Meanings: The Power Semantic

May 25, 2011

The “power semantic” is a term linguists and other social scientists use to denote ways language can subtly but powerfully carry distinctions of power.  If you have to call me “President Bennett” or “Dr. Bennett” but I call you “Bob” or “Nancy” there’s the power semantic. In many languages, second person pronouns carry this power semantic.  In French, if I expect you to use “vous” to me but I use “tu” back, there’s the power semantic.  It’s a question of equal or unequal reciprocity.

Here’s a brief overview from Sally Thomason, a contributor to Language Log:

To oversimplify somewhat, reciprocal T expresses solidarity, and reciprocal V may also do so; non-reciprocal usage — using V to someone with superior status and receiving T from that person, or vice versa to someone of inferior status — expresses what Brown & Gilman called the power semantic. English, of course, can’t express this difference with pronouns, because our only second person pronoun in general usage is you. But English does have address forms that capture the basic social distinction: reciprocal first-name (or sometimes last-name) usage for the solidarity semantic, non-reciprocal first-name vs. title plus last name for the power semantic. So, for instance, my formidable sixth-grade music teacher called me Sally, and I called her Miss Boe. Anything else would have been unthinkable.

At Earlham, we eschew the power semantic: no one uses titles; everyone goes by a first name.  Thus, I am never Dr. Bennett or President Bennett ort Professor Bennett.  I am always “Doug” to everyone on campus.

We attribute this practice to our Quaker grounding.  That’s fair because Quakers are very suspicious of power differences, and some other Quaker institutions have similar practices.   (We’ve always been a Quaker College, but this insistence on first names only goes back about sixty years.)

We like the refusal to indulge the power semantic.  But we sometimes notice a downside.  Our students know their friends at other colleges and universities refer to their professors as “Dr. This” or “Professor That,” and this can lead our students (not consciously, I think) to wonder whether their friends are being taught by more distinguished teachers and scholars.  The first name usage brings familiarity, but it may also bring a lowering of regard.

This isn’t a reason for us to change our practice, but rather a reason to be sure our students understand the terrific qualifications of our Faculty.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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