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You... Or You

Bilin­gual Signs in Ottawa

Every day I thank the lan­guage Gods for the inven­tion of the pro­noun “you” in Eng­lish. No mat­ter who you talk to, whether it’s your boss, your in-laws, a close friend or a per­fect stranger, it’s a no-brainer: just say “you”.

It’s not a given, you know. A lot of lan­guages have two ways of say­ing “you”: French has “tu” and “vous”, much like Span­ish has “tú” and “usted”, Por­tuguese has “tu” and “você” and Chi­nese has “你” and “您”. The rule depends on the sub­tleties of the lan­guage, but gen­er­ally one uses for infor­mal “you” (“tu”), which demon­strate a cer­tain close­ness, when speak­ing to rel­a­tive, friends, chil­dren etc. “Vous” is used to show respect and main­tain a cer­tain dis­tance or for­mal­ity, and it is best to use it when talk­ing to a stranger, an older per­son or an author­ity figure.

This is the rule of thumb but in fact, it’s much more com­pli­cated than that. Using the right pro­noun at the right time requires con­stant eval­u­a­tion of the sit­u­a­tion. When is some­one close enough to use “tu”? Friends, for sure: if you are in the same age group, even if you don’t know each other very well, it is accept­able to say “tu”. How about fam­ily? Well, most peo­ple use “tu” when talk­ing to rel­a­tive, although I do know some super for­mal fam­ily in which the par­ents make the kids use “vous” when talk­ing to them. Using “vous” when speak­ing to in-laws is also com­mon, espe­cially if they are older peo­ple. Yet you don’t want to look too dis­tant: in my fam­ily, it’s com­mon to go on a first name basis but to keep the “vous” – a rather weird mix. It can be even trick­ier at work: peo­ple hier­ar­chi­cally above you may say “tu” while you may have to say “vous” to them.

Note that you can eas­ily offend some­one both ways, by using “tu” instead of “you”, but also by using “vous” instead of “tu”. A few years ago in France, I was argu­ing over a state­ment with an employee at the bank when an Amer­i­can back­packer entered. He obvi­ously didn’t speak flu­ent French but he did ask whether he could cash his Trav­el­ers Cheque very prop­erly. How­ever, the bank employee behind the counter gasped when she heard him speak. Not because he butchered the French lan­guage – because he had talked to her using the for­bid­den “tu”. And when doing busi­ness, using “vous” is the rule. The employee and the queue of cus­tomers which had formed behind were still talk­ing about the rude Amer­i­can long after the trans­ac­tion was completed.

Now, using “vous” when you are sup­posed to use “tu” can also be awk­ward. You may come across as some­one dis­tant, cold, some­one a bit posh even. If you start say­ing “tu”, don’t revert to “vous” as there is no going back… or be pre­pare to live with the consequences!

As I dis­cov­ered in Canada, things are much less for­mal and less com­pli­cated. First, in both Eng­lish and French, peo­ple tend to go on a first name basis very quickly, even at work. You may say “M. Smith” the first few times but peo­ple gen­er­ally invite you to say just “John”, no mat­ter how high “John” is in the hier­ar­chy. More sur­pris­ing to me, in busi­nesses, employ­ees are not shy at all to say “tu”, espe­cially if you are rel­a­tively young. At uni­ver­sity, many stu­dents use “tu” when talk­ing to the pro­fes­sor, which is rather strange to me – in France, except maybe at kinder­garten, you must say “vous” when talk­ing to a teacher or a pro­fes­sor! But wait: my cur­rent class­mates at uni­ver­sity use “vous” with me. Er… sure. I may be a cou­ple of years older than them but it makes me feel like I’m one hun­dred years old.

I can’t get rid of my French­ness eas­ily and some of my co-workers had to beg me to use “tu” when I first came to Canada. But after years of liv­ing in Ottawa, where most peo­ple are Anglo­phones who do not take offense at the use of “tu” and “vous”, I must admit I don’t bat an eye­lash when I hear weird combinations.

All in all, I think the dis­tinc­tion between “tu” and “vous” is quite archaic. Part of me grew up with it and I still mas­ter it. But I can’t help think­ing the fit-all “you” pro­noun which suits all usages makes life much easier.

24 comments

  1. @Seraphine — Exactly! That what I used to tell Feng: it makes me feel like he is gonna pay me for it :lol:

    @kyh — I knew you’d be that kind of guy! :lol: Span­ish is quite easy for me because so many rules are sim­i­lar to French.

    @Yasmine — I didn’t know that about Ger­man! How about in your mother tongue? Do you have a “tu”/ “vous” dis­tinc­tion as well? I think a lot of Euro­pean lan­guages do.

    @Tanya — I know, I feel for you! It’s so hard to explain because it’s like hard­wired in our brains. But I know it makes no sense for most anglophones.

    @Seb — I would never ever use “tu” with some peo­ple, and yet I can’t explain why. Boy, French are weird, aren’t they!

  2. I think ( don’t quote me on it!)‘you’ was actu­ally the for­mal pro­noun in the past, with ‘thou’ being the infor­mal. Most Brits would think the oppo­site while think­ing ‘thou’was both archaic and redundant.

  3. Yes, Eng­lish is def­i­nitely invented by the lan­guage gods when it comes to pronouns!!

    So what do you think I should do about the older sis­ter (+10 years older), aunts and uncles? My partner’s fam­ily is per­haps more on the con­ser­v­a­tive side, lives in the 16eme, with the mother’s side com­ing from a long line in Brit­tany. Should I vous-voyer them first and see what happens?

    Btw, should I “expect” to get invited to tu-toyer the entire fam­ily at some point? A few of my friends have said that this has hap­pened to them, but only a few months down the line. Oth­ers have said that this has never hap­pened to them and they still vous-voyer every­one even if the whole fam­ily speaks in tu’s…

    Con­fus­ing! Much eas­ier in Span­ish, I think. (My dad is Spanish.)

    Best
    Milsters

    • In doubt, I would use “vous”. It’s still com­mon in some fam­i­lies, even in my very infor­mal fam­ily my father uses “vous” when talk­ing to his in-laws, and my mother does the same with her in-laws. Some­times it’s funny to hear them say “mais grand-mère, vous m’emmerdez!” :lol:

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