, M. and Culbertson, C., Secondary baby talk: judgments by institutionalized elderly and their caregivers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44 (1983), 746–54.

16 Caporael, , 1981, op. cit.

17 1983, op. cit.

18 Ryan, E. B. and Cole, R., Evaluative perceptions of interpersonal communication with elders. In Giles, H., Coupland, N. and Wiemann, J. (eds) Communication, Health, and the Elderly, pp. 172–90. University of Manchester Press, Manchester, 1990.

19 Ryan, et al. , 1986, op. cit.

20 Ryan, E. B., Bourhis, R. Y. and Knops, U., Evaluative perceptions of patronizing speech addressed to elders. Psychology and Aging (in press).

21 1983, op. cit.

22 Coupland, N., Grainger, K. and Coupland, J., Politeness in context: intergenerational issues (Review article). Language in Society, 17 (1988), 253–62.

23 In order to simplify the Table, we have omitted speech that is inappropriate to the solidarity dimension or to both dimensions of the relationships. Speech that is inappropriate on solidarity alone would be evaluated as too personal or too impersonal. Speech that is inappropriate on both dimensions would call for slightly different evaluative terms than speech that is inappropriate only on the status dimension. For example, while secondary baby talk in an equal solidarity relationship might be viewed as paternalistic, it would be seen as presumptuous in an equal nonsolidary relationship. We note further that the terms we have suggested are preliminary and should be taken only as illustrative. They are based primarily on etymological considerations and might be used rarely or differently in everyday talk.

24 Lanceley, A., Use of controlling language in the rehabilitation of the elderly. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 10 (1985), 125–35.

25 1983, op. cit.

26 See Ryan, Bourhis and Knops, in press, op. cit.

27 Brown, P. and Levinson, , 1987, op. cit.

28 Kroger, R. O., Explorations in ethogeny: with special reference to the rules of address. American Psychologist, 37 (1982), 810–20.

29 Brown, R. Theory of politeness: an exemplary case. Invited address to Society of Experimental Social Psychologists, 10, 1987.

30 Variations of first name, e.g. multiple names (MN) and nicknames (NN), indicate variations in intimacy or solidarity. Solidary superiors who are not kin may be addressed by KT+ (e.g. ‘Aunt’ Joan to a family friend) or by forms such as TFN (e.g. Miss Sally).

31 Brown, R. and Ford, M., Address in American English. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 62 (1961), 375–85.

32 Brown, R., 1965, op. cit.

33 Kroger, R. O., Wood, L. A. and Kim, U., Are the rules of address universal? III. Comparison of Chinese, Greek, and Korean usage. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 15 (1984), 273–84.

34 For example, Lanceley, , 1985, op. cit.

35 Roman, O., Negotiation between nurses and elderly patients in hospital and community settings. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto, 1987.

36 Brown, P. and Levinson, 1987, op. cit.

37 As Brown, P. and Levinson, (1987, op. cit.) note, most forms of address are also forms of reference; the important distinction is usage.

38 Elliot, E., My name is MrsSimon, . Ladies Home Journal (1984, 08), pp. 1821, 150.

39 Brown, R., 1965, op. cit.;Brown, P. and Levinson, , 1987, op. cit.

40 Brown, R., 1965, op. cit.

41 Ervin-Tripp, S., Sociolinguistics. In Berkowitz, L. (ed) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 4, pp. 91165. Academic Press, New York, 1969.

42 Brown, R. and Gilman, A., The pronouns of power and solidarity. In Sebeok, T. A. (ed) Style in Language, pp. 253–76. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1960.

43 Brown, P. and Levinson, , 1987, op. cit.

44 Ibid.

45 See Ryan, and Cole, , 1990, op. cit.

46 Brown, R., 1965, op. cit.;Kroger, , 1982, op. cit.

47 Brown, R., 1965, op. cit.;Ervin-Tripp, , 1969, op. cit.

48 1987, op. cit.

49 Goe, R. M., Communication and medical care outcomes: analysis of conversations between doctors and elderly patients. In Ward, R. A. and Tobin, S. S. (eds) Health in Aging: Sociological Issues and Policy Directions, pp. 180–93. Springer, New York, 1987.

50 Brown, P. and Levinson, , 1987, op. cit.

51 Ibid.

52 Ibid.

53 Banks, S. P., Power pronouns and the language of intercultural understanding. In Ting-Toomey, S. and Korzenny, F. (eds) Language, Communication, and Culture: Current Directions, pp. 180–98. Sage, Newbury Park, Ca., 1989.

54 1985, op. cit.

55 In some languages, the plural form to one person can convey distance or respect, as in the use of the second person plural pronoun (Brown, P. and Levinson, , 1987, op. cit.). But in English, pluralisation may signal that the person is viewed as a member of a devalued category, i.e. as lower in status than the speaker.

56 Brown, R., 1965, op. cit.;Little, C. B. and Gelles, R. J., The social psychological implications of form of address. Sociometry, 38 (1975), 573–86.

57 1965, op. cit.

58 Ryan, et al. , 1986, op. cit.

58 1987, op. cit.

60 Dowd, , 1981, op. cit.

61 Wood, L. A., Kroger, R. O. and Leong, I., Social competence and the rules of address. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 5 (1986), 161–79.

62 For example, Brown, R., 1965, op. cit.;Kemper, T. D., A Social Interactional Theory of Emotions. Wiley, New York, 1978;Wood, L. A., Loneliness and social identity. In Sarbin, T. R. and Scheibe, K. E. (eds) Studies in Social Identity, 5170. Praeger, New York, 1983.

63 Cf., Caporael, 1981, op. cit.;Ryan, et al. , 1986, op. cit.

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Talk to Elders: Social Structure, Attitudes and Forms of Address

  • Linda A. Wood (a1) and Ellen Bouchard Ryan (a2)


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