You… Or You

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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.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

24 Comments

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

    @kyh – I knew you’d be that kind of guy! 😆 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!” 😆

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