The Paradox of Being Ordinary
This article examines how speakers of Lao (a Southwestern Tai language spoken in Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia) make references to persons in the course of everyday conversation. This seemingly simple referential problem turns out to be a rich locus of meaning in the domain of human social relations. In everyday person reference, the Lao system requires that speakers make fine distinctions in social hierarchy. Speakers must mark if a person is socially "lower" or "higher" than themselves. While to outsiders this may seem like a surface obsession with social hierarchy, it is virtually invisible to insiders, being the standard, normal way of talking. The paper argues, however, that while the meanings coded in ordinary behavior can become virtually invisible, speakers are nevertheless reproducing and making public the basic cultural perspective on human relations. The last part of the article explores this point with reference to English, in which person reference is highly "egalitarian", reflecting a cultural concern with "social equality".
Published online: 24 March 2014