Levels of Speech — Introduction

levels of speechDid you ever hear the expression “talking down to someone”? Some grown-ups “talk down” to children as if they were idiots and not just young. Some elitists “talk down” to others because they consider themselves to be better in some way (smarter, richer, higher-born, cleaner) than their audience. The humble and shy sometimes “talk up” to persons in authority or of high social status.

“Levels of Speech” has to do with how we speak to others – whether “up” to them, “down” to them, or on the same level.  Because English syntax does not impose different forms for different levels of speech (unlike virtually all other Western and most Eastern languages), the point may be fairly subtle to you if you have not studied some other language.

The Formal and the Intimate Forms

English has three main ancestors: Old German (imported by the Angles, Saxons and other invaders), Old Norman French (brought by the Norman conquest) and Latin (the language of religion and education for almost two millennia). All three ancestors used two, and sometimes three levels of formality in the way the people wrote or spoke to one another. English used to have them, too, even as late as Shakespeare’s time, but those forms have faded away – all except the single choice of the “you” form.

In case you need to be reminded:

  • First person refers to oneself;
  • Second person refers to the person to whom you are speaking or writing;
  • Third person points to others outside the communication: he, she, it or they.

(And, of course, “singular” refers to one person, and “plural” refers to more than one.)

In German, the familiar form, used only with friends, family and young children, was (and still is) “du.” In Norman French, it was “tu.” In English, it was “thou,” a close relative of each of them. This form is called “the second person singular” form of address.

The formal form, used for persons in authority, the elderly and strangers, was in the “third person singular,” along with “he, she and it.” It was an indirect way of referring to a person. Today, a waiter in a fancy restaurant might ask a customer, “Is the gentleman ready to order?” (Note that “is” (third person) is the correct form of the verb in that formal question.) In centuries past, one might address a king or a bishop as “your majesty” or “your grace.” This is using the third person singular as a sign of formality and respect. The word “ma’am” is a modern contraction of “madame” (“Ma Dame” or “My Lady”), which was a polite (third person) usage.

Class distinctions also dictated levels of speech. Persons of higher social station would always be addressed by persons of lower social station in the polite forms (third person). The “upper crust” might talk down to the underlings – the servants and other common people – in the familiar forms (second person). Children were expected to use the formal form with adults, as a sign of respect, but adults normally used the familiar form with young children (except sometimes when the adult was angry and wanted to make a point with the child).

In social circles, moving from the polite form to the intimate form was an important milestone in a friendship or a courtship. In modern times, most European cultures still have different levels of formality in speech, but the familiar form is becoming almost automatic as among contemporaries, especially young adults. But even today, in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking cultures, the third-person-singular, polite form of address is still very much in use, and it still echoes its historical origin: “Usted” (the formal form in Spanish) and “Você” (the formal form in Portuguese) are each a contraction of the same expression: “Vuestra Merced” in Spanish and “Vossa Mercê” in Portuguese. It means “Your Mercy.”

Taking The Middle Road

As principal parents of modern English, Old German and Norman French also gave us an intermediate form of address. It was less formal than the third person (“Your Grace” or “My Lady”), but a little more distant than the “tu” or “du” forms, reserved for loved ones. This was the “second person plural,” but used in the singular.

In modern German, you can ask if someone speaks German with “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” This is the second person plural used in the singular — a modern, somewhat formal usage for speaking with strangers. In French, it is “Parlez-vous Français?” The “vous” is also second person plural, used in the singular.

In English, the same shift occurred: Instead of using the “thou” form for polite, not-quite-intimate discourse, English speakers used “ye” (in the nominative or subject form) and “you” (in the object form). These are normally second person plurals, but useful for courteous communication in the singular, without the clumsiness of the indirect, third person form.

In English, the most formal form (“your Grace” or “My Lord”) fell out of use, and the “thou” form also disappeared from common speech, leaving only “you.” We use the same form of address for the President of the United States as for a paperboy or a child of three. It is the second person plural, used in the singular.

Why Does This Matter?

If English has shucked its super-formal and intimate forms, why do “levels of speech” matter at all? Good question. It is because we have not shucked the need to speak formally in some cases, and intimately in others. We have indeed lost the syntactical way of expressing our levels of speech, so we need to use different strategies to express respect, friendliness, distance, closeness, and so on.

The three main tools we have left (apart from body language and facial gestures) are: (1) tone, (2) rhetorical style and (3) vocabulary. In written English, we do not even have the benefit of body language and facial gestures. “Tone” in written language is more subtle than one’s tone of voice when speaking. These realities help to explain why persons who do not speak articulately have so much more trouble communicating in writing.

Tone, rhetorical style and vocabulary describe a manner of speaking. If a parent has ever said to you or a friend, “Don’t speak to me that way!”, the complaint is probably: (1) that your tone was disrespectful; (2) that you were muddled and unclear in how you expressed yourself; or (3) that your word choices were inappropriate in some way (slangy, coarse or rude).

Much more than those who speak languages in which syntax defines one’s level of speech, we speakers of American English must master tone of voice, rhetoric and word choice as a means of distinguishing between formal, familiar and intimate speech. When will this be most noticeable? In contexts like college admission interviews and job application interviews, to name just two.

In this category, here are relevant page links:

“You” in English
An Illustration from La Bohème
Use of Slang
Style Considerations