Struggling with “you” in many languages

By Sophie Shields

“Wollen wir uns duzen?” is always one of the first questions asked in my German classes, just like “peut-t-on se tutoyer?” or “¿nos podemos tutear?” in French and Spanish lessons. As English speakers, the question “can we use the informal ‘you’?” seems irrelevant. But its answer is critical for speakers of languages that distinguish between the formal and informal “you.” Linguists call this the T-V distinction, stemming from the Latin informal tu and formal vos.

To avoid insulting someone in another language, you need to know when to use T-form (informal) and V-form (formal) pronouns. For instance, etiquette requires French speakers to refer to elders and strangers with the formal vous instead of the informal tu. Similarly, German insists on using Sie to show respect instead of du; the police can fine you 600 Euros for addressing them by du instead of Sie! In Poland, Pan (Sir) or Pani (Madam) is used, even towards your parents, to signal respect. When men switch from Pan to the informal ty, they traditionally interlock arms, take a shot of vodka and kiss on the cheek; this stems from the German Bruderschaft (brotherhood) custom.

Though long forgotten, English also once had a T-V distinction. If you read Shakespeare at school, then the pronoun thou shouldn’t be foreign to you. From the 13th to 16th century, thou was used like the French tu among close friends and family and in addressing those of inferior social status. But by the 16th century, thou had become akin to insulting someone – “do you thou me?” By the 17th century, it had gone out of favour. Nowadays, ironically enough, thou is the closest to a formal “you” in modern English.

All you want to do is converse in another language, but the questions are endless: Am I being rude by speaking formally, or have I disrespected someone by speaking informally? Can I speak with my friend informally, or do I have to wait for them to ask me? It becomes even more perplexing with Asian languages, such as the seven speech levels in Korean or the honorifics in Japanese. Indeed, T-V distinctions are linguistic minefields. But to have successful social relationships in other languages, you need to be able to navigate them.

Sophie Shields is a Carleton student studying global literature and a proud Franco-Ukrainian who is learning German. She is the social media coordinator for the Glebe Report.

All you want to do is converse in another language

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