22

In many of the languages that I've studied there are separate distinctions in the words to use when talking to elders and when talking to someone of your age or younger.

For e.g. in Hindi, if I wanted to ask you to do something, I would say:

To an elder:

kya Aap ye karoge ?

To someone my age or younger :

kya Tu ye karega ?

If I try to translate this to English, it merely comes to "Will you do it?". There is no consideration for elders or so I think. The closest I can think is when I try to say it comically, like that Indian guy from any of the sitcoms (think Apu from The Simpsons), " I respectfully ask you to do it ". So why is it so ??


Note: The original title of the question was "Why is the English language so rude?"

closed as primarily opinion-based by ScotM, tchrist, Janus Bahs Jacquet, Edwin Ashworth, Kit Z. Fox Apr 26 '15 at 4:26

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  • 40
    In fact, by the reasoning you've presented, English is more polite. We used to have the T-V distinction, whereby thou/thee/thy/thine was informal, intimate, or derisive and ye/you/your/yours was formal or respectful. Over time, we English speakers grew to feel that it was easier and safer to call everyone by the more formal of the two, and so the less formal died out. – Anonym Apr 23 '15 at 3:35
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    What Anonym said -- if all it takes to make a language polite is to have a T-V distinction, then English might be the most polite language around: we use the polite form exclusively, and have for many centuries. – Marthaª Apr 23 '15 at 4:36
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    English is the politest language? And yet nobody else that I know of can put as much venom into a "Sir" as an Englishman. The English can by intonation make the politest phrases actually mean "FY". – David Pugh Apr 23 '15 at 12:17
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    @Marthaª: I think you're missing something inherent in the form of politeness the questioner is asking about, namely that the "preferred" treatment is reserved for those who are held to deserve it. It loses its value as soon as everyone has it. So the stated issue is that egalitarianism precludes privilege, and politeness requires privilege ;-) The actual issue, I think, is that politeness is all about what's expected. So by cleverly not expecting a T-V distinction, English makes it not required for politeness. – Steve Jessop Apr 23 '15 at 12:59
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    This off-topic question is mistitled. It should instead read “Why are Hindi languages so rude that they have special words to discriminate against particular castes of people instead of treating everyone equally?” – tchrist Apr 25 '15 at 10:20

11 Answers 11

64

English is polite by default, it's other languages that are optionally rude.

You raised the polite/rude second pronoun example; well English used to have thou in addition to you. Thou was used by superiors to inferiors, or if you wanted to be rude, whereas you was used when respect is given.

Over time, upper class people tended to use polite pronouns like you all the time, and this was emulated across society so that thou is no longer used.

  • 7
    Could add a side note about the reversal where thou is used as the ultimate term in respecting God in some forms of worship nowadays. It's an interesting side-effect of the fossilisation of language in certain situations. – Andrew Leach Apr 23 '15 at 6:20
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    thou is still English but tis seldom used methinks. I don't think it is inherently demeaning or otherwise, just archaic, e.g. "thou art fairer than a summer's day" – Jodrell Apr 23 '15 at 14:39
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    @peterG You are correct. Thou/thee/thy/thine were the singular forms and you/ye/your(s) were the plural. Somewhere along the way, the plural took over the singular usage, and the "T" forms became seen as "formal" only. Ironically, we have to reinvent the distinction between secnod person singular/plural, producing y'all/youse/y'uns/yinz and other regional variations. – Monty Harder Apr 23 '15 at 18:48
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    does anyone have an actual reference to guesses such as this: "Over time, upper class people tended to use polite pronouns like you all the time" – Fattie Apr 24 '15 at 6:43
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    @peterG It's much more complicated than that. In French, the Christian God is addressed as "tu" (familiar singular), rather than "vous" (which serves as familiar plural, formal singular and formal plural). Until Vatican II, French Catholics referred to God as "vous", whereas Protestants used "tu". I think that makes it clear that it's a matter of formality, rather than singularity, in French at least. But, according to Wikipedia a whole bunch of other languages use the familiar, including German, which also has a perfectly good formal singular it could use – David Richerby Apr 24 '15 at 9:16
39

English is not intrinsically rude, it's just that certain social assumptions are not built in, as they are in Hindi. Instead, deference is optional. As user21820's answer states, there are various ways of showing deference (to one's elders, if one wishes), such as honorifics. Choice of words means a lot, as does various phrasing choices. For instance, "I'm afraid that won't work, sir" is far more respectful than "Buddy, that's just dumb", which would probably be recognized as rude by most native speakers.

And it's not as if one cannot be rude in Hindi. One need only use "kya Tu ye karega" to an elder, for instance.

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    Hahaha nice contrasting pair! – user21820 Apr 23 '15 at 3:39
  • Explicit honorifics are often used ironically in English. With the right inflection they can be diminutive. – Peter Wone Apr 25 '15 at 3:01
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    Practically everything in English can be used ironically. – WhatRoughBeast Apr 25 '15 at 3:03
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    Ironic that such a direct and literal language should lend itself to irony. – Peter Wone Apr 25 '15 at 3:04
  • American usage differs, though. I found it hard not to hear 'sir/ma'am' as sarcastic, even though I knew it was intended respectfully. – cfr Apr 26 '15 at 0:13
14

English is just a language and cannot be rude; it is the people who use it who might be rude (intentionally or otherwise).

One can use the modal "could":

Could you do it?

Adding various phrases are also recommended as basic courtesy:

Could you please do it?

Could you do it, please?

To address adults:

Sir/Madam, could you please do it?

Mr./Mrs./Ms. X, could you do it, please?

Other ways of expressing a request:

I would appreciate your help if you could ...

Please allow me to request that ...

May I ask if I/you could ...

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    @user96551: You are expecting too much. Different languages have different ways of conveying things, including courtesy. Some languages use a different verb conjugation, others change the pronoun, and others like English just use additional words. It is a different matter if you find that you cannot express something at all. – user21820 Apr 23 '15 at 3:39
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    @user96551: I should also add that a lot of courtesy is conveyed through body language too, so that is one reason people sometimes don't bother to use extra words. Written text on the other hand does not have the luxury of expressive body language, so courtesy is put more into words. – user21820 Apr 23 '15 at 3:42
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    @user96551 "There should be.." No, stop there. English, like nearly every widely used language, is not a designed and developed language. There is no "should be" in a language which has evolved organically. Things are the way they are, and that's it. Thinking in any other way is just going to leave you asking "why is X this way" when the reason ultimately comes down to "because it is". – Chris Hayes Apr 23 '15 at 5:06
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    @alephzero: Yes there are infinitely many ways to say the same thing, of which your first is indeed a captivating one. I did not attempt to cover any range of anything, and hence nowhere in my answer did I say there were no other ways. =) – user21820 Apr 23 '15 at 5:15
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    "Should be": Who says? By what standard do you say that a language that has different pronouns for different classes of people "right" and a language that does not have this is "wrong"? We could certainly debate whether having such words encourages a civil society, encourages blind obedience to authority, is done so mindlessly that it makes no difference at all, etc. But even if it's true that it accomplishes some worthy goal, it's quite a leap from there to saying that that's the only way to accomplish this worthy goal, or that there might not be other competing goals that are equally worthy. – Jay Apr 24 '15 at 20:31
8

Good Question, I had asked this once to one of my Professor, and Its worth mentioning his name here Mr. Rajiv Prasad.

The answer he gave was very optimistic and sounded very true, his reply was very simple and one line only

"English people don't discriminate between elder and younger they give respect to every one"

6

English has many levels of politeness -- it just leaves it up to the speaker to decide which is most appropriate for a situation.

For instance: say there are papers scattered all over my living-room, and I need the person who owns then to clean them up because we have company coming over.

If they belong to a child, I would probably use the simple imperative form: "Clean up your papers, we have company coming."

If they belong to my partner, the imperative form would feel a bit brusque with an equal, so I'd phrase it as a request: "Hey hon, could you clean up your papers? We have company coming."

If they belonged to either of my parents, I'd be more deferential in the request: "Dad/Mom, if you get a chance would you mind doing something about your papers? We have company coming."

With a grandparent, I'd be even more deferential "I hate to have to ask this, but since we have company coming over, would you mind doing something about your papers in the living-room? I'd do it myself, but I don't want to mess with your personal things."

So: in English, for the same request, I would -- without even thinking about it consciously -- use a different politeness level with a child, an equal, or an elder.

Of course, the spectrum of politeness-nuance possible, and the fact that the language leaves responsibility with the speaker to decide which to apply, would make it much harder for non-native speakers of English to learn and get used to than for a non-native speaker of another language to learn "use this pronoun for an elder, a superior, or a formal situation, but use this pronoun with a child, a partner, or a close friend". But just because the politeness levels aren't as immediately visible to a non-native speaker doesn't mean they aren't there.

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    PS -- in English, if there were one pronoun for "someone my age or younger" and another for "someone older", then I'd be in a catch-22 when speaking with a woman who is five-to-ten years older than me. On the one hand, it would be impolite to call attention to her age, on the other hand, it would be impolite not to. What to do? – LindaJeanne Apr 24 '15 at 14:51
5

There are many cultures where people of greater age enjoy high status and respect. In general, this is not particularly the case in most modern English speaking countries, where youth tends to be more highly prized. Accordingly there are no special forms to indicate one is addressing an elder.

In general, modern English is a fairly egalitarian language. You can speak more respectfully or more informally, but there aren't typically special registers that must be used to address certain classes of people (at least not in America --I can't speak for England).

  • Thank you. That is fairly well put... But has it always been the case or is it a modernization effect ? – user96551 Apr 23 '15 at 3:40
  • @user96551: Certainly seems to be much the same in Shakespeare's English as it is today, so that's about 400 years. – jamesqf Apr 23 '15 at 18:22
4

Language forms, like verb conjugations or grammatical gender, are usually developed historically (over thousands of years) not by sociological factors but by linguistic ones.

It is difficult to answer a 'why' question scientifically because it is hard to see everybody talking and everybody listening and track the reason a person mishears something. It is much easier to describe that a certain form used to be common and now something else is used (by looking at a selection of texts).

That said, I will propose a reason for the lack of a T-V (du/Sie, tu/vous, thou/you) distinction in late modern English.

There is a lot of evidence, but not definitive, that some modern politically important languages are creoles or not too far from creoles. That is, a creole is a language that was formed almost new from two parent languages (to oversimplify, a pidgin is the first product of two distinct parent languages, a lingua franca as a second language, and a creole is the natively learned child of the pidgin). The primary examples are English. Persian, Mandarin, and Indonesian.

For example, historically, English derives primarily from Saxon (a variety of West Germanic) and Norman French (itself a mix of Latin and Frankish), both of which had many cases and declensions and conjugations, but English has barely two cases, nominative and possessive (outside of pronouns). Persian is similar; old Persian had a lot of 'grammar' but after lots Arabic influence nowadays only one third person ('u' for both he and she) (Arabic had two and old Persian had two, but modern Persian has one).

The point is that when mixing the languages, some complexity in both can be lost. As to why the formal 'you' was preferred over the informal 'thou', I can only guess that someone somewhere decided to prefer the former (arbitrarily) and that became the fashion.

I dismiss the alternate tendentious explanation (and implicitly suggested one) that the English language lost the distinction because English society slowly lost respect for its elders (this might also provide an analogous explanation for the lack of kinship terms in English, because English society doesn't have strong family ties). I don't dismiss it because I disagree with the supposed cause but because

  • I don't think those hypotheses are established in English speaking culture (or at least no more than in other cultures)
  • I don't think the hypotheses can have such a causal connection to grammar
  • And the change is in the wrong direction to fit that theory. If the language had shifted from using "thou" for lessers and "you" for greaters to using "thou" for everyone, a plausible conclusion would be that the culture had lost respect for the people who used to be called by the more formal word. But in fact it was exactly the opposite that happened. The obvious theory is that people said, in effect, not "Those people don't deserve special respect", but rather "Everyone deserves respect". (I don't suppose that this logic PROVES my point, but I think it is evidence.) – Jay Apr 24 '15 at 20:37
  • It's interesting to note that (although less common now) many Quakers intentionally used thou and thee with everyone, not to be "rude" but in order to treat everyone as familiar. – mattdm Apr 25 '15 at 12:59
  • @mattdm Older people in Lancashire still sometimes use 'thou' as singular and 'you' as plural. – Mitch Apr 25 '15 at 17:55
  • And may I quote the (Yorkshire) Kaiser Chiefs) from their song I Predict A Riot? "It's not very pretty, I tell thee." – David Garner Apr 25 '15 at 20:12
4

When we address someone we don't know, we will generally be more formal when addressing them, e.g. "Excuse me, Sir/Ma'am." When the person is our boss/superior it is up to them to decide how they want to be addressed, some prefer Mr/Mrs/Miss, others prefer first names, it varies on a case by case basis.

When meeting someone for the first time, we always start out with the formal address and wait for them to tell us what their preference is, or else we ask them directly. We also take our cue from how they are introduced to us. If they are introduced as "Mr. John Doe", we would call them "Mr. Doe" until told otherwise. But if they are introduced as "John" then that is what we would call them. It would generally be impolite to insist on calling them "Mr. Doe" if they have been introduced to us as "John". But this depends somewhat on the specific circumstance.

Of course there are also many subcultures within America who each have their own way of doing things when speaking to other members of their subculture. If you are not a member of that subculture it would be very wrong for you to copy their manner of addressing each other.

In the last 60 years there has been an observable change in our spoken language that is not very strongly reflected in written language. American English used to be a lot more formal, when children through to young adults addressed older adults it was always with Mr/Mrs/Miss (surname), at least that is how I experienced it growing up (on both coasts). I was quite surprised to discover about ten to fifteen years ago that it is now common for even young children to address adults by their first name. This would have been unthinkable when I was a child. So yes, American English/Society today is less formal than it was 60 years ago.

IMHO Strongly stratified class structures such as those that exist in India are an impediment to communication and progress. Perhaps that is why English has become the primary language of technological innovation. As others have pointed out, being informal is not the same thing as being disrespectful. All this honorific stuff typically degenerates into pretentiousness and arrogance in which people are afraid to express their opinions and insights for fear of offending the alpha dog.

As a matter of fact it can be observed that in India all of this so-called politeness actually has the opposite effect. Sure, everyone is polite to the top dog, out of necessity/convention, regardless of how they actually feel about them. But the top dog is essentially obligated to be rude in return by making sure that the people socially beneath them know that they are the lesser. Groveling is expected. In India you have an entire class of people called the "untouchables", who are defined that way by happenstance of birth. You are in essence obligated to be rude (or worse) to these people for no rational reason at all. In ~contemporary~ America no such concept would be tolerated. How then can you say that English is inherently "rude" but Hindi is not? The fundamental assumption behind this question is actually incorrect, you have rudeness built directly into your language. Yes, you feign respect to your superiors but you also are obligated to express disdain for your inferiors, and this is inherent in the very language constructs by which you address each other.

In English, we also make frequent use of tone of voice to convey respect; without the need for special/specific words to express it. When we give respect to someone, it is not mandated by a convention of language structure, and usually not by social status (there are exceptions), instead it is genuinely heartfelt and comes across in the softness and manner with which we speak. A "respectful tone of voice" is a tangible thing. It is easily identified when heard, but perhaps is not possible to describe in writing. It is not so much in what we say as it is in how we say it.

I think that there is a huge and important difference between pretend respect demanded by language conventions and actual respect which has been earned in some way. Because of the lack of obligation imposed by the language structure, English is more honest in this regard. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, being honest towards someone is actually far more respectful to them, even when you don't respect them, then it is to pretend to have respect for them when it is not genuine.

Another way we show respect when someone has earned something by merit, is that we will often refer to them by title -- if they have earned it -- such as "doctor" or "professor", rather than saying "hey you" :-). Sometimes this title is honorary rather than actual, for instance someone who's intelligence is highly regarded may be called "the professor" even though they are not actually certified as such. The term "doctor" or "doc" can also be very confusing, because it usually implies a Medical Doctor (MD), but the term actually applies to anyone with a PhD regardless of what subject they earned it in.

In American culture we do not assume that simply because someone is old that they are automatically entitled to special respect. We are far more interested in what someone has accomplished then we are in how old they are. Perhaps this came about because of changes in life expectancy. When the average life span was 30 years old as it was in the pioneer days, anyone who made it to 60 or beyond, did in fact accomplish something special.

But these days when the average life expectancy of everyone is well beyond 60 years, just the fact of being old is no longer anything special. Also older people tend to hit a point at which they become progressively less able, especially mentally, than they were when younger. Someone with diminished mental capacity is not going to be accorded the same level of respect that they had when they were more able. Furthermore, an old scoundrel is still a scoundrel and just by growing old they still have not done anything to merit being respected. What you have done with your life is far more important than how old you are.

3

One key idea being missed is that this has nothing to do with politeness or deference. It has to do with whether the language forces you to make an explicit judgement of your social standing as compared to the person you are speaking to.

Honorific languages force you to make a decision before you can speak. English allows you to be neutral, or to show respect even in cases where an honorific language might not require it. A well-raised English-speaker will in fact show some amount of respect for their elders. (Children raised to say "Yes sir" or "Yes ma'am" to adults, for example.)

1

I am an arm-chair student of etymology, but no great student of English, just a user and abuser of it.

One of my ideas as to the truncation of our declension(?) is the fiercely meritocratic society that developed in NorAm in a relatively short period of time. Sophistication of language has long been used as a class/cast separator, leaving only dialect and accents for social clues.

I also like the ...parable??...how English (particularly American Idiom) does not borrow words, but grabs other languages, drags them into darkened alleys, beats and bludgeons them and steals what it likes. one iteration I wish i could remember used several of said 'stolen' words.

with respect and veneration, it is offten expressed as affection and equality rather than deference, the latter of which is used more by salesmen and politicians than the average

  • 1
    I'm also fond of the metaphor of English mugging other languages rather than just "borrowing" from them. But I don't know that it's at all particular to AmE. I'm pretty sure that the agents of the old British Empire did their fair share of mugging, bringing back words such as "pyjama" ("pajama" to us AmE folks) from the Subcontinent. And before that, the wandering Angles, Saxons, and Jutes' variant of Low German was heavily influenced by the various Celtic tribes that preceded them, Norman French, Viking raiders, and the occasional Spaniard bereft of transport when the Armada was no more, etc. – Monty Harder Apr 23 '15 at 20:41
-1

From my recollection of reading in this area, as languages become more broadly used by more people, and as they mature, they tend to lose articles (a, the, etc.), tense, case, and other 'frills' such as this one. Context becomes increasingly important.

For example, "I went to the store" and "I will go to the store", or even "I would like to go to the store" can all be expressed by "I go store", where the timeframe is picked up from context. This example came from a class in Mandarin a long time ago. I was instructed that Mandarin has no case or tense.

English started out as a Germanic language which had fewer things like noun and verb endings than Latin, so it was relatively clean from the beginning. Today we see this shortening happening, for example "He be gone'" means "He is gone" or "He will be gone", or "He left yesterday" according to context. (Purists and English teachers will shudder, but apparently this is the natural evolution of language.) Considering the amazing complexity that speaking in Latin must have required with all those endings, I'm OK with this.

  • 2
    Hello gar37bic. Are you saying that you have evidence that English once had 'distinct words to use when talking to elders', but that they've disappeared over time? If so, you need to give supportive evidence. If not, this doesn't constitute an answer. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 24 '15 at 23:52

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