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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter November 18, 2021

Approaches to the study of address in pluricentric languages: methodological reflections

  • Doris Schüpbach EMAIL logo , John Hajek EMAIL logo , Heinz L. Kretzenbacher EMAIL logo and Catrin Norrby EMAIL logo
From the journal Sociolinguistica


While research on pluricentricity has traditionally focused on phonological, lexical and grammatical variation across national varieties, pluricentric languages also provide a rich laboratory for the exploration of pragmatic variation, and potentially new insights into the complexities of both pragmatics and pluricentricity. Pluricentric pragmatics remains a developing field and determining appropriate methodologies and strategies for data collection remains open to evaluation and assessment. Methodological considerations pertaining to address research in pluricentric languages are made from a range of perspectives, which are typically interconnected and will depend on the intended research focus. In this contribution we present a critical reflection on methodological aspects of pragmatic research, based on our own experiences investigating address in several pluricentric languages (in particular German and English). After a brief overview of the pluricentric languages considered and their address systems we provide an outline of the research projects reviewed. We then discuss in detail issues regarding data types and data collection (in particular questionnaires, interviews, focus groups and various online data) and consider further methodological aspects such as the choice of research framework, context and type of address investigated, quantitative and/or qualitative approaches taken and whether the research focus is on actual use, reported use and/or perceptions. We conclude with some suggestions for further research directions.

1 Introduction

In this contribution we present a discussion of methodological aspects of pragmatic research into pluricentric languages. We draw principally on our own research experience in the study of address in pluricentric languages.

Early research into pluricentric languages mainly focused on the status of varieties and descriptions of structural-linguistic differences between varieties (Norrby et al. 2020) where the focus is generally on pronunciation and lexicon and, to a somewhat lesser degree, syntax. Research into pragmatic variation in pluricentric languages is an emerging area of investigation. Pioneering pragmatics-focused studies were often concerned with verbal actions (e.g. Schneider’s (1999) exploration of responses to compliments in American and Irish English or Muhr’s (1994) investigation of speech act realisations in academic communication in Austria and Germany). Variational pragmatics was established as a sub-field of linguistic research by Schneider/Barron (2008; see also Barron 2017). It is situated at the interface of pragmatics and variational linguistics, in particular dialectology (Barron/Schneider 2009: 426) and investigates pragmatic variation within a single language (unlike intercultural pragmatics which looks at differences between languages).

In our own research into pragmatic variation in pluricentric languages we have explored address choice which, in this context, refers to pronominal and nominal address (see section 2) and, to a limited extent, peripheral phenomena such as greetings, as certain greetings can pre-empt the type of pronominal address selected. We have also investigated introductions in first encounters, which are closely connected to address as they can determine and drive the address choices made by the interlocutors from the beginning of an interaction (Clyne 2006: 96) and thus provide an excellent basis for investigating how interpersonal relationships are managed and understood by different groups and across cultures.

This overview concentrates on the research we have conducted either as a team, as individual team members on our own or with other colleagues. As we aim to discuss the methodologies - what worked and what did not work, the pros and cons of various methodologies - we draw on our own experiences instead of inferring those of other researchers. Where appropriate and necessary, we will, however, refer to relevant publications by other authors. This approach also entails that we concentrate on research on address in selected pluricentric languages - German and English in particular, Swedish to a lesser extent, peripherally French and Italian - but leaving out Spanish and Portuguese for example, although much work has been done on address in those two pluricentric languages, as demonstrated, for example, by the volumes edited by Hummel/Kluge/Vázquez Laslop (2010), Moyna/Rivera-Mills (2016) and Rebollo Couto/Lopes (2011).

The contribution is organised as follows. In section 2 we give a brief overview of the pluricentric languages we consider and their address systems. This is followed in section 3 by a brief outline of the research projects we review here, their rationale, the data and methodologies applied. We then discuss considerations regarding data types (section 4.1) and further methodological aspects and experiences (section 4.2). Section 5 presents suggestions for future research.

2 Address in some pluricentric languages

The languages we consider can all be conceptualised as pluricentric, albeit in different ways and to a different extent. Note that our focus is on national varieties of standard languages. For English with its historical centre in England, the currently dominant varieties emanate from the main codification centres, the UK and the USA. Non-dominant but still important varieties are (among many others) Australian and Irish English, all with official status in their respective countries (see e.g. Kretzenbacher 2012b). In addition, English acts as the global lingua franca par excellence, thus providing a super-national variety for international communication (Norrby et al. 2020).

The French variety from France is clearly the dominant one and sets the standard, with Swiss and Belgian varieties (not investigated here), and colonial and post-colonial varieties non-dominant. Within France, codification has long been centralised in its capital, Paris (Oakes/Peled 2018: 113-124).

The main national varieties of German are Austrian, German and Swiss standard German, with German German the dominant variety. Within Germany, variation between east and west - i.e. the previous German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) - can be seen as remnant of two previously distinct national varieties (or regional variation). Differences between the main national varieties, above all in vocabulary and syntax, have been well documented (e.g. Ammon/Bickel/Lenz 2016; Dürscheid/Elspaß/Ziegler 2018; Muhr 1997).

Italian can be described as weakly pluricentric with Italy providing the dominant variety and a minor centre of codification in Switzerland (see e.g. Hajek 2012). In addition, within Italy there is substantial regional variation, much greater than, for example, in France or Germany.

Swedish is a national language in Sweden and in Finland with Sweden Swedish the dominant variety. In Finland, Swedish is spoken by a numerical minority of about 5 % of the population and is influenced by the majority language Finnish.

Table 1 shows the pronominal address options available in the standard languages considered. Apart from English, all languages distinguish between singular and plural forms and between less formal (T) and more formal (V) ones. However, given the rapid change towards universal du-address in Swedish, du has lost its former connotations of informality and intimacy and is largely used in formal contexts with ni in very restricted usage. Italian ostensibly has two polite forms in both the singular and the plural respectively, although for most speakers Lei in the singular and Voi in the plural predominate. It is also worth noting that in French, German and Italian the choice of pronoun influences the verb form (Clyne/Norrby/Warren 2009: 2-3); this is particularly important for Italian, a pro drop language.

Table 1:

Address pronoun systems in standard English, French, German, Italian and Swedish







Less formal (T)






More formal (V)









Less formal (T)






More formal (V)







Source: Schüpbach et al. (2007).

In terms of nominal address, in our research we focus on first names, last names, honorifics (such as Mr and Ms and equivalents in the other languages) as well as academic and professional titles. Other forms of nominal address - for example, endearments or nicknames - are not part of this article. In French and Italian, honorifics can be used on their own (e.g. Monsieur, Signora), but this is not the case in the other languages (Sir and Madam being a non-equivalent exception in English). In French and German honorific and academic title can be used together (e.g. Monsieur le docteur, Frau Professor), in German the last name can be added as well (Frau Professor Meyer). In contemporary Swedish, honorifics and titles are rarely used to address a person directly.

The combinations of nominal and pronominal address terms which are possible and conventionally used in the various languages are another aspect to consider. In current German, for example, first name is commonly associated with T-pronouns and honorific and last name with V-pronouns, whereas the combinations of first name and V-pronoun or of last name and T-pronoun are deemed acceptable in very restricted contexts (cf. Besch 1994: 254). While Italian is more similar to German, in French first name and V-pronoun is slightly more accepted and used more widely, often as a transitory form of address (Isosävi 2013). In the absence of a pronominal T/V distinction in English, nominal address is the focus of variation in this language. However, nominal address terms can be seen on a “scale of bivalent politeness” ranging from intimacy to distance (Leech 2014: 173) or as more T-like versus more V-like (Clyne/Norrby/Warren 2009: 18). Another aspect is whether respective address forms are used reciprocally or not, and what non-reciprocity can tell us about the relative status of the interlocutors.

Moyna/Kluge/Simon (2019: 5-10) provide a current summary of address research in general. Recent publications which include address research with a pluricentric dimension are Clyne/Norrby/Warren (2009), Norrby/Wide (2015) and Kluge/Moyna (2019). Individual chapters in Suomela-Härmä/Härmä/Havu (2013) study regional variation within countries, but the volume does not have a focus on pluricentricity.

3 Overview of the research considered

Our research considered here is grouped around two larger project clusters based at the University of Melbourne: 1) “Address in some Western European languages” (2003-2006, henceforth AWE) and 2) “Address in intercultural communication in Europe today” (since 2006, henceforth AICE). To a lesser extent, we also include aspects of a research programme based at Stockholm University - “Interaction and variation in pluricentric languages - communicative patterns in Sweden Swedish and Finland Swedish” (henceforth IVIP; see also Norrby, this volume, for a research report on this project).

The AWE project aimed to develop a unified model of address usage within a small group of related European languages: French, German and Swedish (and, for comparison but to a lesser extent, English). Specifically, we investigated the extent to which recent socio-political changes have impacted on address practices by examining how the unmarked choice of address pronouns has changed, comparing this across the three languages. Comparisons were also made with English and - most importantly in the present context - between nations and regions using the same language.

This was the first large-scale study of address pronoun use covering three important European languages and two major language groups (Germanic and Romance) within a shared geographical space. Furthermore, it was the first cross-linguistic study of address pronouns with a focus on regional contiguity, specifically in an area of Europe that has since World War II been moving towards political, social and economic integration, but where identification with local cultures still remains strong.

While the project did not focus only on pluricentricity, this aspect was central to it as all three languages considered - French, German and Swedish - are pluricentric, and national and regional variation was built into the project design by the selection of research sites. Research took place in Paris (and to a lesser extent in Toulouse) for French; in two locations in Germany - in Leipzig, in eastern Germany, previously in the GDR, and in Mannheim in the west of the country - as well as in Vienna, Austria, for German; and in Gothenburg (Sweden) and Vaasa (Finland) for Swedish. The methodology combined qualitative with quantitative techniques. Data were collected in focus groups as well as through network interviews consisting of a closed paper questionnaire followed by a semi-structured interview with 12 base participants per research location who then nominated five members of their social networks. We also collected data from electronic discussion lists and chat rooms dedicated to this issue as well as through participant observation. Comparative data for English were collected through focus groups in London, Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) and Tralee (Republic of Ireland). Pluricentric aspects were particularly considered in Clyne/Norrby/Warren (2009: 127-153); Clyne et al. (2006: 300-301 and 310-311); Clyne/Norrby (2011); Kretzenbacher (2011; 2012a: 881-895); Kretzenbacher/Clyne/Schüpbach (2006: 17.12-14); Norrby (2006); Norrby/Kretzenbacher (2013).

The main project within the AICE cluster is concerned with intercultural communication in the L1 of speakers of pluricentric languages and in English as a lingua franca. It investigated preferred nominal address and introduction routines in first encounters in the specific setting of international academic conferences. Data were collected through a questionnaire, initially in paper form, later online (see section 4.1 for more detail). The questionnaire enquired about three scenarios: (1) how respondents introduce themselves, (2) how they introduce others, and (3) how they expect to be introduced, both in English - the lingua franca of international conferences - and in their first language(s). Importantly, the survey also solicited qualitative data in the form of comments and anecdotes on address and first encounters, and demographic information about the respondents (age group and gender, country of origin and country of residence). This allowed us to consider respondents’ reported behaviour in English as a lingua franca, across different languages as well as across national varieties, identified by the respondents’ country of origin (where, we assume, they acquired the local language variety as their L1). The pluricentric aspect was thus again integrated into the data collection instrument. It is discussed for three varieties of English in Norrby et al. (2019) and for English and German in Kretzenbacher/Hajek/Norrby (2013), and Kretzenbacher et al. (2015, 2020).

In addition to the two project clusters, we have conducted a variety of smaller research projects into intercultural communication. While primarily unified by their focus on one or several pluricentric languages, many of these smaller projects are also connected methodologically by data type, as many relied heavily on online data:

  1. Formentelli/Hajek (2016) investigated address practices in academic interactions in three varieties of English. For Australian English, they drew on student questionnaires which report on address use in classroom interactions and they compared the results with patterns found in the research literature on British and US American academic settings.

  2. Kretzenbacher/Schüpbach (2015) investigated online address in varieties of German, based on a corpus of German, Austrian and Swiss online newspaper forums.

  3. Norrby/Hajek (2011) analysed (pronominal) address use in some international websites of the Sweden-based multinational companies IKEA and H&M. While their focus was on language contact and potential transfer of Swedish address policies/practices to other language environments, pluricentric aspects came to the fore when comparing websites in national varieties of pluricentric languages.

  4. Schüpbach’s (2015) study on address in German-speaking Switzerland in contrast with practices in Germany was based on a folk-linguistic corpus which includes advice literature, newspaper articles, websites, online discussion forums and blogs reflecting on experiences and observations of Germans in Switzerland.

The IVIP research programme (2013-2020) was a collaboration between researchers in Sweden and Finland. The project compared pragmatic routines and interactional patterns - among them address practices - in Finland Swedish and Sweden Swedish naturally occurring interactions in three domains: service encounters (Norrby et al. 2015; 2018), higher education (Henricson et al. 2015) and health care (Wide et al. 2019). Almost 100 hours of video-recorded interactions, equally distributed between the countries, formed the empirical basis. Methodologically the project aimed at combining variational pragmatics with a detailed, qualitative analysis of interactional data, where conversation analysis and interactional linguistics were the main points of departure (see e.g. Norrby et al. 2020; Norrby, this volume).

4 Methodological considerations

Methodological decisions and considerations pertaining to address research in pluricentric languages are made from a range of perspectives and angles, which are typically interconnected and will depend on the intended research focus and questions. Table 2 provides an overview of the issues discussed here. One of the primary considerations concerns the type(s) of data used, discussed in section 4.1 and illustrated with examples from our research. Additional methodological aspects are reviewed in section 4.2.

Table 2:

Overview of methodological considerations

Section 4.1 Data types

Section 4.2 Other considerations



Focus groups

Online data

Actual interactions

Methodological framework

Variety/varieties investigated

Pluricentricity or pluriareality?

Context(s) of address use

Type(s) of address investigated

Actual use, reported use or perceptions and attitudes?

Quantitative or qualitative analysis?

4.1 Data types

Jucker (2009) classifies data used in pragmatic research as either intuited, natural or elicited (based on Clark/Bangerter’s 2004 terms of “armchair”, “field” and “laboratory” data). Intuited data rely on speaker recollection and opinion and are collected through interviews and similar measures. Elicited data are collected specifically for the purpose of the research project (e.g. through discourse completion tasks or role plays), whereas natural data are recorded as they occur “naturally”, i.e. for communicative purposes outside the research project, either by taking notes or by audio- and/or videorecording. House (2018: 6) makes a binary distinction between authentic (i.e. natural) and elicited data, but classifies questionnaires and (sociolinguistic) interviews as elicited data. She argues that the two types can productively be used together in mixed-method research for triangulation and corroboration of findings. Dürscheid/Simon (2019) distinguish between natural data and indirect data with the latter referring to data collected specifically for a research project with participants being aware of the research context.

Natural or authentic data provide us with actual language use in context, but their collection and their analysis are complex and time-consuming, making it more difficult to strike a balance between the effort required and the yield. For example, for an investigation clearly focused on a single structure, field notes might be adequate; however, when language in context is examined, other means of recording (e.g. audio/video) are required (House 2018: 5-6). Increasing limitations through stricter human ethics requirements also make access to data collection opportunities more difficult (Schneider 2018: 74-80). Another well-known drawback is the observer’s paradox - the potential influence of the presence of the researcher or recording equipment on the “performance” of the participants. In research into pluricentric variation in particular, the problem of comparability of datasets across different locations arises as a multitude of other variables beyond the researchers’ control enter the picture in “natural” contexts (Dürscheid/Simon 2019: 258). On the other hand, intuited, elicited or indirect data - what speakers report, what they think or recall using/doing - are relatively easy to collect in bulk (logistically and ethically). While data based on reported use may not reflect actual practice, they allow insights into perceived norms or expectations by tapping into the pragmalinguistic and sociopragmatic knowledge of informants (Dürscheid/Simon 2019: 258; House 2018: 6).

With the exception of the IVIP project, our work so far has predominantly relied on indirect data (gained by questionnaires and interviews) and consequently on reported use and attitudes. In the following, we will describe our experiences and consider strengths and weaknesses of the various data types we have used in our research, from questionnaires to recorded authentic data.

4.1.1 Questionnaires

Questionnaires are a convenient and well-established data collection instrument, even more so with online administration now easily available.

For the AICE project, all data were collected by questionnaire, in paper form between 2006 and 2013, and online using SurveyMonkey from 2013. The two questionnaires were thus identical in content but differed in the way participants were recruited and where the surveys were completed. The paper-based questionnaires were distributed at academic conferences in our own fields of linguistics and modern language studies, made available at information desks or potential respondents were approached in person. The respondents thus completed the questionnaires in the conference context. We also trialled distributing questionnaires at international conferences of different disciplines but had very disappointing return rates - possibly reflecting a lack of interest in the research questions. As a result, we decided to restrict the survey to conferences in our field. The online survey was publicised by sending invitations to email addresses which we collected from university websites, again focusing on linguistics and language studies. These questionnaires were thus completed while respondents were not at conferences.

The questionnaire was in English and was kept deliberately short to encourage a high completion and return rate. The core questions were restricted to three scenarios in English and three scenarios in the respondents’ L1. The context was set by asking “When you are meeting conference colleagues for the first time, …”. We cannot know the exact situation the respondents were thinking of when they answered the question, for example, it could have been a more formal introduction during conference proceedings or less formally over drinks. This issue was pointed out to us by some respondents.

Formally the questionnaire used a multiple-choice format, listing the most common options (by first name, by first name and last name, by academic title and last name) plus an open option “other” with a request to specify. Multiple answers were possible. To facilitate data analysis, responses were then reduced to the four categories listed above. Multiple answers were assigned to one of the categories; when, for example, first name was mentioned as one possible option, the response was assigned to the “first name” category. In addition, an open question calling for comments and general thoughts on the topic and a request to relay any experiences or anecdotes on address in first encounters were added. These two open questions generated much comment and allowed us to add a qualitative perspective which helped “elucidate the thinking and understanding of people that may influence the choices they make when addressing and referring to one another” (Kretzenbacher et al. 2020: 118).

The choice of English for the questionnaire, and the decision to keep it very short, led to another issue with L1 speakers of other languages. When we asked about address/introduction using “title”, most respondents deduced correctly from the context of international academic conferences that we were referring to academic titles such as Dr. and Professor, not honorifics such as Mr/Ms/Mrs (often referred to as “courtesy titles” in address research). However, L1 speakers of German in particular sometimes mentioned the German courtesy titles Herr/Frau in this context.

The questionnaire also collected personal information about the respondents. Their first language(s) and country of origin were used to gauge their background in terms of pluricentricity. For example, a person with German as their first language and Austria as their country of origin was classified as an L1 speaker of Austrian German. Some respondents did in fact indicate a specific language variety (e.g. “English (Australian)”, “German (Tyrolean Dialect)” or “Swiss German”). In terms of age, we suggested three age groups - under 30, 30-50 and over 50 - which often coincide with seniority status (post-graduate, early-career, mid-career academics). In hindsight it would have been preferable to add a question about their academic status as this turned out to be an important factor, judging by comments from participants.

In Formentelli/Hajek’s (2016) study, which focused on Australian English, a double-sided paper questionnaire was devised to collect data in Italian language classrooms in Australia on address practices experienced by university students - in English and in Italian respectively. It was a classroom-based activity that was then used with students to explore similarities and differences between the two languages that students might have noted or assumed. It also included questions about address at upper secondary level - to provide some comparative data on any difference in address between levels of education. Otherwise, questions focused on interactions between students within different types of lessons and with different teaching staff, e.g. professor versus tutor, in order to understand the impact of context and hierarchy.

A questionnaire was also a central data collection instrument in the AWE project. It asked 38 questions on reported address use in a number of situations and domains (e.g. with family, friends, strangers, at work). In the follow-up interviews (see below) some of these scenarios were further developed, the reported address practices were probed further and attitudes to existing address practice explored (Clyne/Norrby 2011: 148). The focus of the predominantly closed questions in multiple-choice format was on pronominal address with additional information sought on nominal address for some questions.

By combining the questionnaire with a semi-structured face-to-face interview (see section 4.1.2) we were able to counterbalance some of the disadvantages of written questionnaires that have closed multiple-choice questions. In particular, the interview allowed the participants to expand on their questionnaire answers, thereby adding depth and context, and enabled the interviewers (local research assistants) to ask for clarification. On the other hand, the written format and the often binary nature of the answer options in the questionnaires made them much easier and quicker to process than interview data.

As part of the AWE project we also surveyed a range of companies and institutions by email. The open questions inquired about company address policy (e.g. “Does your company have an official address policy?”) and about actual address practices within the organisation and externally, primarily in communication with customers (e.g. “Which address pronouns and formula are used in letters/emails?”). Unfortunately, the return rate of the survey was disappointing. While the number of replies was insufficient for systematic analysis, we were still able to use the limited number of replies as anecdotal evidence in our analysis of address in the workplace and in Norrby/Hajek’s (2011) study. In hindsight we see three main reasons for this failure: 1) with 14 quite detailed and complex questions the questionnaire was too long and too onerous to complete; 2) it seems particularly difficult to get questionnaire responses when canvassed through email or letter, particularly within companies/institutions, where it can be difficult to identify the appropriate addressee; 3) it seems to be generally difficult to obtain information from companies and institutions about internal policies; we have experienced this in other, unrelated projects.

4.1.2 Interviews

As mentioned above, the audio-recorded semi-structured interview of the AWE project directly followed the questionnaire. The main part of the interview consisted of open questions about address usage in additional situations, attitudes and opinions about address, perceived changes in address practices and specific experiences (e.g. “Have you ever been addressed with a form you didn’t expect?”). Most importantly in the context of pluricentric languages, one question specifically addressed their perception of regional and/or national differences in address behaviour (“Do you think address terms are used in a different way in other xxx-speaking countries?”). Many questions tried to elicit narratives of personal experiences, similar to the anecdotes in the AICE project. The length and the quality of the interviews varied quite considerably, depending on the skills of the interviewer, the rapport established between interviewer and interviewee and the degree of engagement of the interviewee with the topic. Overall, the more free-flowing interviews yielded more narrative data which in turn were more labour-intensive in terms of transcription and analysis. The combination of quantitative and qualitative aspects, however, added much depth to our findings.

4.1.3 Focus groups

Focus groups can be characterised as indirect data collection instruments in the first place as they are convened to talk about and elicit opinions and attitudes on the topic at hand. However, how the participants address one other in interaction may also provide interesting data.

As part of the AWE project, focus groups were convened in each research location at the start of the project during which the participants provided insights which helped shape the further course of the project (e.g. questions to explore in the questionnaire and interviews). The groups were re-convened towards the end of the project when the participants were presented with summarised data and assisted with their interpretation. Groups consisted of 12-16 people from a reasonably broad range of backgrounds. The focus group interactions were audio-recorded and transcribed or summarised.

The focus group meetings - facilitated by a local research assistant - generated lively discussions, provided us with a good insight into address practices and gave us an overview of the range of perceptions, attitudes and expectations of address use. They did not in fact yield much data in terms of actual address use. The interaction was topic-focused and the participants did not directly address each other often enough to draw meaningful conclusions, except maybe regarding avoidance of direct address.

Composition of focus groups can be an issue. To allow easy interaction the group cannot be too large but should be somehow representative of the group under investigation. Factors such as age, gender, occupation, educational level, and socio-economic background of the participants all need to be “balanced”. In our case, for example, the groups overall were biased “towards the professional middle class and students” (Clyne/Norrby/Warren 2009: 33).

4.1.4 Online data

Like focus groups, the online data (chat groups, online forums, blogs) we have used are situated at the intersection of indirect and direct data. They allow for observation of actual address behaviour and interaction among participants (as e.g. in Kretzenbacher/Schüpbach 2015 and Kretzenbacher 2011 among others) but also for intervention, when researchers contribute to the exchanges and/or initiate a discussion. In 2005/06, for example, we visited publicly accessible chat groups and discussion forums for the AWE project for two interrelated purposes: to observe address practices in this online medium and to initiate a discussion on address practices which would provide us with further insights into pronominal address in computer-mediated communication (reported in Clyne/Norrby/Warren 2009: 116-123).

Common to chat groups and online forums is that the participants generally identify themselves by name only - and very often by first name or by nickname that can even vary across forums and platforms. Thus, it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to determine their regional and social background, age and/or gender (Kretzenbacher 2011: 72). Nevertheless, some of these indicators can be deduced from the content or context of the contributions. In our case study of German, Austrian and Swiss newspaper forums (Kretzenbacher/Schüpbach 2015), for example, we assumed that the contributors were actually located in the countries where the newspapers are published. The assumption is supported by the fact that many contributors are regulars and if posting from abroad often emphasise this fact in their comments.

Other online data we used successfully include blogs dealing among other issues with address across German varieties (Schüpbach 2015) and institutional websites (Norrby/Hajek 2011) to investigate how companies address their potential customers across languages and varieties in this medium. Overall, we have found online data a good source of real-life address use in the public domain. We have so far mainly concentrated on “old-style” online media, and have not (yet) tackled currently prevalent channels - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and so on (but see e.g. Foster/Aalberse/Stoop 2019 for a study on address on Twitter in Colombian Spanish).

4.1.5 Actual interactions

As part of the AWE project, (participant) observation was conducted extensively by the researchers when visiting the research locations and recorded in field notes. This approach is useful as it can cover a wide variety of contexts and everyday situations and while it may provide only anecdotal data, they can nevertheless support (or challenge) findings achieved through other means. Also under this umbrella come informal conversations with members of the local community and colleagues about the project and the issue at hand.

We trialled another observation project as part of the AICE project to counter some of the drawbacks of the short questionnaire mentioned earlier and to collect data of actual rather than reported use. We designed an observation schedule to capture introduction and address practices in a variety of sub-contexts at international academic conferences (e.g. plenaries, symposia, social gatherings). As a pilot run showed that this procedure was quite time consuming and would require multiple researchers collecting data simultaneously in order to obtain a notable and reliable sample, we have paused the project.

IVIP is the only project any of the authors have been involved in that considered actual (video-)recorded interactions (see Norrby, this volume, for more detail). While providing natural and very rich data, there are a number of obstacles to this type of data collection, not least of which are the increasing barriers in terms of research ethics and access, as well as the time-consuming and labour-intensive nature of data collection, transcription and analysis.

4.2 Other methodological considerations

Among other methodological questions to consider in this context are those relating to the methodological framework, the language variety as well as the context and type of address investigated. These are discussed in turn and illustrated with examples and considerations from our research.

4.2.1 Methodological framework

The methodological frameworks in the field of address research in pluricentric languages are quite varied, and in our own research we have typically combined several approaches which we outline briefly below. The framework known as variational pragmatics (Schneider/Barron 2008, Barron 2017), was introduced in a bid to combine insights from pragmatic research, social dialectology and variational linguistics. Typically, studies in this field investigate how speech acts and pragmatic formulas (including address routines) are realised in different pluricentric varieties, including both national and regional varieties. Methods of data collection are varied, but early variational pragmatic studies were primarily quantitative in nature, including both experimental designs to elicit certain speech actions (e.g. discourse completion tasks where fictional situations are presented to respondents who are then asked to take over the part of one interlocutor in such situations and enter the turns they would provide to the discourse in the given situation) and authentic discourse, often sourced from large existing corpora.

In recent years, there has been an increased interest within variational pragmatics in combining a large-scale quantitative approach with a qualitative analysis which also includes the interactional, topical and organisational levels of analysis to more fully describe the wealth of pragmatic choice available to interlocutors (see e.g. Schneider 2019). In this vein, some researchers have adopted a processual perspective, focusing specifically on the sequential unfolding of actual interactions and the social actions performed, for example, by a certain linguistic form or gambit (e.g. addressing somebody in a certain way at a specific moment of the conversation). Such an approach is typical of conversation analysis and the related field of interactional linguistics (for an example of this approach see Grahn, this volume).

In variational pragmatics the interest in national and regional variation is complemented by other social factors, such as age, gender and occupation to explain variation, an approach also typical of variational sociolinguistics. In both the AWE and AICE projects the questionnaire datasets were analysed by accounting for such external social variables in addition to national (and regional) variation in address practice.

Much address research has been preoccupied with explaining the variation - either based on actual data and/or respondent perceptions and attitudes to address - and proposing various theoretical models to explain variation in addressing practices. The seminal work by Brown and Gilman (1960) predicted a linear development over time where hierarchical, non-reciprocal address would be replaced by address forms signalling reciprocity and solidarity, and where formal V would yield to informal T. In contrast, the AWE project proposed a model, based on a wide variety of data, introducing three scales to describe the address choices available in the languages under investigation (scale of grammatical resources, scale of V-ness, scale of sameness) as well as a set of principles that people follow when determining how to address a certain interlocutor (e.g. familiarity, relative age, network membership; see Clyne/Norrby/Warren 2009: 156-159). Rather than a diachronic linear development from V to T, the AWE model of address acknowledges the impact of globalisation and migration leading to language contact, where address forms may “travel” across territories and give rise to novel address practices that are cyclical rather than linear in nature. Overall, the AWE project emphasised common ground and perceived sameness as important drivers of address choice. As a result, for individuals a sense of a shared identity, whether perceived through typical social characteristics such as age or occupation, having shared interests, or indices of personal preference such as musical taste or hairstyle, may override conventional address “rules” within the community and facilitate shift to and use of T address.

4.2.2 Variety or varieties investigated

Research may involve the major national varieties of a pluricentric language (e.g. our research on Swedish with its two national varieties), compare some national varieties (e.g. the Australian, British and American varieties of English in Norrby et al. 2019) or focus on one particular national variety (e.g. Schüpbach 2015 on the Swiss variety of German or Formentelli/Hajek 2016 on Australian English). While in this latter case the focus is generally on a non-dominant variety, this is explicitly or implicitly compared with a dominant variety which serves as a/the reference variety.

4.2.3 Pluricentricity or pluriareality?

Research into pluricentric languages traditionally takes national variation as its point of departure and/or subject of inquiry. This view has lately come under some scrutiny with the introduction of the notion of “pluriareality”, which is concerned with regional variation both within and across national borders, i.e. “variation in language use in the entire geospatial space where the language is spoken” (Norrby et al. 2020: 207; see also Auer, this volume). However, the perception of a conflict between a “pluricentric” and a “pluriareal” approach appears to be mostly limited to studies published about German (cf. Dollinger 2019 and Dürscheid/Simon 2019 as recent examples).

Variation at a regional level is also considered within the research framework of variational pragmatics (see section 4.2.1). For German, for example, variation between eastern and western Germany may be relevant: in the AWE project we found some variation between research locations Leipzig (east) and Mannheim (west) (see e.g. Clyne/Norrby/Warren 2009: 127-132). This variation can be framed in terms of national variation, as it is rooted in two previously recognised national standards - albeit of nations that no longer exist in this form. The “north-south divide” is another regional aspect within Germany - particularly important in historically and dialectologically oriented research and documented, for example, in the Atlas zur deutschen Alltagssprache (Elspaß/Möller 2003-), which presents results on maps and thus illustrates that variation can not only be sub-national but also straddle national borders. Variation between regional or rural areas on the one hand and urban centres on the other can add yet another dimension. In AWE network interviews from Finland, for example, there were comments on regional variation in address behaviour within the Finland-Swedish speaking area. Address behaviour was perceived as more formal in the capital, and more relaxed in the regional area where the data were collected (Ostrobothnia in this case).

Both the pluricentric and the pluriareal approaches have direct implications on the selection of research sites and participants. In the case of the AWE project, for example, we made a conscious decision to include three German-language research locations - one in Austria, two in Germany - to capture some of the national variation as well as the regional variation within Germany. Unfortunately, the inclusion of a German-speaking location in Switzerland had to be dropped as a result of funding constraints. Given the focus of the project on socio-political change and its impact on address, the east/west dimension within Germany was pertinent, but the north/south variation less so.

We also had to ensure that the participants were from the specific region we were interested in and had not, for instance, moved to the area very recently. For the AWE project we recruited base participants from the social networks of our local in-country research assistants, making sure that they were connected to the research location. In the questionnaire we therefore asked about their place of birth, the region where they grew up, any other locations where they had lived for more than six months and where their parents were born. While we did not exclude participants who originated in other areas, we wanted to ensure that the primary socialisation of the majority had happened in the specific location and thus reflected address use in that place.

4.2.4 Context(s) of address use

The AWE project investigated a wide range of contexts. The questionnaire, for example, asked about address in the family, with friends and neighbours, in the workplace, with strangers in various situations (e.g. asking for directions, service encounters, police), at school and university. The subsequent interview expanded on some of these contexts (e.g. “What has been the practice of address forms in workplaces where you have worked previously?”), while others were designed to gauge attitudes (e.g. “How do you feel about companies who prescribe the T form (for example: IKEA)?”). We mainly asked about address use in face-to-face interaction, and to a much lesser extent in written and electronic communication.

This variety of contexts provided a good overview of address practices across domains and allowed us to compare address use across languages, contexts and locations. Particularly for address in the workplace we found significant variation (Kretzenbacher/Clyne/Schüpbach 2006: 17.12-14; Warren 2006).

The other projects, AICE and IVIP, covered more specific contexts. The AICE project considered the context of international academic conferences, a valuable site for research on intercultural and intracultural pragmatics and on address and introductions in particular, as introductions are an obligatory part of the interactions, be it in the attendees’ first languages or in English, increasingly the default language of international conferences (see Kretzenbacher et al. 2015: 78-79 for more background on the conference setting). This context was further limited to conferences in the fields of linguistics and modern language studies (see section 4.1). While this has the advantage of a clearly delineated and comparable context, it leaves room for criticism that it may be too narrow - would the results be different if conferences in other academic fields (e.g. in the sciences or in other fields within the humanities and social sciences) were investigated?

The interactions investigated in the IVIP project took place in three domains: service, higher education and healthcare with the majority of interactions sourced from service encounters, supervision meetings, medical consultations and preventative healthcare (see also Norrby, this volume). These contexts are quite specific and well-defined, and thus allow the researchers to control for certain variables. In particular, they represent contexts with “pre-determined institutional roles” (Wide et al. 2019: 2).

4.2.5 Type(s) of address investigated

Whether the focus is on pronominal or nominal address and whether peripheral phenomena such as greetings (often associated with certain address forms) are also included, is largely dependent on the language(s) investigated. For English, nominal address is of most interest, whereas for more complex systems such as in Italian, pronominal address is particularly worth investigating.

The AWE questionnaire was primarily focused on pronominal address, but for a selection of questions we also asked about nominal address, e.g. whether people used first names or kinship terms within the family or first names or honorific/title and last name with their superiors at work. This also allowed us to identify some less conventional combinations (e.g. T pronoun and last name or V form and first name) which could then be further explored in the interviews and focus groups.

The AICE questionnaire focused on nominal address, but some issues regarding pronominal address were raised by respondents. This shows that for many languages there is no clear separation between nominal and pronominal address in the mind of the users, and it is a misleading dichotomy. It was an aspect we underestimated in the AICE questionnaire, where cross-cultural transfer across languages (e.g. from English to German and vice versa) was commented on by respondents in terms of pronominal address, showing an awareness that first name versus last name address in English is not perfectly equivalent to T versus V pronominal address in German.

Schüpbach (2015) explicitly included greetings and leave-taking formulas in her overview of Swiss German address practices as they appear to differ from German usage in Germany, particularly in terms of their association with pronominal address. For example, similar to its use in Austrian German (Kretzenbacher 2011), the use of tschüss for leave-taking is mostly associated with T address in Swiss German but can be used with T or V address in Germany.

Apart from the use of pronominal and/or nominal address, the absence of direct address has also been studied. In particular, this topic has figured prominently in our Swedish data. In the AWE project for example, older Swedish participants often brought up the agony of choosing the right form of address in order not to offend the addressee, often resulting in the avoidance of direct address altogether. The sociohistorical background to address avoidance in Swedish had to do with the former prevalent title use and the condescending connotations that the V pronoun ni had attracted (cf. Clyne/Norrby/Warren 2009: 7-9).

4.2.6 Actual use, reported use or perceptions and attitudes?

For actual and reported use, there is a strong correlation with the data types discussed in section 4.1. Indirect elicited data from interviews and questionnaires provide data on reported use, whereas actual use can only be documented through authentic or natural data (their potential difficulties have been outlined in section 4.1). Perceptions and attitudes, however, can be gleaned from direct and indirect sources, elicited in questionnaires and collected from sources unconnected to research, such as the folk-linguistic data and metalinguistic discussions used in Schüpbach (2015).

Most of our research so far has been based on indirect data and has focused on reported use and users’ perceptions. These two aspects were successfully combined in the AWE and AICE projects, where the two perspectives were used to complement each other.

Actual use is often valued more highly than reported use, a view we have occasionally encountered in reviewer feedback to our publications. We would argue, however, that research focusing on reported use and users’ reflections has its own merits - particularly in the case of address and pluricentricity - as it allows us to investigate perceived norms and explore the pragmalinguistic knowledge of respondents, i.e. speaker perceptions (Jucker 2009) or folk pragmatics (Preston/Niedzielski 2017) (for a focus on actual use see Grahn and Norrby, this volume).

4.2.7 Quantitative or qualitative analysis?

House (2018), discussing her own contrastive research into cross-cultural pragmatics, argues that the view of a dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative data and methods is unproductive and that the two approaches should rather be seen as a continuum: some qualitative data, for example, can be quantified and thus analysed quantitatively. Consequently, she advocates for mixed-method approaches where appropriate, which can not only corroborate results but also add breadth and depth to the findings and counterbalance some of the weaknesses of each approach.

This resonates strongly with our experience where the combination of quantitative and qualitative datasets and approaches was used very productively. In the AWE project, for example, the initial focus group helped us identify the three prototypical address situations in contemporary German which were then confirmed quantitatively in the survey data (Kretzenbacher/Clyne/Schüpbach 2006: 17.13). Similarly, the combination of more quantitatively oriented closed questions in the questionnaire (which by nature are more general and do not convey much nuance) with open questions in the interviews led to richer insights. In the AICE conference questionnaire, using closed and open questions allowed us to combine quantitative and qualitative approaches more effectively.

5 Conclusion

While research on pluricentricity has traditionally focused on phonological, lexical and grammatical variation across national varieties, pluricentric languages also provide a rich laboratory for the exploration of pragmatic variation, and potentially new insights into the complexities of both pragmatics and pluricentricity. Pluricentric pragmatics remains a developing field, and determining appropriate methodologies and strategies for data collection remains open to evaluation and assessment. Our detailed presentation of approaches to and issues in the study of address in pluricentric languages draws heavily on our own experience of working in the field - across a wide range of data types, research questions and contexts. While we are able to report on many of our findings, we remain mindful of both the positive and negative aspects that a specific data type might have in terms of accurately reflecting pluricentric address use in real-life or natural situations. Studying real-life address interactions is desirable - but the necessary data collection faces the barriers of cost (in terms of time and money) as well as the increasingly onerous restrictions linked to human ethics approval and to mandated privacy requirements. Unusually, funding available to IVIP allowed it to establish a sub-project to create a corpus of video-recorded service interactions and audio-recorded supervision and seminar interactions in higher education - in addition to the creation of a more limited dedicated collection of annotated transcription data on health care interactions in Finland Swedish and Sweden Swedish.

One approach already mentioned briefly above but worthy of more detailed consideration involves the use of discourse completion tasks which attempt to simulate actual use. Although these are not unproblematic (cf. e.g. Woodfield 2008), they avoid both the reliance on reported use and the access problems of recording spontaneous interactions. We have not used discourse completion tasks in our research on address in pluricentric languages so far, but some of us have applied this method (and discussed the methodology) in other studies on address (Riehl et al. 2020; see also Barron 2006) and found it useful.

If we shift our attention away from data collection techniques to contexts of address and language use, much remains to be explored in terms of pluricentric differences. We are likely to see increasing interest, for instance, in the exploration of online behaviours and patterns (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) but will need to be mindful here too of increasing official oversight and regulation of data collection - especially across national borders.

Beyond the traditional focus of pluricentricity - national variation within one language - regional variation within a nation or across national borders is an area which is likely to be explored further in future research and which has the potential to add interesting insights. The inclusion of interactional approaches such as ethnomethodological conversation analysis or multimodal interaction analysis also has the potential to advance pragmatic research into pluricentric languages by providing further opportunities to explore communication patterns (including address) within a single language used in different geographical settings.


The authors would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions.


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Published Online: 2021-11-18
Published in Print: 2021-11-12

© 2021 Ćalić, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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