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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tu vs. Vous

Those of us around the world who speak English are pretty lucky. English most certainly has rules on how to speak it, but seemingly less and less people follow them than before. English is a language that one can speak badly and usually not have to fear condescending remarks or corrections. I'm sure I've made several grammatical mistakes and faults while writing this blog that would have taken points off of papers that I wrote in college. As long as us anglophones understand what somebody needs, we're usually just impressed that a non-Anglophone can speak our language at all, because most of us from English speaking countries don't speak anything other than English.

Many of the English speaking countries, like the United States, Canada, and Australia for example, are huge. While the Europeans can have several different languages within an 100 mile radius, we could drive 25-30 hours in the above-mentioned countries and never encounter a foreign language. Thus, we just really don't have as much of a need for a second language.

Back to original point, in English, rules aren't that big of a deal. Whether someone is the Queen of England or a toddler, when speaking to them, we refer to them as "you". In French, it is not as easy. For me, this is one of the issues I still struggle with the most. This is the battle of tu versus vous.

First off, both of these words translate as "you", it is just that each are used in separate occasions. One would use tu if they are talking to a close friend, a child, and more frequently, a stranger their own age. Even in the latter circumstance, tu shouldn't be used when in a business setting unless it is someone that you know very well.

Conversely, vous is more formal. If you are meeting someone for the first time (unless they are a child), you should use vous in the conversation when addressing them. This should also be used until it is deemed appropriate to start using tu. There is even a verb to use when asking if you can address someone in the tu form, which is tutoyer, though personally I don't think I've ever heard anyone ask this to me before.

This doesn't really seem that complicated, and for the French, it really isn't difficult to do. Remembering these rules when writing French isn't really that tough either, even for someone learning the language. However, for those of us who are used to having only one word for "you", this can be incessantly complicated when speaking.

From personal experience, several times I have addressed a septuagenarian as if he or she were eight years old, while I have spoken a child as if they were my friend's grandparents. It can be quite difficult to remember these rules when speaking on the fly. Usually the first thing to come out of my mouth, no matter whom I am addressing, will be tu. If it is the wrong time to use it, I'll try and make up for it by saying vous the rest of the time I am speaking to this person worthy of the vous form.

When I was working on my visa last year, I had to travel to a town called Melun, about an hour southeast of Paris in order to get my paperwork started. A translator came with me just to help make the process smoother. We spent about an hour in line chatting and at first, we addressed each other in the vous form, but after we started to discuss more personal stories, such as where we grew up and how we came to be where we are, I felt confident that we could start using the tu form. When I spoke to her again afterwards by email, I used tu throughout the message. When she responded, she only addressed me in the vous form.

This instance left me feeling pretty confused. I felt that we had crossed the vous frontier into tu territory, but it turned out I had been sent right back to vous again. Since then, we have only used vous when speaking to one another. What I've learned here is that we Americans are a very social bunch, we want to be personal and on familiar terms with everyone. In France, that doesn't happen as often. Though I know that people in French companies go out for drinks and socialize amicably, I feel that the French are more reluctant to be on familiar terms with a client or coworker. Simply put, keep the personal life and business life separate.

The point of this entry was not to show how to differentiate the tu and vous forms, rather it was to show how complicated it can be. Fortunately, if you happen to address someone in the wrong form, they probably will not mind. Maybe you will help an aged person feel young again, or a child feel like an adult. In these cases, confusing tu and vous might not be a bad thing after all.

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1 comment:

  1. I never got this quite right, and it lead to more than a few awkward situations.