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. I use “vous” when I speak to a stranger like at a store…it bothers me when people use “tu” so freely in public. If one doesn’t know the other person like a friend, then using “vous” is much respectful. There was news on this issue a couple years ago in Quebec.

  2. I thought that maybe you would enjoy these curiosities about the Portuguese use of treatment pronouns.

    Actualy, in Portuguese we have “tu” (that is the equivalent to the French “tu”) and “vós” (the equivalent to “vous”). However, at least in Brazil, “vós” is never used nowadays, perhaps only at in catholic churches, where the priest sometimes refers to God as “vós”. It would sound very arrogant to use “vós”… “Tu” is used in some regions, it is not as widespread as “você”. The advantage is that with “você” the verb conjugated as the third person, so you don’t need to know how to conjugate the verb at the second personds, as “vós” is rarely used and “tu” can be replaced by “você”.

  3. American English isn’t easy for immigrants to master (so many euphemisms, weird rules, idioms etc.) but we don’t have this type of formal/informal language. In some places (I know a comedian made light of this years ago), you may only get one word questions- minus subjects, predicates, pronouns–anything!!!!

    i.e. in the New York City area/New Jersey somebody might just yell “Alphabet city!!!??”
    puzzled you’ll say (in your confused midwestern tone) “excuse me?”

    “Alphabet City!!!???”

    “I’m sorry??”

    “How do ya git to Alphabet City???!!!”

    Insert any locale or topic and you get what I mean….

  4. Very interesting linguistic post! I like this non-linguist take on a phenomenon known as linguistic politeness! As you mentioned, some languages like French grammaticalize politeness, by which I mean that the language actually provides a way for a person to be polite, since there exists a different form. In other languages, this is done in other ways. In Tagalog, for example, which is the language I learned to speak first, one can stick a particle “po” after the verb and one can be polite. Just stick that particle after every verb in the sentence. Also, whenever we need to address someone who is of a higher social class, instead of referring to them using the second person singular, we use the third person plural. So, if you visit the Philippines and knock on a stranger’s house, and the stranger would want to know who you are and what you need, he would be basically telling you, “Who are they?” and “What do they want?”
    .-= Linguist-in-Waiting´s last blog ..Summer Preparations =-.

  5. I used to talk to my boss in English but at some point he took french class and I talked to him in French. I was so unconfortable having to pick between “tu” and “vous” that i stopped making him practice!
    .-= Delph´s last blog ..Si seulement… =-.

  6. when in doubt, always use vous.
    isn’t that the rule?

    tu voux coucher avec moi ce soir?
    that would make a *great* song,
    i wonder why nobody has thought
    about writing it. my feet tap
    thinking about the possiblity.

    (yes, i know there is a *vous*
    version of the song. i am being
    funny in my awkwardly usual way)

    (but doesn’t vous seems awkward when
    asking someone to sleep with you?)

    there’s an english phrase:
    one for the money, tu for the show.
    isn’t it curious vous isn’t used?
    .-= Seraphine´s last blog ..The Precise Behavior of Exceptions =-.

  7. Perhaps the equivalent in American English is whether to use Mr/Mrs/Ms or the first name. When I was a boy I was taught to call all adults by Mr or Mrs until specifically requested to use the first name. I taught my kids the same rule. Many adults will quickly brush aside the formality but are almost never offended by it. Of course when I was a boy the choices were Mister, Missus, or Miss, Ms had not been invented yet. But you applies to everyone. No problem there.
    .-= Tulsa Gentleman´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday – Doors to Old Central High School =-.

  8. And do you remember I told you once about Hindi? Hindi also has 2 words for ‘you’ just like French. And they are used exactly in the same manner as French.

    Aap = vous
    tum = tu

    Actually, if one knows three languages (English, Hindi & Sanskrit), French is very easy to learn. It has ingredients from all 3. I never had any difficulty. 🙂
    .-= Nisha´s last blog ..Return…. =-.

  9. Hello again,

    I absolutely loved this post: very witty.

    Also in Italian there is the “tu” and “Lei”; in German the “du” and “Er/Sie”…hmmm…Europeans are complicated LOL. However, I like that distinction.
    My problem with “tu” and “você” is when I am talking to Brazilians. For instance, in Portugal “você” is formal (and I don’t understand why families would use it to address each other: it is ludicrous) but it is not in Brazil (actually it is the equivalent to “tu”); so whenever I wanted to address older Brazilian friends it was a bit tricky for me, cause I didn’t want to be disrespectful notwithstanding I didn’t want to sound distant. Solution: I use the “tu” with them lol.

    One’s best doesn’t address one as “tu” in Portugal. “Você” is widely used. And I don’t think that it will ever change…

    Cheers
    .-= Max Coutinho´s last blog ..Public Service =-.

  10. Not many Chinese I know uses “您” so much anymore except for some Chinese nationalities here which I think is pretty respectful and in my personal opinion, school should emphasize this. Maybe I am very ‘Chinese’ at heart and certain values I do hold close to.

  11. Actually I love the existence of “vos” (tu) and “usted” in the Argentine spanish.
    it gives additional information, and it’s part of the richness of the language.
    🙂

  12. @Bluefish – I just can’t use ‘vous’ with strange, it sounds super rude to me. I can’t get used to it!

    @Tiago – Thanks for the explanation! When I was in Brazil, I used the proper “vous” with everybody just to be on the safe side. I noticed that even though people were super friendly, they were also very polite and it seemed a bit like France.

    @Rich B – Oh yeah, I get some of these questions once in a while! Just yesterday, a nice old lady I just passed on the street turned to me and said: “clock tower?”. I was like “…. you mean, you are looking for the Parliament, right?”

    I’m always taken aback with these questions.

    @Beth – Definitely ‘tu’, unless your pal is the President or the Prime Minister. In forums as well, the rule is ‘tu’. 😉

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – I like the “stick the particle” rule, it seems easy! Easier than conjugating different forms of the verb to sound polite anyway.

    @Delph – S’il est Québécois, je dirai que “tu” est la règle. Je dis “tu” à tout le monde au travail (enfin, aux trois francophones !)

    @Seraphine – I know, this is so weird. See, if you want to sleep with someone, I’d suggest to start using “tu”. This is a case when using “vous” is super weird… and the song probably influenced thousands of foreigners who don’t understand why French women are offended at their use of “vous”! 😆

    @Tulsa Gentleman – I tend to be quite polite in English too (French are pretty formal) and I find it works just fine. Sometimes, being a bit on the formal side is actually good.

    @Sidney – yep, for sure!

    @London Caller – I know Japanese has different conjugation (or verb forms) for polite forms. But eh, Japanese are known to be extra poite, right?

    @Nisha – But do you think a French can learn Hindi easily?

    @Max Coutinho – Yes, I had heard there was a difference here between Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese. I only “learned” Brazilian Portuguese…

    @shionge – It’s true, I rarely use ‘nin’ as well. I learned it though but it seemed much less used than “vous” in French.

    @zetad – Argentinean Spanish has some wonderful vocabulary and little “tweak”. I’m far from mastering them but I did notice. However, I can’t get used to the “ll” pronunciation, sorry! 😆

  13. hey zhu… nice to get back at all your lovely blog entries after a long busy month… 🙂

    as for tu and vous/usted/blabla.. i find it funny yet interesting when i first learned spanish. i bet i’d get stuck in a situation like which one to use, LOL. but if i speak french or spanish, i’d make sure my kids use the formal pronoun when speaking to me! HAHAHA.
    .-= kyh´s last blog ..March o’ hell =-.

  14. Oh, I love the ‘vous’ and ‘tu’ distinction! In German you have even to write it with a capital letter: ‘Sie’ in comparison with ‘du’. Linguistically speaking, I prefer the ‘you’ – it’s so simple to use. But from the social point of view, I love to ‘vouvoyer’ people I don’t know well or my boss. I love the kind of polite distance it creates. And you can always decide to say ‘tu’ when the things change (but practically never the other way!)
    .-= Yasmine´s last blog ..Message From the Past =-.

  15. I’m constantly worried about using “tu” and “vous” correctly. How can two little words be so complicated?!? But they are. “You” is indeed one of the many blessings of the English language. The fact that all words are gender neutral is another.
    .-= Tanya´s last blog ..Making Gâteau au Chocolat =-.

  16. I never quite understood the use of vous. I would use tu as a default, as I mostly spoke French with my parents and sister. I also thought tu less cold and less aristocratic. Of course I insulted lots of French people haha, but it wasn’t done to hurt them, just habit of using tu.
    .-= Seb´s last blog ..Two Drawings =-.

  17. @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!

  18. 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.

  19. 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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