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Normativity and Variation in the Address Terms System Practiced among the Jordanian Youth Community

Nisreen Naji Al-Khawaldeh
Sameer Naser Olimat
Bassil Mohammad Mashaqba
Moh’d Ahmad Al-Omari
1 and
Asim Ayed Alkhawaldeh
Department of English Language and Literature, Faculty of Arts, The Hashemite University, P.O. Box 330127, Zarqa 13133, Jordan
Department of English Language and Literature, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Al al-Bayt University, P.O. Box 130040, Mafraq 25113, Jordan
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Languages 2023, 8(1), 31;
Submission received: 19 November 2022 / Revised: 31 December 2022 / Accepted: 10 January 2023 / Published: 17 January 2023


This study investigates the key forms of address used amongst Jordanian university students, the impact of gender on using these forms and what accounts for the variation in their address system. By addressing the issue of normativity and heterogeneity in the use of address terms, in different social settings, the study enriches the understanding of the internal variation of the address term system. Data collected through questionnaires and semi-structured interviews were analysed, based on Watts’ discursive approach to politeness and Agha’s approach of indexicality. The results revealed that the identified normative patterns represent Jordanian university politic behaviours, which index different social meanings and relations among the youth community, in relation to specific social contexts. The most frequent strategies university students use for addressing others are personal names, innovative terms, descriptive phrases, pronouns, titles, teknonyms, and religious, military, attention attractors, as well as a combination of these terms. It also seems that there are no absolute stable patterns of address term usage among the youth community, speaking Jordanian Arabic. Rather, there is an infinite society-internal heterogeneity in the address terms usage. The results also revealed that an intra-group variation signifies social struggles over the norms of address term usage and potentially normative incertitude.

1. Introduction

Exploring the way people communicate under various circumstances in different social contexts offers an affluence of data on the social relationships among its users (Holmes 1992). The tremendously significant conveyors of such social information, are the terms of address which are words utilized in communication by interlocutors, to refer to each other. They are very distinctive features of language usage that do not have a default connotation, rather they have indexical values and certain functions that emerge in interaction.
According to Watts (2005), address terms can be realisations of a politic behaviour instead of a polite behaviour, since a politic behaviour, “which is culturally determined and is generated from underlying universal principles, is transformed into polite behaviour under certain marked social conditions, hence, it is an empirical question whether and/or where the one becomes the other in the speech community under investigation” (Watts 1992, p. 58). This idea indicates that address terms not only serve as a stereotypical index of politeness, determined by their co-occurrence with other related signs, but also deictic elements (i.e., person, social, etc.), attention attractors, and indexical of the referent features (e.g., male/female, younger/older), and the interlocutors’ relationship (e.g., deference/intimacy) (Agha 2007; Yang 2010). That is why Esmae’li (2011) argues that these words are influential in mirroring the thoughts and attitudes that interlocutors wish or wish not to convey.
Despite the endeavour of researchers to find universals in address terms, many researchers from various cultures and who speak different languages supported Braun’s (1988) attempt to re-examine the address theory and re-articulate the rules of address, suggested by Brown and Gilman (1960) and Brown and Ford (1961). This is because previous researchers’ thoughts led to a closed system of address terms that is unvaryingly valid for the whole society, despite the variation witnessed in the actual data. In this respect, Braun (1988, p. 304) argues that even if some universals are found, they are very few and of a rather trivial nature because they are not sufficient to explain the normal address usage where each language has an infinite variety of forms of address.
Braun (1988) referred to two issues that may lead to a deviation from the universal rule of reciprocity. The social meaning is the most important aspect of addressing (Braun, ibid). She claimed that a parallelism between the lexical and social meanings of forms of address exists, meaning that variants referring to power, dominance, or superiority in their lexical component, are used frequently for addressing social superiors. In Arabic, for example, ʔusta:z/ʔusta:ð ‘teacher, professor’ is used as a mode of address for those who have the appearance of an educated person (Parkinson 1985). The second issue is the address inversion phenomenon which refers to the use of a nominal variant which, in its lexical content, implies features suiting the person of the speaker, rather than the addressee’ (Braun 1988, p. 265). Hence, terms of address do not necessarily designate the collocutor(s), because their lexical meaning can differ from or even contradict the addressee’s characteristics. This phenomenon does not exist in English, but is found in many languages and cultures, such as Arabic. For example, a father who receives ba:ba: ‘father’ as a term of address from his child and uses ba:ba: in addressing his child or any other children he comes into contact with (Braun 1988).

2. Statement of the Problem

Research has shown an increasing interest in the use of address forms in numerous social domains (Afzali 2011; Aba-Alalaa 2015). There are significant linguistic techniques, through which interlocutors convey their attitude to and assessment of their relationship (Brown and Levinson 1978; Al-Refaie 2019). They are a pivotal mediator between society and language, providing valuable pragmatic and sociolinguistic data about the speakers and their relationship in different communities and contexts (Toni 2020). Thus, they are crucial tools in communication, in Jordanian society, through which speakers show the possession of formal and informal contexts.
It is worth mentioning that address term usage may be interpreted differently across communities, in practice and contexts. Using the proper address term is expected to identify them as one group; whereas, the improper usage of address terms may be viewed as an indicator of the negative attitudes and may obstruct or cease social interactions. The revealed information facilitates the understanding of the norms, values, and linguistic practices of different societies (e.g., Dakubu 1981; Fang and Heng 1983; Fitch 1991). Moreover, they are indicators of various social values and meaning (i.e., face-saving, social status, emotions, etc.). Variation in using and interpreting address terms relies heavily on various social factors; the interlocutors (i.e., their age, social relationship, and gender) (Salihu 2014), context (i.e., setting, topic of discussion) (Abu-Amsha 2010; Esmae’li 2011), and culture (Hwang 1991). This, in turn indicates that address terms are continuously changing in light of the aforementioned variables; some extinct, some emerge, and some other change their meanings (Keshavarz 2001). Despite the fact that address forms are universal, the elements that constitute them and the rules that govern their usage, are bounded by certain cultural and social norms, which makes it worth exploring.
The review of the literature revealed a scarcity in the research on address terms usage in the Arabic language (Al-Ammar 2000; Al-Qahtani 2009) and an absence of research addressing it in Jordanian Arabic dialects, from both the discursive and indexicality approach perspectives. The forgoing research focuses on the use of address terms from the perspective of (im)politeness in Jordanian Arabic, which has been largely influenced by speech act theory (Farghal and Shakir 1994; Al-Qudah 2017; and Rabab‘ah and Al-Qarni 2012). To the best of the researcher’s knowledge, no study has touched upon the normativity and variation of the address terms system among the Jordanian youth community. Hence, exploring the usage of address terms in Jordan would help bridge this gap in the research.
The community of university students is basically the main focus of this research, because students constitute a homogeneous cluster, in terms of their noticeable motivation to learn and as members of the university community. The researchers observed that students have their distinctive different and changing repertoires of terms of address. They are likely to be integrated in a “joint negotiated enterprise; and a shared repertoire of negotiable resources accumulated over time” (Wenger 1998, p. 76). In other words, they are likely to develop their own linguistic resources (i.e., terms of address) which will, in turn differentiate them from members of other communities. Therefore, this study would reveal great invaluable data that help represent such communities of practice1.

3. Significance of the Study

This study is the first endeavour to investigate the strategies young male and female Jordanian students use for addressing others, thus revealing great data representing their community of practice (See note 1). It is momentous, since it is anchored in a currently developing field, variational pragmatics which “aims at determining the impact of such factors as region, social class, gender, age and ethnicity on communicative language use” (Schneider and Barron 2008, p. 1). It casts some light on the relationship amongst language and society and clarifies the way language usage varies, according to the gender of speakers and across social situations. This study could contribute to knowledge through enriching the growing body of the mono-cultural research, especially that which comes under the discursive approach to politeness and indexicality. This study could be a baseline for further comparative research that fosters successful communication. The study could enrich the research on applied linguistics by introducing certain pedagogical implications, particularly to language teachers and learners.

4. Literature Review

4.1. Theoretical Background

The terms of address have been investigated from different theoretical perspectives. They are perceived as a linguistic realisation of (im)politeness. They are viewed as techniques through which speakers signify (non)intimate interpersonal relations and (dis)harmonious communication (Brown and Levinson 1978). Being laden with significant social information (Parkinson 1985), they are communicative acts used to initiate and set the tone for the course of communication that follows, as well as constitute the social familiarity and power among the interlocutors (Wood and Kroger 1991). Thus, selecting a specific address term over another largely depends on how the interlocutors construe the social distance and power relations for the communicative acts they produce in a certain social activity in which they are engaged (Watts 1992, p. 68).
Nonetheless, terms of address are not always realized as indicators of (im)politeness (Watts 1992). Watts (1992) claims that they are examples of politic forms, unless they exceed their normative utilization as socio-culturally controlled forms of politic behaviour. The normative utilization is determined, in light of a shared set of cultural expectations, marking the usage as either socio-culturally appropriate or not-appropriate. It is demonstrated that many speakers may uphold comparable norms of specific address term usage, but some may have inconsistent evaluations of this usage.
Using terms of address is envisioned as stereotypical social use of language, since there are competing models of social behaviours that are assessed by a group of people, as normal (appropriate), resulting in diverse groups and sub-groups (Agha 2007). Agha (2007) argues that address term usage relies on widely shared ideological models of language use that assign a particular social significance to patterns of deictic utilization. Watts (1992, p. 61) states that identifying the appropriate behaviour necessitates the elaborated investigation of the fundamental sociocultural variables and contextual conditions. This clarifies the point that it is not always the case that address terms should be first interpreted as (im)polite, rather the socio-cultural factors should also be considered to interpret address terms as politic.
The present study adopted Agha’s approach of indexicality (Agha 2007), regarding address terms. It facilitates the explanation of the infinite society-internal variability and heterogeneity in the address conduct amongst the same group of users. According to this approach, address terms do not possess any inherent semantic feature or pragmatic value concerning politeness that can be performed in communication. Rather, using address terms in communication may stereotypically indicate different connotations of politeness (i.e., deference/intimacy) through reflexive models that indexically constitute stereotypes of the interlocutors’ identity and their underlying ideologies related to using different types of address terms.

4.2. Empirical Studies

Research has shown an increasing interest in investigating address forms across different contexts (Afzali 2011; Aba-Alalaa 2015). The studies revealed that speakers from different cultural backgrounds and speaking different languages have a repertoire of diverse terms of address, that are differently used in various contexts and signal relationships of social power and solidarity (Clayman 2010; Maalej 2010; Anchimbe 2011; Ozcan 2016).
From a comparative perspective, numerous studies have revealed significant findings. For instance, Larina and Suryanarayan (2012) revealed that Indian speakers of Hindi employ wide-ranging address forms. They form a combination of the original Hindi forms and the English borrowed forms when addressing others. They also use Indian appellative address forms comprising mainly of kinship terms, comparable to the English ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘uncle’, and ‘aunt’, particularly for addressing elderly people of both genders. Very few of them utilize English address terms, such as ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’. The common usage of such appellative address terms may be ascribed to their intention to express intimacy and respect. The researchers highlighted that the cultural background considerably influences speakers’ choice of address terms, irrespective of the sort of language they speak.
Susanto (2014) revealed variations in using the address term of ‘sampeyan’ and ‘anda’, by the students coming from Pasuruan and Probolinggo, contributing to the knowledge concerning address terms and the associated social norms in specific communities. The analysis of the data collected through observations, questionnaires and interviews showed that both ‘sampeyan’ and ‘anda’ were commonly used for addressing their lecturer, instead of ‘Bapak’. ‘Sampeyan’ was used to address the lecturer/teacher, kyai, parent, and older sibling, for expressing politeness, indicating informality. ‘Anda’ was found to be more polite and appropriate than ‘sampeyan’ and was mainly used for expressing more formal and appropriate manners and respecting addressees of higher social status.
Anchimbe (2011) explained how verbal indirectness can be alluded to through name-avoidance. The analysis of data obtained from Cameroon showed that addressing people using their names could be interpreted as a sign of disrespect and impoliteness, based on the status and distance. Indirectness in avoiding the use of names is thus considered a polite strategy in the Cameroonian community because it strengthens sociability and sustains a positive face among interlocutors. It is also regarded as a social norm in the daily conservation of the social order and power.
Some studies were conducted on address terms usage in academic interactions. Murphy (1988), for example, explored the kind of reference terms used by undergraduate university students, via questionnaires. It appeared that the speakers’ shift of the used terms was influenced by variables encompassing the speaker-addressee relationship and the presence of observers. Awoonor-Aziaku (2021) investigated the usage of address terms in the classroom interactions among students and lecturers, in real time situations. Data collected via interviews and audio recordings revealed that students usually used title + last names (TLN), honorifics (Hon), and sometimes avoidance strategies when addressing their lecturers. Nonetheless, lecturers usually address their students using first names (FN), nicknames, and sometimes avoidance strategies. Likewise, Formentelli (2009) endeavoured to find out whether the usage of address terms by members of faculty, university students, and their lecturers was culturally influenced. It was found that the variable of the social power significantly affected the choice of the address terms. For example, students often used Title (T)/Last Name (LN) for addressing their lecturer whereas First Name (FN) was minimally used. Afful and Mwinlaaru (2012) showed that students in Ghana employed three principal forms of address (i.e., titles, kinship terms, and nicknames). Both address terms and reference terms served as symbols of power and resistance to power, besides markers of identities that were co-established by students.
Even within Arabic speaking societies and cultures, Abugharsa (2014) found out that a variation in the usage and perception of address terms is reported along with the social and contextual factors affecting them. Variation was found between the Libyan culture and other Arabic cultures and within single Arabic societies, based on the culture that the speakers are affiliated with. Moghaddam et al. (2015) studied the changes and expansion of address forms in the Persian language within two centuries, amongst the Post Islamic Revolution, Pahlavi, and Qajar. The results revealed an increase in using intimacy, personal, and attention attractors and a decrease in using honours, educational terms, and teknonyms. The development and changes of the address forms were attributed to numerous variables comprising equity, interpersonal relations, education, gender, religion, and social contexts.
In the Jordanian context in particular, studies tackled different issues related to the employment of terms of address. For instance, Etaywe (2017) investigated how husbands, originally from the northern rural Jordanian speech community, address their wives when they both are (not) alone, in situations of greeting, invitation, complaint, and request, and the underlying functions behind such specific usage. The qualitatively analysed data revealed the usage of numerous address terms, namely nicknames, teknonyms, attention attractors, given names, and endearment terms. This type of usage was attributed to the noteworthy influence of the comparative academic background and the length of marriage period, on the husbands’ utilization of address forms. The terms used mirrored the stereotypical and watchful communication of address terms in rural settings. They were purposefully used to serve a practical worth in managing spousal relationships, i.e., maintaining the relative politeness, social power, solidarity, status, and intimacy relations that are consistent with the socio-cultural context.
The six categories of address forms in Jordanian Arabic were a main concern by Al-Qudah (2017). He found that Jordanian forms of address are essential in representing the social relationship among the speakers. Thus, using specific Jordanian terms of address in a certain context is governed by the interlocutors’ age, social rank, power, and social distance. More recently, Al-Refaie (2019) investigated the frequency of address forms used by adult speakers of Jordanian Arabic, and how diverse factors influence the choice of the participants. The results revealed eight forms of address used in the Jordanian society, namely personal pronouns, verb forms of address, names, terms of intimacy, teknonyms, kinship/family terms, title terms, and attention attractors. Nevertheless, they differ in their frequency; the most frequent ones are: names and kinship, whereas the least common ones include: verb forms of address and attention attractors. It also concluded that the address forms in Jordanian Arabic are closely linked to the socio-cultural values of the speakers.
Ajlouni and Abulhaija (2015) investigated the forms of address that are employed by married and unmarried Jordanian women in the workplace, particularly the Jordan Health Aid Society (JHAS). Data collected via a discourse completion task (DCT) revealed that the most frequently used terms for addressing female colleagues in the workplace were endearment terms, polite words, teknonyms, honorific terms, first name, family name and kinship comprising terms, while occupational terms and academic titles are the least frequent terms.
The literature reviewed revealed that few studies were conducted on the usage of address terms in the Jordanian context. It was also noticed that there was an absence of research on the variation of address terms usage in sub-communities of practice, particularly among university students in Jordan, and the underlying reasons that drive such usage. Variation is an intrinsic feature of all human languages that we can at least demonstrate, according to various contexts, thus revealing the capability of those varying their speech to gain more or lose less (Al-Wer 2014). The current study is unique in its mixed-approach that combines two research instruments (i.e., questionnaire and interview). Such a combination facilitated the investigation of both the production, perception, and judgments behind the usage of address forms, thus enriching the existing relevant literature.

5. Methodology

5.1. Sample of the Study

The sample of the study consisted of 100 participants; 50 males and 50 females. They were randomly selected from Hashemite University. A detailed summary of the general characteristics of the participants is demonstrated, in terms of gender, age, and field of study, as shown below in Table 1.

5.2. Research Questions

  • What are the key forms of address used amongst Jordanian university students?
  • Are there statistical differences in the usage of address terms in same-gender and mixed-gender communication?
There are no significant differences in the address terms used in same-gender and mixed-gender communication.
What accounts for the variation in the address terms usage among Jordanian university students?

5.3. Research Instruments

The data were collected via questionnaires distributed to 100 university students, 50 of whom were also interviewed. The questionnaire was specifically used because it facilitated collecting enough data that fit the present research’s aims. In addition, it was found useful for capturing the participants’ stereotypes of normative use of the address terms as they systematically helped researchers to collect “a corpus of meta-pragmatic typification by a sample of consultants”, thus enabling researchers to control the demographic characteristics of the participants and evaluate the social distribution of the stereotypes across them (Agha 2007, p. 305). The questionnaire employed in this study was a modified version of Braun’s (1988) questionnaire. It helped the researcher to test uncertain norms of address term usage across various social groups and sub-social groups. The questionnaire presented different scenarios to the participants, asking them how they would refer to/address a particular person in these scenarios.
Semi-structured audio-taped interviews were administered to 50 Jordanian students, to justify using certain terms in specific situations and to uncover the associated “intended” meaning from the participants’ viewpoint. The data yielded by the both research instruments were coded, in order to note the emerging themes, patterns, and what accounts for the variation in using the address terms in their community.
Such a combination of research instruments (i.e., questionnaires and the interviews) helped to investigate both the realization and perception of using address terms. It also facilitated eliciting “reportable stereotypes of use”, instead of particularized communicative acts of usage (Agha 2007, p. 305), expanding understanding and confirming the findings from diverse data sources (Creswell 2009). The resultant convergence point offered a clear picture of the usage and the underlying perception of the address terms, thus a more holistic understanding of the phenomenon.

5.4. Data Analysis Procedures

The data obtained from the questionnaire were statistically analysed using percentages, frequencies, and the Chi-square. Eelen (2001, pp. 141–45) argues this type of analysis is an appropriate methodological strategy for associating data with a prevalent variability, utilizing theoretical models, based on a shared system of norms. Sharing does not necessarily denote that all of the individuals in the society maintain the same norm and the variability is not arbitrary, but is systematic and influenced by the speaker’s ideology and other sociological factors, such as gender, age, and status (Eelen 2001, p. 140). Thus, the questionnaire data were coupled with interviews and were thematically analysed. The researchers came up with new coding schemes, in light of the available coding schemes (Khani and Yousefi 2010; Abu-Amsha 2010; Etaywe 2017; Al-Qudah 2017; Al-Refaie 2019) and the newly elicited data. The analysis of the frequency of each address term employed will reveal the idealized norms of the Jordanian students’ address term usage.

6. Results

6.1. What Are the Key Forms of Address Used Amongst Jordanian University Students?

The analysis of the data elicited through the questionnaires demonstrated that Jordanian students used various techniques to address each other in almost all occasions. Table 2 shows examples and percentages of the key techniques used by university students for addressing close friends, colleagues, professors, and administrative staff. It is evident that personal nouns (e.g., xa:lid ‘Khalid’; maraħ ‘Marah’); innovative terms (e.g., bint fre:r, ‘very spoiled’; bint ʕabdu:n ‘very rich’; xuzz ‘not a good person’; buʕbʕ ‘very scary person’, muzzah ‘very beautiful girl’); descriptive terms (e.g., muxx ‘genius’; ʕazi:zi ‘my dear’; kju:t ‘cutie’; muħtaram ‘respected’; ʕasal ‘honey; ʕari:s ‘groom’; al-ħabi:b ‘my love’; mtaktak ‘gentle’; mrattab ‘tidy’; nakid ‘distemper’; msaxmaṭ ‘unlucky’);(borrowed words as they are in English: naughty, boss, nerd); pronouns (e.g., ʔint ‘you m.s’ ʔinti ‘you f.s’); kinship terms (e.g., ja-ʕamm, ja-xa:l ‘my uncle’, ja-xu:j ‘my brother’; ja-binti ‘my daughter’); teknonyms (e.g., ʔabu-ħassa:n ‘Abu Hassan’; ʔabu-ʃʃab:b; ʔabu-ṣṭe:f ‘Abu Sutaif’; ʔabu-ʕabba:d ‘Abu Abbad’; ʔabu-ʕarab ‘Abu Arab’) are most frequently used among close friends with percentages of 100%. No titles are used among close friends. To the contrary, titles (e.g., dakto:r ‘doctor’), saʕa:datʕuṭufatħađrat ‘your excellency’) are utilized for addressing professors, with a percentage of 100%. It should be noted here that this term of address is also used with other terms, thus forming a new pattern of address (e.g., attention attractors+title: law-samaħt dakto:r‘excuse me Dr.’), (title+personal names: dakto:r ba:sil ‘Dr. Bassil’) and (title+descriptive phrases: dakto:rna al-muħtaram ‘our respected Dr.’). Regarding the strategies used for addressing colleagues, it appears that tiles (ʔanisa ‘Miss’; sajjid ‘Gentleman’, mad:m ‘Madam’) and attention attractors (e.g., mumkin law takarramt ‘May you please’) are the most frequently used ones. In this context, it also appears that the participants tend to also o form new patterns of addressing (e.g., attention attractors+personal name: ʔanisa ʔamal ‘Miss Amal’; attention attractors+ pronoun: mumkin law samaħti ‘excuse me please’; attention attractors+kinship terms: ja-xti law samaħti ‘sister, attention please’. With respect to addressing administrative staff, it is evident that the participants use attention attractors with a percentage of 91% and a combination of address terms: attention attractors+personal names: muna law samaħti ‘excuse me Muna’; attention attractors +kinship terms, excuse me my brother ja-xuj law takarrmt ‘excuse me, Brother’, attention attractors + title, ʕafwan ja-ʔanisa ‘excuse me Miss’). Religious terms (e.g.,ħaʤʤi ‘Hajji’, ʃe:xa ‘shaikha’, al-mufti ‘the mufti’, al-ʔima:m ‘Imam’), ʃe:x ‘shaikh’ and military terms (e.g., ʕari:f ‘corporal’ đa:biṭ ‘officer’ are the least used strategies for addressing close friends and colleagues, but they are not used for addressing professors and administrative staff.

6.2. Are There Statistical Differences in the Usage of Address Terms in Same-Gender and Mixed-Gender Communication?

The chi-square analysis of the questionnaires’ data, demonstrated in Table 3, revealed statistical differences in the address terms used in same-gender and mixed-gender communication. This means that there is a considerable impact of gender on address terms usage across these types of interactions. As shown in Table 3, it seems that personal names, kinship terms, and descriptive terms are used in same-gender interactions, more than in mixed-gender interactions. Moreover, titles and attention attractor strategies are utilized more in mixed-gender communication than in same-gender communication.
As shown in the table, the p-value (0.000) is less than (α 0.05), so the null hypothesis which states that there are no significant differences in the address terms used in same-gender and mixed-gender communication, has been refuted. The significant differences in the results of the Chi-square test indicate that both males and females were conscious of the gender of their interlocutors when addressing them.

6.3. What Accounts for the Variation in the Address Terms Usage among University Jordanian Students?

The analysis of the interviews showed that students preferred using various terms to address each other in almost all incidents. Their preference was driven by different reasons. In addition to their stereotypical effect of indicating (im)politeness “ I use them to sound very polite”, they might also serve various affective functions (such as endearment/aggression) “using “usta:ð; Mr.” to call a colleague at university to help me show them that I respect him”, “ when I call my friend by her first name, I feel she is very close to me, as my sister” or textual functions (such as reference maintenance or situational role designation “ I cannot call my professor by his name because he is my teacher and I have to show him that I am aware of this”).
The participants accentuated that using address terms properly helped them in facilitating communication. They regarded address terms as a key component of a social structure, through which they could attract the addressee’s attention, “sometimes I use them to call a person who is busy and is not aware of my presence” and reflect the multifarious social relationships of interlocutors in a speech community, “I mean when I talk to my colleague, it is always good to say Sir/Miss because he is not my close friend, whom I consider a member of my family”. Thus, they help the speakers encode what they want to convey to the addressees and they aid the listener to interpret the manner and course of communication appropriately. This, in turn results in having a successful communication. They also asserted that employing address terms could help them reflect on the social information concerning the (in)formality and familiarity of the relationship, their consideration of the addresses’ gender, age, and social status in each speech event, “ yes of course, if the person is clever, he knows that I would like to stay formal, whenever I deal with him”, “In our society, you need to be careful when addressing your grandfather, they always expect you to show them full consideration and respect throughout the course of communication with them”. In addition, they utilize such terms, in order to show respect, thus, to sound more polite in specific occasions, such as in the presence of their professors as well, “ he is my professor and my teacher, thus I have to honour him and use a title that suits his position. Otherwise, he will be angry with me if I do not call him ‘Prof’”. The interviewees also emphasized the point that the address term was not always employed to show politeness, but might also signify irony. They might call a proud girl “her majesty”, a less knowledgeable student “a doctor” “in some cases, I say something and I actually mean the opposite, as when I say to my friend ʔabu l-ʕurre:f “smart man” when he actually does foolish things”.

7. Discussion

The analysis revealed various naming practices used among students with different frequencies: the personal names, titles, descriptive phrases, titles, pronouns, kinship terms, teknonyms, religious terms, military terms, and innovative terms, attention attractors and a combination of some of these terms.
Personal names are among the highest frequently used address terms (i.e., first names, first and family name). As described by Parkinson (1985), names are “prototypical terms of address” (p. 43). Students address each other freely using their personal names to imply familiarity. First names are mainly used in informal situations. They are employed freely among close friends and interlocutors of the same gender. They are used along with the title or any descriptive phrase for addressing cross-gender or unfamiliar students. In addition, the more familiar the interlocutors are, the more they address each other with first names. They are allusive, as they carry messages in indirect ways.
Descriptive terms are also a frequently used in naming practice among the youth community. They are considered facilitators of the conversation, creators of harmony and conveyors of so much information, using few words. They help make the addressees visualize the upcoming scenario of the conversation, the expected relationship between interlocutors, the speaker’s attitudes and perception of the interlocutor and the intended style of the rest of the conversation. This finding meshes well with (Moghaddam et al. 2015) who asserts that the inevitable connection between the voicing of certain terms of address and the expression of specific feelings and opinion. What is noteworthy is that some descriptive English terms are used, as in English, (i.e., “boss”, “naughty”, “gentleman” and “mademoiselle” and “nerd”, borrowed from other prestigious languages (i.e., English and French). This could be referred to as the impact these languages exert on the mother tongue (i.e., Arabic).
The data of the current study revealed the frequent use of some innovative terms which need to be interpreted by the users themselves. It appears that the newly devised terms of address are socially and strategically constructed, in light of human relationships, the technological revolution, and the contextual effects. They are also coined to create a sense of humour before, during, and at the end of the communication. Students sometimes use these terms, but they are not aware of their actual meanings. It is generally noted that the innovativeness and playfulness result in a variation of address forms, especially used in spontaneous interactions.
Personal pronouns were also used to facilitate face-to-face conversation among speakers. The usage of these categories of pronouns could be viewed as meshes with a positive politeness strategy, in that they can be used among speakers as a way of signalling solidarity. Moreover, they are used, along with other terms of address, to indicate less familiarity among strangers, especially when not knowing the suitable form to call the addressee. The pronouns used, appeared in three different shapes; separate pronouns, such as, ʔint rajiħ maʕna willa la ‘are you going with us or not’, noun-attached pronouns, such as ha:ða kata:bak ‘is this your book?’, and verb-attached pronouns, such as “, saʔalt-u ad-dakto:r ʕan il-ma:dda id-da:xla bil-ʔimtiħa:n ‘did you ask the professor about the materials included in the exam?’. The verb attached pronouns are defined by Braun (1988) as verbs that are utilized by the speaker to refer to the listener, by adding inflectional suffixes to the verbs. Such types of verbs are merely employed in the Arabic language where inflectional suffixes can be added to the verb, instead of using subject pronouns (Abu-Amsha 2010). It was found that the participants tended to use a combination of verbs with inflectional suffixes and attention attractors and titles, especially when they do not know how to address each other.
It is remarkably noticeable that attention attractors were used more in informal situations. The participants highlighted the significance of saying “excuse me” mainly when dealing with unfamiliar interlocutors, across-genders, as well as in formal situations. The interviewees emphasized that attention attractors were mainly used to catch the attention of unfamiliar interlocutors and to show unawareness of the appropriate social terms to use in certain contexts.
Teknonyms are generally formed by attaching the word abu ‘father‘ to the name of the eldest son of the addressee. Despite that, these terms are popular, even among close unmarried friends. In this case, they are either formed by the word abu and the name of the tribe that the person belongs to or by the word abu and the name the addressees wish to give to their first-born child after marriage. They are also formed by attaching to the word abu-, the diminutive form of the name, such as Ahmad (e.g., abu-ħme:d), Mustafa (e.g., abu-ṣṭe:f). It is also formed by attaching the word abu- to a specific adjective, such as being very young (e.g., abu-ʃʃaba:b), being very intelligent (e.g., abu-lʕurre:f). It is frequently used for addressing a student who is socially well-known to a great number of students, to signify popularity, familiarity, endearment, and respect. This denotes that it is used to show dignity to tribes and address people sharing the speaker’s same level of social familiarity and power.
The participants employed titles, such as Mr, Miss, Mrs, and his Excellency, mainly to express unfamiliarity and formality. The data are in line with Gilman and Brown (1961) who assert that social status is inscribed in titles. The title Prof. or Dr. are used to indicate that this addressee is an educated person and of a high social status. The students resorted to using the plural form of the pronoun, along with a title, such as ʕuṭu:fatkum, ħađratkum “when addressing their professors, as they found it more polite than the singular pronoun. This could be ascribed to the impact of classical Arabic on vernacular language, which is worthy to be investigated further. This is in line with Brown and Gilman’s (1960) differentiation of pronouns of address as (plural/polite vs. singular/familiar). This also denotes the power force of language as a good means of communicating the diverse meaning, such as solidarity, intimacy, equality, and closeness, as well as power, respect, an asymmetrical relationship, and distance.
Opposite to what is known in the literature, that kinship terms are merely used to address relatives (Al-Qudah 2017; Aba-Alalaa 2015), our data revealed that they are used to address non-relatives. The participants used kinship terms in non-kinship relations (i.e., university community) and mostly among very close friends, colleagues who share the same or are of a lower social status. This use is widely acceptable and polite when the intention is understood to be respect, politeness, and closeness. This could be mainly attributed to religious and cultural values as all Muslims considering themselves sisters and brothers. The maternal terms are mostly employed among female students and the paternal ones are typically utilized amongst their male counterparts. However, in mixed-sex interactions, maternal terms are frequently used by males addressing females and paternal ones are employed by females addressing males. This finding indicates that the students used these terms to reflect intimacy and avoid formality, thus strengthening their relations with their university friends, as they are members of one family. The switch in use of such kinship terms in mixed-sex interactions could imply that students try to build trust and respect.
The least used strategies by university students are the religious terms and the military terms. Religious terms (e.g., ħaʤʤi, ħaʤʤah, fađi:ltak) are generally used to address males and females who performed Haj (undertaking pilgrimage to Mecca). However, they are also employed among students who did not perform Haj. The terms fađi:ltak and ħaʤʤi are employed by students to somehow show that the addressee is a very religious. This signifies that they are used deliberately to denote familiarity, describe the addressee as strictly practicing religious rituals. Nonetheless, it could be used in some cases ironically, particularly when addressing a student who is not actually practicing or even knowledgeable about religious issues. This means that the use of address terms is context-dependent, that a specific address term may indicate different meanings, based on the social variables of the context (i.e., sex, age, social familiarity, distance, and formality). Military rank terms were mainly used among male students. This finding could be attributed to the fact that a huge percentage of male graduates join the army, over their female counterparts.
Through the interviews, the participants revealed that the variation in the address terms system among Jordanian university students could be attributed to many reasons: attracting people’s attention, reflecting some social information about identity, gender, age, status, and the social relationships of interlocutors in a speech, and showing respect and politeness to the addressee’s social status (e.g., temporary clashes and misunderstanding). The results revealed that the participants have some stereotypical social indexicals. In other words, they have certain indexicals signifying the speaker‘s attributes and the sort of relationship between them and their addressees. The address system also shows formal and informal manners and consideration for other people. This finding is in line with Giles et al.’s (1977, p. 321) finding that “people are motivated to adjust their speech styles, or accommodate, as a means of expressing values, attitudes, and intentions towards others”. The results are in line with Keshavarz’s (2001) findings that highlight the significance of having social and linguistic conduct appropriate for contexts. They also lend support to Brown and Gilman’s (1960) theory of power/solidarity and Brown and Ford’s (1961) theory of intimacy/ status work. The findings are in line with Braun’s (1988) findings that assert the existence of heterogeneity in address behaviour in everyday communication. This means that the variation in the address term system is the rule rather than the exception.
The results are compatible with Agha (2007) who argues that the terms of address may stereotypically index (im)politeness under specific conditions, determined by their co-occurrence with other signs. This perception of terms of address meshes well with the discursive approach in its reconceptualization of (im)politeness as “appropriateness” under particular circumstances in certain contexts. The results also lend support to Agha’s claim that (Agha 2007, p. 125) there are various patterns of behaviour evaluated by the community of practice, as normal and appropriate. This result is also in line with Watts’ (2005, pp. 58–61) view of the term usage as politic behaviour, rather than polite behaviour. Watts (1992, 2003) constantly claims that when terms of address are chosen in line with what is usually expected in a social interaction, they cannot be viewed as conveying politeness, and hence they are politic.
The normative usage of these address terms is measured against a commonly shared cultural expectation concerning the terms of address used, as considered either socio-culturally proper or improper. Despite these shared norms of address term usage, there may still be different evaluations of this usage. The interviewee disclosed significant findings concerning the variation of address terms in same and mixed-gender groups. The variation suggests that there is a social struggle over the norms of using address terms and conceivably a normative uncertainty in same- and mixed-social groups. In other words, there are certain terms of address (e.g., ṭaqiʕ ‘superb’; muzza ‘gorgeous’) that are considered normal and polite by some students but they are not so for some students, and might not be also known by others. In addition, there are some other address terms whose meanings are not recognized by the same age group. The addressee might even be fine with an address term in a specific situation, but might not accept it in a different situation. The reception and interpretation of the address terms are based on the mood of the speakers, along some other contextual factors (e.g., the presence of other interlocutors, their social status, religion, and gender, the time of the day, the topic, and the manner of speaking).
The students revealed some examples that would clarify that the deliberativeness and spontaneity of the mood of the interaction could be viewed as an interpretative account of how students draw on the key naming practices, to address a student-interlocutor. This means that although the interactants are mates, studying the same course, the kind of relationship and the purpose of the exchange help to explain the variation of the address terms usage. Interestingly, the prevalence of the newly innovative terms may be referred to the fact that Jordanian society has witnessed several social and technological changes in the previous decades. For instance, women’s engagement in a mixed-sex workplace is viewed more normal than before. Furthermore, communicating more with foreigners over the Internet has become possible. All of these changes have their own reflection on many aspects of life, including the way forms are being used for addressing others in different contexts.
The study’s approach proves to be beneficial, as the results highlight the importance of using interviews as a research instrument for collecting data, along with others (i.e., a questionnaire). The interviews help explains the questionnaire’s data from the participants’ perception, rather than from the researchers’ viewpoint. This in turn, helps in obtaining reliable data supported from different sources. For example, the interviewee asserted that employing kinship terms to address non-relatives was mainly to signify Jordanians’ strong sense of brotherhood and one-family. They also highlighted the variation between the address terms used by elderly people and theirs. Comparing the results with Al-Qudah’s (2017) study on Jordanians’ terms of address, a slight difference in address terms usage was observed. This difference could be due to the difference in the community of practice, investigated in both studies and their underlying normativity and variation. Furthermore, they emphasized that the interpretation of using attention attractors, may vary from one situation to another. They may be interpreted as a source of attraction the addressee’s attention, the underestimation the interlocutor, or an indication of familiarity and unawareness of the social terms. Overall, this study demonstrates that the diverse emergent understanding of particular address terms employed by speakers may establish, through time, an emergent norm of usage which is dynamic and changeable, according to the corresponding situational variable changes.

8. Conclusions

This study investigated the key address techniques used among Jordanian university students, the gender differences and the variation in the address system. It appeared that address forms are indispensable for successful communication as they are a good manifestation of social power, social solidarity, gender, and complex social relationship semantics. The results revealed that personal names, descriptive phrases, and other innovative terms, titles, kinship terms religious terms and military rank terms, attention attractors and a combination of different terms of address, are key naming practices among university students. It is ostensible that the more intimate the students are, the more they use first name, kinship, and innovative terms. Nevertheless, the more distant the interlocutors are, the more they would use formal titles, such as titles and attention attractors. The meaning of each address terms is context-dependant; a specific address term may indicate different meanings, based on the social variables of the context (i.e., sex, age, social familiarity, distance, and formality). Overall, this study demonstrates that the diverse address terms that may establish, through time, an emergent norm of usage, which is dynamic and changeable, according to the corresponding situational variable changes.
These findings have significant implications for (im)politeness, indexicality, variationist theory, intra- and intercultural communication, and any related future research. They have enhanced the understanding of the communicative norms and practice of addressing. They would be extremely significant for Arabic learners and researchers conducting further comparative and inter-language research. The study makes a substantial contribution to knowledge by enriching the growing body of gender-based and mono-cultural research. The newly coding scheme of the address terms might be useful for researchers investigating the communication of address terms by speakers of other dialects of Arabic, such as Egyptian Arabic, Saudi Arabic, etc.
A more promising research is the one that digs deeper into the discrepancy between the address terms used by teenagers and the elderly in other contexts, and investigates the impact of the use of address forms on the addressees.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, N.N.A.-K., S.N.O. and B.M.M.; Methodology, N.N.A.-K., S.N.O., B.M.M., M.A.A.-O. and A.A.A.; Formal analysis, N.N.A.-K., S.N.O., B.M.M., M.A.A.-O. and A.A.A.; Data curation, N.N.A.-K., S.N.O., B.M.M., M.A.A.-O. and A.A.A.; Writing—original draft, N.N.A.-K., S.N.O., B.M.M., M.A.A.-O. and A.A.A.; Writing—review & editing, N.N.A.-K., S.N.O., B.M.M., M.A.A.-O. and A.A.A. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all participants involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

Data are available upon request from the corresponding author.


I would also like to thank all the participants of the study. Without their collaboration, this research would not have been possible.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


A community of practice is a group of people who are conjointly engaged in a certain task and share a collection of negotiable resources and practices, involving ways of doing, ways of talking, beliefs, values, power relations amassed over time (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1998), and are constantly changing, in light of the actions and assessments of individual members, in relation to the group (Mills 2003).


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Table 1. Summary of the general characteristics of the participants.
Table 1. Summary of the general characteristics of the participants.
GenderMales and Females
Field of studyLanguage and Literature, Nursing, Pharmacy
Engineering, Business, Medicine.
Table 2. Key address terms used by university students.
Table 2. Key address terms used by university students.
DomainsPersonal Names
Kinship Terms
Descriptive Phrases
Religious Terms
Military Ranks
Innovative Terms
Attention Attractors
A Combination of Terms
Close friends100%63%83%96%0%37%13%9%98%33%0%
Administrative staff0%0%0%47%72%0%0%0%0%84%85%
Table 3. Chi-square results of the key address terms used in same-gender and mixed-gender interactions.
Table 3. Chi-square results of the key address terms used in same-gender and mixed-gender interactions.
Situation Strategy Crosstabulation
Personal NamesPronounsKinshipDescriptiveTitleTeknonymReligiousMilitaryInnovativeAttention Attractors
situationFemale same1009987970000312427465
Male same1007723860702112753511510
Female mixed23321307400009091323
Male mixed31431706700009383334
Chi-Square Tests
ValuedfAsymptotic Significance (2-Sided)
Pearson Chi-Square1079.577 a300.000
Likelihood Ratio1232.991300.000
Linear-by-Linear Association221.24310.000
N of Valid Cases1632
a. Six cells (13.6%) have an expected count of less than 5. The minimum expected count is 2.38.
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Al-Khawaldeh, N.N.; Olimat, S.N.; Mashaqba, B.M.; Al-Omari, M.A.; Alkhawaldeh, A.A. Normativity and Variation in the Address Terms System Practiced among the Jordanian Youth Community. Languages 2023, 8, 31.

AMA Style

Al-Khawaldeh NN, Olimat SN, Mashaqba BM, Al-Omari MA, Alkhawaldeh AA. Normativity and Variation in the Address Terms System Practiced among the Jordanian Youth Community. Languages. 2023; 8(1):31.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Al-Khawaldeh, Nisreen Naji, Sameer Naser Olimat, Bassil Mohammad Mashaqba, Moh’d Ahmad Al-Omari, and Asim Ayed Alkhawaldeh. 2023. "Normativity and Variation in the Address Terms System Practiced among the Jordanian Youth Community" Languages 8, no. 1: 31.

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