The problem of peers in Vietnamese interaction

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Abstract

In Vietnamese, address (second-person reference) is typically accomplished by the use of a kin term regardless of whether the talk's recipient is a genealogical relative or not. All Vietnamese kin terms encode a specification of either relative age or relative generation of participants, and there are no reciprocal terms akin to English ‘brother’ or ‘sister’; rather, a speaker must select between terms such as ‘older brother’ (anh) or ‘younger sibling’ (em). Since generation is normatively associated with a difference in age, the result is a ubiquitous indexing of age and status hierarchies in all acts of address. This results in a problem for peers. How, in such a system, should they address one another (and also self-refer)? In this article, we describe the various practices that speakers use to subvert the system and thus avoid indexing differences of age or station. Specifically, we describe four practices: (1) the use of true pronouns in address and self-reference; (2) the use of proper names in address and self-reference; (3) the use of kin terms in address and pronouns in self-reference; and (4) the ironic use of kin terms in address. We conclude that the Vietnamese system well illustrates what is likely a universal tension between hierarchy and equality in acts of address and self-reference, by showing how speakers deconstruct the vector of age and indicate that they consider one another peers. We further suggest that although the literature in this area has focused on the ways in which languages convey differences of status and rank, social order is built as much upon relations of parity and sameness – on identification of the other as neither higher nor lower than me – as it is upon relations of hierarchy.

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