Mistered and Ma’amed

Today’s Zits:

Jeremy is mistered for the first time, Connie recalls being ma’amed for the first time.

The topic here is vocative (vs. referential) expressions, in particular the subtype of calls (vs. addresses), a domain in which it’s well-known that there are very substantial differences between the subtypes — between the expressions usable in each subtype and the social meanings they convey.

What call do you use to catch the attention of someone you don’t know? Well, it depends on who you are (a school-age but preteen male, roughly 9 or 10, in the cartoon) and who you perceive your addressee to me (an adult man, in the cartoon, though Jeremy is in fact a teenager, roughly 16) and what the physical context is like (in the cartoon, no face-to-face contact between you and your addressee) and what you perceive your relationship to be (one requiring a certain amount of respect, in the cartoon). There’s no call that’s truly neutral in this context: the best a boy can do is respectful mister to a man, ma’am to a woman. Otherwise, there’s hyper-respectful sir, various informal, often mildly disrespectful choices (to a male: buddy, guy, dude, etc.), or peremptory, low-information you — or you can use a non-vocative call like hey, or no call at all, just a shouted disembodied message (like on your left!).

Background in my article “Hey, whatsyourname!”, on vocatives in English (Chicago Linguistic Society, 1974), distinguishing vocative vs. referential uses of NPs, and among vocatives:

Calls are designed to catch the addressee’s attention, addresses to maintain or emphasize the contact between speaker and addressee.


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