KIDS TODAY, FRENCH VERSION.

A Guardian piece by Agnès Poirier laments the fading of the polite pronoun:

Today, French people in their 20s hardly ever use vous or tend to think of it like the past perfect subjunctive, an archaic remnant. They have never known the world before the internet and social networks are their thing. They use textspeak, and communicate with emoticons. We had slang, verlan, and wrote love letters. They have got tweets, RTs and “likes”. They set up dates by text, and use Twitter to dump people. In a world where one communicates within the 140 characterlimit, vous is a hindrance and tu a godsend.
Things get complicated when different generations collide on the social networks. Last year, as the Le Monde blogpost points out, Franz Durupt, a young hack from the French daily dared to say “tu” to Laurent Joffrin, editor of Le Nouvel Observateur magazine on Twitter. Scandal. The older journalist complained and the Twittersphere accused him of being pedantic. He retorted that all he asked for was a little respect, and that the vous culture was exactly what social media needed most. …
I personally didn’t have a strong opinion on the matter until Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007. The former French president said tu to everyone. This shocked and infuriated me as it did millions of French people. How dare he say tu to people he didn’t know? How disrespectful, how hypocritical, how disingenuous. I suddenly realised the importance of having two forms of address. Vous is not only a sign of respect and politeness towards an older person or a stranger; it puts a healthy and adult distance between two individuals, it gives them some space to actually get to know one another better, to win the other over and get to the stage where they’ll happily say “tu”. Tu is a sign of real intimacy, one that should be genuine, not contrived. Tu is a gift to real friendship – just not the kind you necessarily have with your 1500 Facebook “friends”.

On the one hand, as a fellow geezer I’m sympathetic. On the other, I’m pretty sure her teenage self (“We were the salut generation, the ones with bad manners”) would have laughed her lament-writing self to scorn. Instead of realizing “the importance of having two forms of address,” she should have realized “Oh, hell, I’m getting old.” It never ceases to amaze me how automatically people replicate the lament modes of their parents and grandparents, and how hard it is for them to see that process for what it is. Mom and dad were just being foolish, but my complaints are serious! (Thanks for the link, Kobi.)

Comments

  1. it gives them some space to actually get to know one another better
    This. And then there’s the special moment when two people decide to make the switch – I still have fond memories of three such occasions. Interestingly, all of them now lie more then ten years in the past. These days, it’s T with just about everyone I interact with regularly and V only with service people and alike. The HellPit day job even has a T-only policy and it’s taken pretty seriously in all languages (tested for Spanish, Dutch, French and Russian). Works well for morale, I’ll grant them that, but sometimes I’d prefer V, especially when arguing with some of the more incompetent of my colleagues.

  2. Victor Sonkin says:

    But the president of the country, not a particulary young guy, should not be leading this charge.

  3. Might than not have been the salaud generation?

  4. Kári Tulinius says:

    Icelandic had, until the 1970s, polite and familiar forms of address. The polite form (þér) has completely vanished. I was born in 1981 and I have never heard it used in a way that was not deliberately archaic or jokey.
    It happened almost completely without comment and it happened very, very quickly. From being universal it just vanished over the course of a single decade.
    France is a much larger and more hierarchical society than Iceland (not to mention the added complication of having large Francophone populations outside France) so the situation is very different.

  5. I appreciate the spirit of your comment, Gentle Hat, but don’t you think there’s a danger in the refusal to judge particular changes just because, well, some kind of change was going to happen anyway? I guess it’s true that arguments from pet peeve can easily degenerate into self-parody, but…I’m a little uncomfortable with lumping all judgments together as so much subjectivism just because they share the fate of being unfalsifiable.
    At least it seems to me that we should recognize the world of difference between the substance of this argument about tu/vous and your run-of-the-mill split-infinitive rage. We do gain a kind of clarity by noting a certain epistemological equivalence, but I’m not sure the clarity of the difference between such judgments is any the lesser. Or that we’re really trading up from the latter to the former.

  6. I think elessorn has a point; I’d even begun thinking myself that since the writer wasn’t making generalizations about language but rather making a case against one particular change — a case not based on etymology or any other prescriptivist casuistry, to boot — then maybe she was being unfairly lumped. But then I read the first paragraph again and lost sympathy: her generation wrote love letters, their’s dumps people on Twitter. Her case kinda sucked, too.

  7. Many people have difficulties adapting to changes in verbal P/F (polite/familiar) usage around them. These difficulties are, however, almost entirely due to changes in the links between familiar non-verbal expectations and behavior on the one hand, and those P/F practices on the other. Deference, friendliness, restraint and their opposites; group pressures to conform or rebel; all these social phenomena are still present and must be dealt with. They are merely losing certain conventional ties to P/F forms of address.
    The article’s author, and most of the commenters on it, seem unaware of this. The only thing they can think to do, when the cat gets out of the bag, is to gripe about the missing bag, or claim that it is not needed anyway. But the resourceful person is able to recognize this as laziness. U and Non-U are still with us, and there is more than one way to skin a cat.
    All that has happened is that the old backup spells for dealing with Them have lost their efficacity: the quelling glance, the moue of disapproval just don’t work any more to turn back attacks on P/F in conversation. The recourse is counter-attack.
    I complained here once about the situation in German with Sie and du, in exactly the circumstances that bulbul describes:

    The HellPit day job even has a T-only policy and it’s taken pretty seriously in all languages (tested for Spanish, Dutch, French and Russian). Works well for morale, I’ll grant them that, but sometimes I’d prefer V, especially when arguing with some of the more incompetent of my colleagues.

    Well, “works well for morale” essentially means that the whippersnappers in question are all off their guard. They have forgotten – if they ever knew – that familiarity breeds contempt as well as team spirit. Instead of bundling unwelcome observations in layers of Sie-indirection, I now spread them out on the table in a jocular, friendly fashion with du.
    My interlocutors have disarmed themselves by discarding Sie, and are able to learn from my example, day by day, to regret that step. I think the best way to encourage people to learn is to let them figure out things for themselves. Harping explicitly on the decline of Sie/du distinctions is a waste of time. As the saying goes: Wer nicht hören will, muß fühlen.

  8. I totally agree with Stu that there are more ways to skin a cat than tu/vous and so I’m not sure what he’s on about at the end (do you like it or not, Stu?).
    I suddenly realised the importance of having two forms of address. Vous is not only a sign of respect and politeness towards an older person or a stranger; it puts a healthy and adult distance between two individuals
    A healthy distance – what an oxymoron. Why can’t she see that she just can’t adapt to changes in language? English & the Skandinavian languages don’t put up with this nonsense, and we can still turn on the same “respect” and or distancing effect by calling, say, the gardener ‘Mr Bloggs’ instead of ‘Old Joe’ (in Skandinavian you’d call him just ‘Bloggs’ or your male-or-female dentist just ‘Larsen’). So this “Oh, it’s inexplicable, you English can’t understand its advantages” is rubbish. This is not a language question, it’s a social question: either you’re interested in preserving barriers – and in distancing other people, and the consequent awkwardness and uncertainty in deciding when to make the change – or you’re not.

  9. “we can still turn on the same “respect” and or distancing effect by calling, say, the gardener ‘Mr Bloggs’ instead of ‘Old Joe’”
    Not in many parts of America. Addressing people by “Mr.” or “Ms/Mrs.” plus surname is becoming as old fashioned as “vous” in French.

  10. Another thing. In English if I want to adjust the distancing I can call him Bloggs, Mr Bloggs, Bulgy Bloggs, Bloggy, or Joe according to how I feel that day. I’m not stuck with ‘Mr Bloggs’ until I’ve known him for 20 years and feel we’ve achieved equal social status due to his having won the lottery. Also I only need to do it once every meeting, not in every sentence like I must with du/Sie.
    And the French & Germans call the British social snobs!

  11. Addressing people by “Mr.” or “Ms/Mrs.” plus surname is becoming as old fashioned as “vous” in French.
    And thank God for that. I’m just saying that the distancing effect doesn’t require a du/Sie equivalent.

  12. And the French & Germans call the British social snobs!
    - Not that they aren’t hugely, of course.

  13. I totally agree with Stu that there are more ways to skin a cat than tu/vous and so I’m not sure what he’s on about at the end (do you like it or not, Stu?).
    I find the distinction useful, and to that extent I like it – just as you seem to feel towards the distinction between “Bloggs” and “Mr. Bloggs”. In the respective languages such verbal distinctions are already in place, and more or less match social distinctions that would exist without them, so why not use these verbal distinctions ?
    The mistake many anti-P/F people make is to imagine that the relationship between verbal distinctions and social ones is causal – the former is responsible for the latter. But social distinctions lead to verbal ones too – so the relationship is mutually reinforcing, not causal.
    One ignores these distinctions at one’s peril, most especially in transitional phases. Puppy-love will not deter the dog-catcher.

  14. As Kári says, the polite form of address vanished practically overnight in Iceland.
    I vaguely remember it (early 60s). I remember an elderly woman getting extremely upset when a bus driver used the familiar form with her. At this point in time some section of the elderly population still insisted on the polite form but many people under 40 or 50 didn’t even know how to conjugate (I’m not sure that’s the right word) the pronoun. There were jokes and comedy sketches about characters struggling to get it right, I think the ‘funny’ misunderstanding or idiotic sentences tended to revolve around yður/iður, which are pronounced the same way.
    But the polite form survived in public life till the early 70s.
    Old TV footage and radio recordings sound almost medieval to Icelanders today. Reporters who address politicians in the polite way sound embarrassingly deferential; politicians who address reporters in the polite way sound condescending.

  15. don’t you think there’s a danger in the refusal to judge particular changes just because, well, some kind of change was going to happen anyway?
    Danger? No, I don’t. No offense, but the idea that it’s somehow dangerous to refuse to judge is part of the same irrationality as the idea that the world is going to hell in a handbasket because people aren’t using vous as much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not placing myself above the fray with an Olympian smile on my face; I have these reactions too. The difference is that over the years I’ve learned (and it takes a lot of effort, just like aerobic exercise) to see my reactions for what they are: automatic and pointless. I used to react viscerally: “People say ‘may have’ instead of ‘might have’ in contrary-to-fact situations, and that’s wrong and bad and must stop at once, do you hear!” Now I react philosophically: “People say ‘may have’ instead of ‘might have’ in contrary-to-fact situations, and it bothers me excessively… must be getting old!” Same goes for seeing all the young people with tattoos and piercings: instead of ranting about how they have no self-respect and how one day they’ll be sorry!, I just say “Well, it’s not for me,” and reflect that if I were their age I would probably be doing the same thing. I think that last element is the crucial one—recognizing that one’s reactions are heavily generational, and that it’s silly to pretend one’s own generation somehow achieved perfection in music, personal style, and pronoun use, and après nous la déluge. Kids today are just like kids when you were a kid; it’s only the signifiers that are different. Young people want everything to change, old people want everything to stay the same; thus it ever was and thus it shall ever be. You can either laugh or cry about it, and I know which I prefer.
    To those of you who still feel uncomfortable, who feel Agnès has a point about something other than her own reactions: what about the Icelandic case? Are you (for non-Icelandic values of “you”) equally bothered by the loss of þér? Of course you’re not, any more than you’re bothered by reading about some change of fashion in Byzantium or Bhutan. Do you seriously think Icelandic society has gone to hell in a handbasket because people don’t use þér any more? I doubt it. But most of us have some personal acquaintance with French, so we take changes in French personally. Again, that has to do with us, not with French.
    We do gain a kind of clarity by noting a certain epistemological equivalence, but I’m not sure the clarity of the difference between such judgments is any the lesser. Or that we’re really trading up from the latter to the former.
    I do not understand these sentences at all.

  16. I remember vividly my surprise, when I came to Connecticut from Oregon in the 1980s, to find “Mr” and “Mrs” still in active (if dwindling) use by adult peers. I had known them only as titles that schoolchildren gave to their teachers.

  17. Nowadays even at very frumpy English public schools teachers are known to their faces as Dave & Basil, Betty & Pansy.

  18. A healthy distance – what an oxymoron.
    Not during flu season. Or in a crowd dotted with pickpockets.
    Americans tend to use the world friend pretty loosely, as opposed to acquaintance or co-worker, fellow student, co-religionist, Lodge brother. The notion of a purely utilitarian relationship, nothing personal, it’s just business, polite but limited, does not seem to set well. Not surprising then that we should come up with the concept frenemy. Well, everybody’s friend, everybody’s fool, as they say. Or used to say, before it was thought unfriendly. Then too, instant familiarity is a tool for the con artist or politician. Certainly it puts me on my guard.
    Italian has the distinction of having three forms of address, familiar, formal, most formal (tu, lei, voi). Mussolini tried to get rid of the formal lei in favor of the formalissimo voi. Didn’t work. Even backfired, as voi is rarissimo, with a few lingering ghosts in the Vatican and officilish documents and such.
    “Change and decay all around I see”? Periodically, perhaps like the broken clock, complaints about relative decline really are spot on and not just a sign of “autres temps, autres moeurs”. I leave it to others to decide exactly when….

  19. Marc Leavitt says:

    When I returned to the US from France in 1966, after three years, I was aghast, appalled, offended, enraged, because the employee of a firm I was doing some business with addressed me by my first name.How dared he? The peon!
    I had become used to the formal “Monsieur,” and no one of my general acquaintance in France would ever have thought to address me as “vous.”
    This is a perfect example of what languages do; they change to mirror society.
    English dropped the second person singular about 400 years ago. Thou must think it passing strange, a stench in the nostrils of the Lord, to hear thyself addressed as “you.” If indeed thou dost, take thee in haste to a nunnery (monastery); belike thy sisters (brothers) will approve.

  20. In the case of Sarkozy I suspect that by saying “tu” to people he didn’t know he was attempting to intimidate them. He was telling them that as president the normal rules do not apply to him.

  21. I still don’t like it when doctors, receptionists, and other people who don’t personally know me call me by my given name, but like I said, I’m a geezer.

  22. About 10-15 years ago, when I called support hotlines at IBM, Lotus etc. I would get connected to call center people who introduced themselves as “Jack” and “Jill” (for instance), and would not give their last names. But they addressed me as “Mr. Clayton”.
    This made me feel as if I were talking to children, or the hired help. For a while I tried addressing them as “Mr. Jack” or “Ms. Jill” (as appropriate), but this didn’t faze them. I was never able to find out whether this waitress-behavior was fomented by management to make the customers feel superior.
    One of the Jills told me that she didn’t like to give her full name, because someone might then stalk her.
    The order-takers at the Starbucks store in the Cologne address you with du, and ask for your first name when they’ve filled out your order, so that they can call you out when it’s filled. One big happy family ! I tell them they can write down “Mr. Clayton” and stuff the disco behavior.

  23. I’m not letting someone do a prostate exam on me until we’re on first name terms.
    I just had a series of emails with a Norwegian lawyer that I initiated with a “Dear Rudolf”. He replied “Dear Mr Crown” the first couple of times until we brought in an English lawyer, Bill. Bill used “Dear Rudolf” too, whereupon Rudolf gave in and used first names. I wouldn’t mind, except that I probably had to pay for two minutes of Rudolf going “on the one hand…but on the other hand” to himself.

  24. Last week I had a prostate exam done by a female doctor. I felt no urge to learn her first name – that would have made the whole business too intimate. It was just a finger, for God’s sake.

  25. I’m wrong, that was the first time. The second time there was also an ultrasound probe involved, subsequent to the finger. Everything’s A-OK.
    No, the probe does not vibrate. Anything else you would like to know, apart from first names ?

  26. I’m not letting someone do a prostate exam on me until we’re on first name terms.
    No. That crosses the line from “medical procedure” to “social call”. I’m on V terms with all my urologists – in fact, we address each other using Mr. and our respective academic titles, i.e. “pán doktor” and “pán magister”, respectively. That’s got to be the most conservative way of addressing somebody, but guess what, in this context, it sounds about right.

  27. So you didn’t say “können wir uns duzen?” after she’d stuck a finger up your ass? It seems only polite to me, but what do I know.

  28. How do French youngsters text that Gallic Shrug? Does Grumbly Svous know?

  29. Trond Engen says:

    The chronology of the Icelandic shift is pretty accurate for the loss of the Norwegian polite De too. I was born in 1968, and I remember my grandmother (and on rare occasions my mother) being dis in finer Oslo shops in the early seventies. They say the Swedes were a few years ahead of us, the Danish a few years behind.

  30. Absolutely, you completely nailed it, I couldn’t possibly agree with your last paragraph more. People are silly little hypocrites, we really are, some much more than others, though.
    For what it’s worth, my experience with Spanish-speakers replicates this, most under 40, and all under 30, insist that I use “tu” with them (I’m 29) and several times I’ve gotten the reaction from people that it’s really weird that I’m addressing anyone as “tu” except maybe really old people–these were typically younger people, under 25, but keep in mind this was also before they knew how old I was (I could’ve been younger than them, they didn’t know, but they still found it strange I didn’t immediately address them as “tu”).
    The only people still using vosotros to any real extent are the Spanish and I suspect that’s going to dye off eventually, there, as well.
    Cheers,
    Andrew

  31. “I still don’t like it when doctors, receptionists, and other people who don’t personally know me call me by my given name.” Only such people use my “given” name; people I know always use my nickname.
    P.S. Presumably you mean one of your “given” names, Hat? Or does “given” in the US always imply the first name? What about an Archibald Bertrand Cunningham who likes to be called Bertrand: would that be described as his “given” name?

  32. Come to think of it, even my school teachers didn’t use my “given” name: they used my surname or my nickname or sometimes both (to distinguish me from the classmate with the same surname).

  33. I agree with Grumbly that

    The mistake many anti-P/F people make is to imagine that the relationship between verbal distinctions and social ones is causal – the former is responsible for the latter. But social distinctions lead to verbal ones too – so the relationship is mutually reinforcing, not causal.

    But aren’t Hat and Crown making the opposite mistake – seeing verbal distinctions as just a passive mirror of social ones? In this case, I think there’s more to it. A T/V pronoun system doesn’t just reflect a certain kind of social distinction, it helps to set it up. Sure, there are other ingredients and other ways of achieving a similar result, but nevertheless, to use tu or vous is to assert or produce different kinds of relationships, as long as they’re both in regular use. Losing the distinction isn’t a question of going to hell in a handbasket — one can observe and deplore a change without necessarily implying that the apocalypse is nigh — but it’s substantial in a way that a purely formal change like may have for might have isn’t.
    (This would be the place to cite Brown and Gilman’s “The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity”, if I had more than the vaguest recollection of what it says.)
    I was recently discussing (OK, lamenting) with another Israeli friend the almost complete absence in Israeli culture of what BWA calls “the notion of a purely utilitarian relationship, nothing personal, it’s just business, polite but limited”. (I actually think that notion is a common one in America, which is one thing I like about living here.) In Israel a cable technician will address you as “bro”. (This has happened to me, though to be fair, I was younger then and it might not happen now that I have outlived Jesus; but then again it might.) Now you might say that such an extreme lack of healthy distance is a feature of the culture, not the language; but isn’t “culture” an abstraction arrived at by generalizing over actual behavior, much of it linguistic? It isn’t really that “society changes so language changes too”, it’s that some of the ways that society changes are linguistic.

  34. Why can’t she see that she just can’t adapt to changes in language?
    Why can’t you see that your unfounded quips are conceived in the nexus of ideological engineering and dedicated to the proposition that change is an inherent advancement.
    either you’re interested in preserving barriers
    “Good fences make good neighbors”

  35. But aren’t Hat and Crown making the opposite mistake – seeing verbal distinctions as just a passive mirror of social ones?
    I can’t speak for Crown, but I’m doing no such thing, and I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea that I am. I am agnostic on the subject of the causal relationship between verbal distinctions and social ones, but I am quite sure that laments about changes in pronoun use are ineffective and pointless. The dogs bark but the caravan moves on. (Again, I have often been part of the barking pack, so I cast no stones.)

  36. The order-takers at the Starbucks store in the Cologne address you with du, and ask for your first name when they’ve filled out your order, so that they can call you out when it’s filled. One big happy family ! I tell them they can write down “Mr. Clayton” and stuff the disco behavior.
    Leave it to Starbucks to be the spearhead of insipid, familiarity creep. As goes the java, so goes the jowl.

  37. Hat, my point is that this isn’t just another case of reflexive neophobic peeving about mere change in signifiers, as your comparison with may have/might have implies; it’s more substantial than that. (Granted that the article doesn’t make the case particularly well, and is linguistically ignorant in the predictable way: “Italian and Spanish have long lost use of their formal pronouns”?!). Sure, it’s “ineffective” in the sense that the author is on the wrong side of history, but that’s not the same as being pointless.

  38. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    BWA, Italian had three forms of address, but up to the nineteenth century voi used to be the neutral form, with Lei as a highly formal alternative, and tu as a highly informal, even intimate one.
    In the twentieth century, voi retreated first geographically to Southern Italy, and then generationally to the elderly and socially to a less formal family context.
    The short-lived Fascist attempt to reverse this trend was not due to a perception that voi was more formal than Lei (the opposite was and had always been the case), but to the belief that voi was a more natively Italian form of address—an incorrect belief, but one dating back to the eighteenth century.
    Today, voi does not survive as a form of address for a single person in any formal context. On the other hand, it is almost universally used for the plural. Although in principle the plural of formal Lei would be Loro, it is perceived as exceedingly formal and even bureaucratic.
    Italian readers can have more scholarly confirmation of this from the Accademia della Crusca:
    http://www.accademiadellacrusca.it/faq/faq_risp.php?id=5497
    http://www.accademiadellacrusca.it/faq/faq_risp.php?id=7648
    http://www.accademiadellacrusca.it/faq/faq_risp.php?id=7792
    At the level of unsupported and unsystematic personal observations, I’m not aware of any memorable laments concerning the loss of nuance in switching from a tripartite to a binary system in the singular, nor from a binary system to a single pronoun in the plural.
    There is surely an ongoing tendency to use tu more often than Lei, but the latter still seems alive and well, or at least much more common than Usted in Spain.

  39. Hat, my point is that this isn’t just another case of reflexive neophobic peeving about mere change in signifiers, as your comparison with may have/might have implies; it’s more substantial than that.
    No, I understand that.
    Sure, it’s “ineffective” in the sense that the author is on the wrong side of history, but that’s not the same as being pointless.
    Well, that depends, doesn’t it? What exactly is the point of lamenting an inevitable change except to relieve one’s feelings? Which, granted, is not nothing, but I prefer to save such laments for things that cause me real grief, which no pronominal loss is likely to do.

  40. Come on, this discussion is a little too Eurocentric (Occidentocentric?) for Languagehat! It is easy to feel disdain for the linguistic marking of social distance when the only variety you are familiar with is the T/V distinction of Western European languages. (As an aside, is this an areal feature? Linguistically speaking it obviously doesn’t go back to the Indo-European ancestor since the polite form is generally a linguistically derivative form, not a primitive form.)
    When you look beyond the Occident, a rather different picture appears. Were social marking to disappear from languages like Japanese, Vietnamese, or Javanese, this would represent a major linguistic, social, and cultural shift that could not be lightly dismissed with a languid extension of the descriptivist posture. This is not to say that such a shift would not be possible — for instance, there are, I understand, Japanese rural dialects that do not have honorifics, indicating that honorifics are not ‘intrinsic’ to the language. But the objectors to LH’s descriptivist resignation are entirely correct; this is not a linguistic change on the same plane as ‘split infinitives’, and saying that you wish it well even as you grind your teeth is, I would suggest, a misuse of grammatical prescriptivism, although no doubt a healthy approach to life.
    While the Western world is racing headlong into formal linguistic equality (and I should point out that this does not equate to true social equality, it simply means the linguistic marking becomes more subtle and possibly even more difficult to master than formal linguistic markers), I note that a recent survey of language usage by the Culture Agency found the opposite tendency in Japan. To quote from the relevant article in the Yomiuri morning edition of 21 Sept (my translation):
    “When asked whether they were careful of their own use of language, the number stating that they ‘were careful’ rose to 77.9%, a 7.3 percentage point increase from the 2004 survey. By age, the 16-19 age group saw an increase from 57.8% to 83.3%, while those in their 30s saw an increase from 72.6% to 86.1%. Respondents were also asked the points about which they exercised care. 73.5% said that they ‘used honorifics in response to the other speaker or the situation’, up 15.5 percentage points from 2001. 51.8% of respondents said they ‘avoided vulgar language and expressions’, an increase of 16.4 percentage points. 37.6% said they ‘avoided boasting of their abilities or possessions’, an increase of 11.9 percentage points. As situations for using honorifics, 81.9% gave ‘when talking to people in higher positions’ [or higher status], an increase of 5.5 percentage points over 2005, and 79.3% gave ‘when talking to strangers who appeared to be the same age or older’, an increase of 12.1 percentage points.”
    Note that the term ‘be careful in the use of language’ (言葉の使い方に気を使っている) flows quite seamlessly into a discussion of honorifics in Japanese, which it most certainly does not in English.

  41. a misuse of grammatical prescriptivism
    That should have been ‘a misuse of grammatical descriptivism’.
    And I left out Korean, which probably has even more elaborate honorifics than Japanese.

  42. I call all my patients Mr./Ms., which I think freaks some of them out, but I would feel creepy, or waiterly, calling them by their first names.
    As for P/F forms of address, I am surprised how frequent “ir” (the polite 2nd-person) is in Chasidic, Yiddish-speaking circles. Whenever I see an older Yiddish-speaking person, I tell my children, “See, this is the sort of person you should speak to with ‘ir.’”

  43. What exactly is the point of lamenting an inevitable change except to relieve one’s feelings?
    None, of course. But the key word is lament. I enjoy *discussing* linguistic changes, trying to figure out whether my reactions have any merit or whether I’m just having a visceral reaction to the loss of a distinction, for example, I happen to have liked. Compose, comprise, constitute — I love the in fact non-existent distinctions between these words, but I’m aware that my reaction has nothing to do with whether or not these distinctions are good or bad for the language. Comprised of has never been more ambiguous to me than composed of, regardless of whether or not I choose not to use the former. On the other hand, I think it’d be hard to argue that the current meaning of the exception proves the rule is as useful as, or in any way better than, exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis.
    Now obviously that doesn’t mean that we should all weep over the change or that the language is overall worse now than it once was; it means that so long as nobody is making any of those absurd claims, there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun discussing observed linguistic changes, trying to figure out whether our objections, if we have them, stem from irrelevant emotion or from a genuine insight. Agnès Poirier doesn’t seem to have had one of those — or, if she did, she certainly didn’t articulate it well. But I think the distinction is important. Just because we’re capable of the more philosophical perspective doesn’t mean it’s always feckless to play in the dirt every once in a while.

  44. Bill Walderman says:

    What about English? Why isn’t “you” giving way to “thou”?

  45. Why isn’t “you” giving way to “thou”?
    Because ‘thou’ died out first. But that is an interesting question. Why did ‘thou’ die out and not ‘you’?

  46. Tom Recht: But aren’t Hat and Crown making the opposite mistake – seeing verbal distinctions as just a passive mirror of social ones? In this case, I think there’s more to it. A T/V pronoun system doesn’t just reflect a certain kind of social distinction, it helps to set it up.
    I only agree that at times the French & Germans utilize t-v and d-S to behave in a snotty or distant way, although the truth is that if you want to appear snotty or distant you can probably manage it in any culture (I believe Hozo is an American, for example).
    I can’t speak for Crown
    Language says one simply ought to accept that change occurs. He isn’t saying “and good riddance”, as I am (in fact, from a literary point of view, I think he secretly enjoys the distinction).

  47. I still remember the surprise that was mine several years ago when I received an e-mail, signed “Steve”, from a languagehat address on gmail, in which the author, whom I had been knowing on the internet only, wrote some sentences in French where he was tutoying me. The first surprise gone, it finally seemed quite natural in the end. (English speakers don’t have that kind of ingrained hindrance.) If I were to ever meet him one day and if we were to speak French, I might now very easily say “tu” to him.
    Incidentally, on the first blog on which I became a regular commenter — Langue sauce piquante, run by Le Monde.fr’s proof readers — everyone says “vous” to each other. It’s an (almost) absolute rule.

  48. “from a literary point of view, I think he secretly enjoys the distinction”
    I should hope so. For writers P/F distinctions in languages are very useful when trying to convey information about the relationships between characters.

  49. D.H. Lawrence took advantage of it too by having his Midlands characters use “thou”. It does add a nuance that’s normally unavailable in English.

  50. your “given” names, Hat? Or does “given” in the US always imply the first name?
    I’ve complained to a number of official and private organisations about the use of ‘First Name’ or even ‘Christian Name’ on their forms, suggesting changing these to ‘Given Name’ or ‘Personal Name’. I haven’t kept record, but at least in one case (British) I received a reply thanking me and promising to change the usage.
    In Japanese and Hungarian, family name comes first, then personal name. In Russian, personal name can be the first in some situations, or the middle name in others: Anton Chekhov, or Chekhov Anton Pavlovich. The official usage is called ФИО (fee-oh) – family name, personal name and patronymic.

  51. Transcluded from Sentence First:
    I think what makes T/V different in French from the other European languages is that V still has strong connotations of equality. Before early modern times, almost all relationships above the absolute bottom level were unequal, and it was always obvious who turned the wheel and who got the shaft. But as people moved to cities, people’s relative ranks weren’t so obvious any more (partly because there are so many more complete strangers in cities), and it became safer to V everyone. In English, this went so far that T was lost except in dialects and frozen religious language; the same happened in the voseo dialects of Spanish, completely so in southern South America, mixed with T in Central America. Much later, it was a minor point of the Russian Revolution that all soldiers, of whatever rank, were to be addressed with V (and so V remains strong in Russia). Elsewhere in Europe, V became once again associated (or never lost its association with) inequality, and so started to come apart in the 1960s — but not in France.
    We’ve discussed T/V here, here, here, here.

  52. I just had a quick look at the comments on the Guardian piece and didn’t regret.
    One commenter writes:
    Something gets lost with “Veux-tu coucher avec moi ce soir?”

  53. Dearieme: Your surname is not given to you: you are born with it according to reasonably fixed rules. Your given name(s), however, are indeed given to you by your parents.

  54. The HellPit day job even has a T-only policy and it’s taken pretty seriously in all languages (tested for Spanish, Dutch, French and Russian).
    I’m curious, how has this been tested? As for me, I won’t take custom from someone who’d address me with ‘ty’, in Russian or French.

  55. Trond Engen says:

    I just had a quick look at the comments on the Guardian piece and didn’t regret.
    A rare experience indeed.
    As an aside, is this an areal feature? Linguistically speaking it obviously doesn’t go back to the Indo-European ancestor since the polite form is generally a linguistically derivative form, not a primitive form.
    I haven’t time to read through those old discussions, but it’s clearly a cultural feature, and, if I remember correctly, it’s medieval, following the fashion of courtesy and chivalry. (Well, there’s actually two systems colliding. One is the polite plural (vous/Sie/you etc.), the other is from polite address of the “your grace” type.) I’ve surmised on occasions that the polite plural and the “royal we” are connected, both supposing that the person concerned acts on behalf of a larger entity. I’ve even wondered if the English singular they might have arisen as a 3p parallel, first being used in “polite reference”. But I don’t know how to support any of this with actual facts.

  56. J.W. Brewer says:

    Should we be assuming that the (empirical) claim of some journalist lady writing in the Grauniad that young people hardly ever blah blah blah these days is, in fact, empirically accurate? You would think that this would be the sort of thing that linguists studying French might actually be keeping track of, and the reality might be more complex. If Sarkozy’s usage was peculiar for someone of his generation and/or social role, was the consequence of his innovation that other politicians followed suit to avoid seeming out of date, or that other politicians doubled down on maintaining T/V distinction so as to distinguish themselves from the vulgar arriviste?

  57. I don’t think–at least on this blog–that the particular language, or even the particular T/V distinction, is really the issue. After all, for anyone whose life isn’t to some extent actually conducted in French, it’s kind of silly to take a position on the fate of vous. The objection raised has nothing really to do with tu or vous or þér, but with the appropriateness of dismissing all resistance to change as so much visceral habit-driven prejudice. Admitting that the author of the article demonstrates her share of the generational angst so ably ridiculed by Hat, is this really only an issue of the irrational standing ineffective against the inevitable? I don’t think so.
    Language change in the abstract may be inevitable, but many specific changes are hardly so, particularly those driven by contingent historical context. Pointing out the fallacy involved in attributing inevitability to such socially-determined changes in speech seems to me something very far from taking up the banner of prescriptivism. And a philosophical commitment to descriptivist perspective shouldn’t prevent us from distinguishing between hopeless generational peevery and resistance (via the proxy of language) to a social situation which is hardly inevitable.
    I also don’t feel comfortable declaring the author is on “the wrong side of history.” (Something quite different from judging her cause to be a lost one on practical grounds in the particular case.) I may personally get by fine in English without any such distinction, but citing the examples of Iceland or the Anglosphere seems to me irrelevant. Of course France is not going to hell in a hand-basket just because the T/V distinction goes by the wayside. But to dismiss the author’s sense of an important loss by the experience of those who do fine without anything similar is hard for me to swallow. Can the absence of feature X in a different culture located somewhat north of Hell be proof of its expendability at home? Where would that end? I can’t see it leading anywhere but the creeping naturalization of those cultures whose sense of their own unmarkedness is most successfully exported. I couldn’t claim this would be a very new story, but I don’t see why we have to accept the logic of the plot.

  58. To complete bathrobe’s comments on broadening the debate, I’d like to make some observations about living in heavily multicultural societies (in this case the United Arab Emirates)
    English is the lingua franca, of course, so Tu/Vous is not an issue (I’m French by the way, so the original debate is very close to my heart). However, it’s a society heavily weighted with classes, mostly according to region of origin: the locals are above all, deserving of absolute obsequiousness; Caucasians are second, on the assumption that they’re probably British or American, and Asians are last, mostly Philippino, Malay, or from the subcontinent. It’s hard to tell how Japanese, Koreans or Chinese fare, since I don’t personally know any.
    By default, service workers tend to extreme honorifics: I’m referred to as “sir Paul” at least twice a day, and as “Mister Paul” only by people who’ve known me for a while. We are “Sir” and “Madam” to our Maid. (And office staff are referred to as “tea boys”).
    The whole setup is, of course, a sham. It’s mostly self preservation – this is a dangerous place to offend anybody. Interestingly, it does breed a form of social engineering: European expats who believe they can do and say anything to the “Help”.
    This is all tangential to the initial debate, but its an example of language going another way, towards more segregation. Perhaps in a hundred years, when this society integrates itself a bit more, it’ll

  59. To complete bathrobe’s comments on broadening the debate, I’d like to make some observations about living in heavily multicultural societies (in this case the United Arab Emirates)
    English is the lingua franca, of course, so Tu/Vous is not an issue (I’m French by the way, so the original debate is very close to my heart). However, it’s a society heavily weighted with classes, mostly according to region of origin: the locals are above all, deserving of absolute obsequiousness; Caucasians are second, on the assumption that they’re probably British or American, and Asians are last, mostly Philippino, Malay, or from the subcontinent. It’s hard to tell how Japanese, Koreans or Chinese fare, since I don’t personally know any.
    By default, service workers tend to extreme honorifics: I’m referred to as “sir Paul” at least twice a day, and as “Mister Paul” only by people who’ve known me for a while. We are “Sir” and “Madam” to our Maid. (And office staff are referred to as “tea boys”).
    The whole setup is, of course, a sham. It’s mostly self preservation – this is a dangerous place to offend anybody. Interestingly, it does breed a form of social engineering: European expats who believe they can do and say anything to the “Help”.
    This is all tangential to the initial debate, but its an example of language going another way, towards more segregation. Perhaps in a hundred years, when this society integrates itself a bit more, it’ll

  60. Sashura,
    I’m curious, how has this been tested? As for me, I won’t take custom from someone who’d address me with ‘ty’, in Russian or French.
    Tested in what way? It’s a company policy mandating how people working together address each other. I’m obviously only describing my own experience, extensive though it may be, but that experience includes observing a few instances where people demanding to be addressed with V (in French and Slovak, respectively), all in an attempt to assert non-existent authority, only to be gently, but firmly reminded of the T-only policy.

  61. Were social marking to disappear from languages like Japanese, Vietnamese, or Javanese, this would represent a major linguistic, social, and cultural shift that could not be lightly dismissed with a languid extension of the descriptivist posture.
    I wish people wouldn’t try to push me into a stance of languid mockery when I have repeatedly said that I feel the same impulse to resist change and am not condemning it, merely pointing out that sub specie aeternitatis it serves no purpose except perhaps to exercise our muscles of resistance. And as for languages like Japanese, Vietnamese, or Javanese, who’s denying that such a change would represent “a major linguistic, social, and cultural shift”? Not I. So what? Is that supposed to make me decide that wringing one’s hands and wailing about it is somehow more purposeful, more productive, more necessary? If such a shift happens, it happens. And the Japanese, Vietnamese, and Javanese will deal with it (the young by accepting it and forgetting there ever were such distinctions, the old by talking about how much pleasanter life was when those distinctions held, back when they were young and the world was fresh and beautiful). Note that I have taken no position whatever on whether such a change is desirable; I do, however, strongly suspect that one’s position on the issue is largely determined by one’s generation and place in the social order. And I also strongly feel that the Japanese, Vietnamese, and Javanese, like pretty much everyone else, have had far more weighty historical disasters to lament; if things have gotten to the point where people can afford to expend their emotional energy on pronoun distinctions and the loss of hierarchical clarity, that’s a clear advance. Seventy years ago I doubt such complaints would have gotten much traction.
    Now obviously that doesn’t mean that we should all weep over the change or that the language is overall worse now than it once was; it means that so long as nobody is making any of those absurd claims, there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun discussing observed linguistic changes, trying to figure out whether our objections, if we have them, stem from irrelevant emotion or from a genuine insight.
    Well, yeah, but I’m still not clear on what the genuine insight is beyond “things are changing and I don’t like it.” No matter how drastic the linguistic change, people will adapt to it and move on; how exactly is the world worse because of the current meaning of “the exception proves the rule” (to take your example), or the total loss of T/V distinction in English (to take a much more far-reaching one)? And if it’s not worse, why is the objection to such changes more genuine or whatever?
    Language change in the abstract may be inevitable, but many specific changes are hardly so, particularly those driven by contingent historical context. Pointing out the fallacy involved in attributing inevitability to such socially-determined changes in speech seems to me something very far from taking up the banner of prescriptivism. And a philosophical commitment to descriptivist perspective shouldn’t prevent us from distinguishing between hopeless generational peevery and resistance (via the proxy of language) to a social situation which is hardly inevitable.
    I truly don’t understand why you think these changes are not inevitable, or how taking a firm stand against them could be expected to affect the situation. As far as I know, no “this shall not pass!” has ever changed the course of social or linguistic history, except for leaving a small cohort of laudatores temporis acti to cling grimly to the forms and distinctions they cherish (and shake their fingers at the oblivious masses of language users who have moved on). But far be it from me to tell anyone how to use their time and energy.
    Again, my poking gentle fun at the phenomenon of useless protest/regret does not indicate any contempt for the regretters; I am one of them, and I like myself perfectly well. I am capable both of telling a cat sternly to behave better in future and of laughing at myself for doing so. We are all allzumenschliche.

  62. J.W. Brewer says:

    Mildly contra elessorn, changes in French are to some extent relevant (not that we should get a heckler’s veto) to non-Francophones, simply because we tend to be locked into the handful of isolated French phrases we have picked up along the way, e.g. “parlais-vous Anglais” or “voulez-vous couchez avec moi.” I personally have no idea how to correctly recast those from V to T, because I have forgotten what little I ever knew about how to conjugate French verbs. (Whether the second example is an appropriate question to pose to someone with whom one is not comfortable employing T is I suppose an interesting sociolinguistic question . . .)

  63. After all, for anyone whose life isn’t to some extent actually conducted in French, it’s kind of silly to take a position on the fate of vous
    Well maybe if you live in Iceland, but for those who live on opposite sides of the English Channel/Sleeve it’s part of a sport that’s been carried on for over a millennium (don’t forget it’s the premise of the Guardian article).

  64. “Your surname is not given to you: you are born with it according to reasonably fixed rules. Your given name(s), however, are indeed given to you by your parents.” John, insofar as you are right, I’m not sure why you bothered saying this. Isn’t it common knowledge? I was asking whether in the US “given” is applied to all your Christian names or just the first one, or just the one you prefer to be known by.
    But you are, I suspect, a bit out of date on surnames. I can’t tell whether the new child of friends will be Miss Cunningham, Miss Cunningham-Douglas or even Miss Cunningham-Anderson-Douglas-Barchester.
    We even had friends who hyphenated … no, stop: it’s too wearisome to recount. Anyway, maybe all this falls under your “reasonably”. We must be getting close to the point where it might be worth returning to something like the Icelandic system. The son of William Cunningham-Anderson and Wilma Douglas-Barchester would be Robert Williamson or McWilliam or Ap William … (if anyone ever again uses a Christian name like Robert rather than Ptolemy or Highjinx).

  65. “Barchester” is surely a Christian name.

  66. Well, yeah, but I’m still not clear on what the genuine insight is beyond “things are changing and I don’t like it.”
    It’s not beyond it; I’m not talking about anything profound or drastic here. It’s within it: it’s the *reason* you, or I, don’t like a particular change. Considering how prone we all are to howl at the moon as nouns become verbs and syllables disappear, I think it’s at least worth discussing — from time to time, if we feel like it — whether our reactions to changes owe solely to our inclination against them or whether we’ve noticed a change that in fact beggars the language, however infinitesimally. I’d kinda prefer it if people used the exception proves the rule in its archaic sense, because that was a pithy way to express a principle rather than a vapid expression hinting at an inchoate but almost certainly false generalization. And though I’m perfectly aware of how ultimately inconsequential that change has turned out to be, I still find it mildly interesting to distinguish between that sort of preference, for which I can at least make a case, and my preference for the putative distinction between compose, comprise, and constitute — a preference based solely on what I had once thought to be the case and for which I’m pretty sure no reasonable case can be made. It’s all light stuff, on par with my dislike of skinny jeans and dogs with haircuts; I only said the distinction was important because a lot of people even on smart blogs seem confused about what it means to be a descriptivist, and I wanted to show how you can state, or even explore, a preference regarding language while still appreciating the science of linguistics. Does that make more sense now?
    how exactly is the world worse because of the current meaning of “the exception proves the rule” (to take your example)
    C’mon, I specifically said that such claims were silly on their face and that the discussion could only bear fruit, however sparse, if its participants were aware of said silliness.

  67. With respect to Mme Poirier, I think that the reports of vous‘s death are greatly exaggerated. I think it’s more accurate to say that tu has become predominant in certain contexts: on the internet, among students and co-workers, etc. In my experience, vous remains the norm when speaking to strangers, teachers, bosses, etc.
    It is also not true that Sarkozy tutoies everyone. See, for instance, this interview with Claire Chazal. There have been some widely publicized cases of him using tu with foreign leaders like Merkel, but I see that as more a personal political gesture than a sign of the times.

  68. I think that the reports of vous’s death are greatly exaggerated.
    I’ve just asked my teenage son, who speaks French near-natively, and his friends, native speakers. They all confirmed that they still use vous with strangers, even on facebook, and in formal situations.

  69. Bulbul,
    I’m still curious, t-policy, is it for in-house communication, or for dealing with clients too?

  70. Sashura,
    it’s stricly in-house. When dealing with clients, it all depends, but the formal mode of address is the default – there was a recent call with a client (a bank in Spain) where it was all ‘usted’ all the way from both sides.
    I am usually overly cautious and first time I speak to somebody within HellPit, I usually do so using the V form. The usual response is ‘Why so formal?’

  71. I see, thanks,.

  72. Does that make more sense now?
    Yes, and I’m glad I needled you into a fuller statement of your views!

  73. Reading Anna Reid’s The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia (the subtitle is a lie; it’s a journalist’s account of her attempts to connect with native Siberians in various places), I just hit a mention of Chekhov’s complaint about the officials of Sakhalin, “a vulgar bunch, ‘boring and bored’, who made him drink bad vodka, used the over-familiar ty instead of the formal vy, and talked from morning to night about nothing but escapes and floggings.” Synchronicity!

  74. I was asking whether in the US “given” is applied to all your Christian names or just the first one, or just the one you prefer to be known by.
    Oh, I see. In that case, it applies to all or any of the names that are not already present at birth. In particular, neither a surname/family name nor a patronymic is a “given name”. So I think AmE “given name” and BrE “Christian name” have the same extension, but the former does not sound peculiar when applied to Jews, Muslims, or High Atheists.

  75. Is anything new arising in French to replace the T/V distinction? I don’t mean something as obvious as a rigid pronoun vocabulary split, but perhaps a preference to use certain verb forms, or even certain verbs?
    (In Japanese, the *existence* of formal/honorific/humble language is basically a constant but the *specifics* of that language do change over time, often over vigorous objections from older people.)

  76. J.W. Brewer says:

    It is odd to me (as an AmEng speaker) to think of “Christian name” (or for that matter “given name”) as presumptively covering middle names, even though they are not automatically assigned the way surnames usually (not invariably) are. More precisely, I’d say the prototypical Christian name is the value for N. that came out of the priest’s mouth when he said “N., I baptize thee in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” (no overformal/distancing V pronouns for the sacraments!) or functionally equivalent words. OTOH, it is generally possible to use two names in that slot (“John Paul,” or “Mary Margaret” or what have you) whether or not the child is subsequently addressed by both names. Come to think of it, one of my daughters was baptized with just her first name and the other with her first+middle names (because her first name is not that of a recognized saint).

  77. james-lazy-till-needled-sal says:

    I’m glad I needled you into a fuller statement of your views!
    Me too.

  78. I am usually overly cautious and first time I speak to somebody within HellPit, I usually do so using the V form. The usual response is ‘Why so formal?’
    I suppose you did not reply to that. Similarly, there is usually no reply from the Starbucks personnel when I do my baronial put-down. Yet your anecdote could be imagined to lack a punch line. How about if you replied: “Because I don’t know you well enough” ? In Germany this is still an objection from which there is no appeal.
    In various HellPit projects I have occasionally declined to duzen everybody from the word go, just to see what would happen. Not much happens, in fact, except that certain people demonstrate signs of unease and resentment.
    This is exactly what would be expected as a reaction to someone’s failure to adhere to the standard conventions ! The Duzer have made the game nonstandard, but play by the same basic rule: “Use these conventions of address, or risk being frowned upon”.
    The poor little dears have unwittingly got their knickers in a twist. They realize something is not working right, but they don’t know what it is. They would like a free ride on time-honored precedent, but “that’s how we do things here” is not time-honored.
    I hate having to deal with people who have created their own internal conflicts, but are not aware of this. Their behavior becomes unpredictable and thus hard to deal with.

  79. Mongolian is even worse in this regard. Social norms dictate automatic use of “ta” (vous) to everybody who is older than the speaker (plus to anyone who is socially senior regardless of age – eg student to teacher, patient to doctor, etc).
    Size of age difference is not relevant. It could be as low as several months. And it doesn’t depend on age of speaker either.
    Mongolians thus have to make age judgements every time they speak to a stranger. And in fact, one of the first things they ask after making an aquaintance is how old are you.
    As you can imagine, this question is not impolite, but of crucial social and practical importance….

  80. Mongolians must have extra difficulty imagining what time-travel would be like. If, as in Back To The Future, you met your mother when she was younger than you, how would you address her so as not to give the game away ??

  81. I truly don’t understand why you think these changes are not inevitable, or how taking a firm stand against them could be expected to affect the situation. As far as I know, no “this shall not pass!” has ever changed the course of social or linguistic history, except for leaving a small cohort of laudatores temporis acti to cling grimly to the forms and distinctions they cherish…
    I would be the last to suggest expending the short energy of a life trying to push back the future with little but pluck and pig-headedness, but I don’t think this kind of situation necessarily forces anyone to choose between being resigned or reactionary. I guess in the main my gentle objection comes from this conviction: that too much is lost in the observation, practice, and proposal of life by an instinctive or trained deference to the apparent trends at hand, which are hard to grasp and often fleeting.
    I share your skepticism that the position of this article has much chance of success, but this has to do with my estimation of current cultural power dynamics, and the strength of the trend towards informalization in the West. If inevitable means “by all appearances extremely likely”, I would have to agree–that assessment seems plausible in this case. But do I think that the change is (was?) an inherently natural, inevitable development of the Western civilizational matrix (or whatever we call it)? Not at all. To me the corollary of the idea of “cultural influence” (i.e. of one civilization on another) is the conclusion that a lot of what in hindsight seems the obvious progression of things was at the time locally conditioned by incidental (mass) human actions, and might easily have gone otherwise.
    Not accepting the logic that what is happening at a given point was, well, bound to happen, doesn’t have to lead to meaningless finger-wagging. It seems to me there is meaning enough simply in a cultivated habit of skepticism as to whether all change is for the better. At least I find it hard to believe that you can’t immediately think of a host of examples big and small–in scholarship, history, politics, etc.–where such skepticism might have had significant consequences, benefits. (Nor only at the top: consensus conditions the behavior of even absolutist power structures.) And to the extent that this is the case, whatever the merits of Ms. Poirier’s own argument, it seems to me wrong to dismiss (with sympathy, I understand!) such skepticism as so much “kids-today” fist-shaking.

  82. - Why so formal?
    - Because I don’t know you well enough!
    Sounds like and invitation. My! What a flirtatious HellPit it must be.

  83. The other annoying thing about the German system – and another reason to abolish it – is that switching to du means to Germans that you’re declaring your undying friendship for them. You’re no longer a superficially-friendly American but henceforward half of a sentimental duo who will take care of each other’s pets during vacations and exchange Christmas cards until parted by death. It’s all too structured to answer my needs.

  84. In comparison, Mongolian system does simplify things quite a bit.
    Instead of indicating familiarity or intimacy, you are just stating perceived age difference.
    But, of course, one can just as easily get offended by assumptions of your age as by pretensions of familiarity.

  85. switching to du means to Germans that you’re declaring your undying friendship for them.
    Crown, how old-fashioned that view ist ! Perhaps you got it from reading too many 19C German novels. Things are not like that any more, and were never so simple anyway.
    You’ve got the wrong end of the shtick, or possibly the wrong shtick altogether. Your expectation that I should use du towards a female doctor, merely because she probed my protrate, is completely off track. Here Sie is in order, precisely because it prevents intimate feelings from intruding on intimate interventions.
    Du is not equivalent to screw. Their structural relationship in practice is as complex as you could ever need.

  86. I can confirm Stu’s observations. When I started working ca. 20 years ago, duzen, while usual among students, was still quite unusual at work, except for places like Ikea. The shift to Du required at least a few years working together and some common formative experience, like being stuck in a project in the middle of nowhere (I work in consulting). Today, Du is frequent even in freshly-assembled project groups where people have barely exchanged their business cards. But it’s still Sie towards the clients.

  87. Well my experience of working in Tyskland is from exactly 20 years ago, so that’s interesting. At least some progress is being made. I remember when we (our office of architects) were allowed to duz the head of the city’s building department. The event was celebrated at an Italian restaurant, and later on our competitors were pretty surprised and impressed.

  88. It seems to me there is meaning enough simply in a cultivated habit of skepticism as to whether all change is for the better.
    Ah, there I agree entirely! I don’t think we differ, actually, except in our perception of how feasible it is to change the course of history. (Possibly relevant information: as a wee tyke in college, I marched against the Vietnam War, which kept going merrily on its way for years, and took it as a matter of course that marijuana would be legalized by, say, 1975.)

  89. You know Spanish speakers say “usted” (or “vos” in some American countries) although it’s less and less used. I still use that when I speak with a stranger or a person older than me; sometimes even my wife makes fun of me.
    As a curiosity, in three villages of Extremadura (Spain) there is a dialect/language, so-called “la Fala” of which I’ve already written here, that use “vos” instead of “usted” but in the same way of French “vous”, that is, with the verb conjugated in the second-person plural. There I use “vos” even when I speak with my aunts and uncles.

  90. There seems to be two tracks here. LH and others are on the “you can’t change it, so why waste energy” line. Others like Grumbly and bulbul say that in fact you can, individually, fight back against what to many in Europe feels is American over-familiarity.
    You don’t have to be a greezer to see the Starbucks approach, and just about every phone call I get from any company, trying to use my first name, as a hypocritical marketing gimmick.
    I have always found the American convention of almost instantly using first names with strangers feels totally insincere, conflating fleeting contacts with true friendship. (When did it start, I wonder ? Surely the US was still very formal in such matters at least until WWI ?)
    On the original subject, having lived many years in Paris and now spending almost half the year in the French countryside (Upper Normandy), I find the V/T distinction very much still in place. It is absolutely vous with my neighbours, even though I have known them casually for some years, in some cases many years. Shopkeepers would never dream of tu being used in either direction, even though in one case I would consider the shopowner *nearly* a friend.
    And AJP: thre is nothing “stuffy” about the distinction, it is part of the way of life. And there is nothing unnatural or undemocratic about “distance”. I’m sure that if you think more about it, you will realise that you do not treat everyone you meet with the same degree of closeness, even if the formal linguistic part of that has gone in Norwegian.

  91. AJP: The celebration, and your competitors’ envy, was surely because you had gained an important commercial advantage because of the intimacy with the authorities, not because of a social linguistic break-through.

  92. there is nothing “stuffy” about the distinction, it is part of the way of life.
    That is, of course, your point of view; you are welcome to it, but please do not treat it as universal truth. And please don’t blame America for all the changes you dislike about life in Europe. Americans are not forcing Europeans to eat hamburgers, take shorter lunches, or treat each other more informally.

  93. I have always found the American convention of almost instantly using first names with strangers feels totally insincere, conflating fleeting contacts with true friendship.
    And this is frankly insulting. Do you not know any actual Americans? And how do you feel about similar ignorant stereotypes in reverse?

  94. And AJP: thre is nothing “stuffy” about the distinction, it is part of the way of life.
    Of course it’s stuffy. That’s the whole point. I know nothing about the evolution of this in France, so you might be lecturing the wrong person, but why do you think students & young people were the ones to try and get rid of it in Germany? It’s because students and young people are precisely the ones who object to stuffiness.
    And there is nothing unnatural or undemocratic about “distance”.
    I never said there was.
    I’m sure that if you think more about it, you will realise that you do not treat everyone you meet with the same degree of closeness, even if the formal linguistic part of that has gone in Norwegian.
    Thanks for the vote of confidence! And I’m sure if you think about it you’ll realise that since neither Norwegian nor English needs this linguistic setup, therefore its preservation in French & German (, Russian, whatever) is quite irrelevant to the problem of maintaining different degrees of closeness.
    The celebration, and your competitors’ envy, was surely because you had gained an important commercial advantage because of the intimacy with the authorities, not because of a social linguistic break-through.
    I’m not a traveling bloody salesman.

  95. In America I have no problem at all with addressing strangers by their first names, when that’s the way they are introduced, or introduce themselves. America has its own conventions and trends.
    I recently related at Crown’s site how I balked at returning the “Sir” with which an American I casually met recently had been addressing me. I balked and felt like a shithead – I’m an American basically, now with inlays of German like good streaky bacon, and that is unlikely to change.
    Much depends on the situation, though. The Starbucks people have been instructed to be impertinent, so it’s not their fault.
    In Germany there is the Sie/du business that I have learned to respect and appreciate. I play by the basic rules, but am flexible as the rules change over time, just as many Germans are. What I don’t like about duzen-in-the-freshly-assembled-IT-project is the Gesinnungszwang, the Jones-sectiness of it all. Might as well have the goddamn gummint in Washington telling us all what to do.
    I agree with Crown in principle, of course – nobody needs Sie/du in Germany in the long view. Fact is, though, it’s still there, and I’m not going to be railroaded into changing it by a group of whippersnappers who can’t even write decent programs.

  96. I agree with Crown in principle, of course – nobody needs Sie/du in Germany in the long view. Fact is, though, it’s still there, and I’m not going to be railroaded into changing it by a group of whippersnappers who can’t even write decent programs.
    I like the cut of your jib, sir.

  97. Eh, everyone must accept or push back against societal rules according to their own fashion. I often shop at my neighborhood Kmart (a discount store), which also contains a pharmacy. At the pharmacy, the staff knows my name, so they call me “Mr. Cowan”. I don’t object, though if I were called that at work I would think it very strange indeed. Kmart employees on the floor call me “sir”, to which I reply “Don’t call me ‘sir’, I work for a living!”. Accept 1, push back 1.

  98. “In America I have no problem at all with addressing strangers by their first names, when that’s the way they are introduced, or introduce themselves.”
    As an American, I fucking HATE it. It’s the linguistic equivalent of bathouse sex – vulgarly familiar and ironically quite impersonal.
    We were doorbelling this weekend and my partner (white, male, middle class) made the very awkward error of addressing a black women he had never met by first name, because that was on the canvassing list we had. The lady was perfectly gracious about it, but I had to say something to him later, just could not let it pass because he would have done the same thing the next time. He was just being West Coast, but she almost certainly heard racist over-familiarity and subordination, but just chose to overlook that.
    The du/sie – tu/vous is pretty minimal and impoverished for all the work it is expected to do:
    http://www.learningthai.com/personal-pronouns.html

  99. “In America I have no problem at all with addressing strangers by their first names, when that’s the way they are introduced, or introduce themselves.”
    As an American, I fucking HATE it. It’s the linguistic equivalent of bathouse sex – vulgarly familiar and ironically quite impersonal.
    We were doorbelling this weekend and my partner (white, male, middle class) made the very awkward error of addressing a black women he had never met by first name, because that was on the canvassing list we had. The lady was perfectly gracious about it, but I had to say something to him later, just could not let it pass because he would have done the same thing the next time. He was just being West Coast, but she almost certainly heard racist over-familiarity and subordination, but just chose to overlook that.
    The du/sie – tu/vous is pretty minimal and impoverished for all the work it is expected to do:
    http://www.learningthai.com/personal-pronouns.html

  100. It’s the linguistic equivalent of bathouse sex – vulgarly familiar and ironically quite impersonal.
    Ah, misspent years of youth long gone ! I just love a bit of bat. But nowadays my strength gives out before I can reach the ceiling.

  101. I also strongly feel that the Japanese, Vietnamese, and Javanese, like pretty much everyone else, have had far more weighty historical disasters to lament; if things have gotten to the point where people can afford to expend their emotional energy on pronoun distinctions and the loss of hierarchical clarity, that’s a clear advance. Seventy years ago I doubt such complaints would have gotten much traction.
    I have no proof one way or another whether Japanese people spoke about linguistic niceties during the war, but I think this is a pretty silly assumption to make. I really wonder whether it is valid to say that people suddenly stop being sensitive to language when there is a war on.
    On the other hand, it is certainly true that wars can bring about big social changes. In Western countries it’s commonly said that the progress of women’s rights got a big fillip during WWI because women came out to work in the factories. But the same emancipation does not appear to have happened in Japan, where women even now occupy an inferior place in the workforce. At any rate, generalisations about either social change and language use in wartime should not be ventured so foolhardily.
    To be honest, my gut feeling is that any changes in Japanese honorifics that might have got up people’s noses would likely have taken place after the war as Japan transitioned from the pre-war political and social setup to the post-war democratic one.
    As for the ‘inevitability of change’, over time I have become less convinced that this is some impersonal, unstoppable process. Change comes as a result of many influences, including influences from the top. Hat bridled at Paul stating that “the American convention of almost instantly using first names with strangers feels totally insincere, conflating fleeting contacts with true friendship”. There was nothing insulting about it; Paul was simply giving expression to the feeling that the convention engendered in him. And to be honest, I suspect that the American convention, along with the widespread influence of the ‘American way of life’, is one factor leading to these changes in European speech habits. If the world were a different place, e.g., if the UK were still a major power with its colonies intact and the US were a divided, ramshackle failed state, I suspect that the passing of the V/T convention in Europe would take a lot longer, if at all — pure surmise, I know, but linguistic change, especially linguistic change of a social nature, is not necessarily some blind inevitable process that proceeds in an impersonal fashion; it is a result of many, many palpable trends and influences.

  102. Hooray for bathhouse sex!

  103. I completely agree with Steven that the reports of vous’s death are greatly exaggerated. When I go shopping in Paris, nobody ever says “tu” to me.

  104. When I go shopping in Paris, nobody ever says “tu” to me.
    You may be overpaying.

  105. I have no proof one way or another whether Japanese people spoke about linguistic niceties during the war, but I think this is a pretty silly assumption to make. I really wonder whether it is valid to say that people suddenly stop being sensitive to language when there is a war on.
    I didn’t say that Japanese people didn’t speak about linguistic niceties or stopped being sensitive to language, I said that linguistic complaints wouldn’t have gotten much traction—i.e., they would have been isolated gripes like “lousy weather today” and not taken up by pundits as signs that the world was going to hell in a handbasket. They didn’t need to pretend the world was going to hell in a handbasket or invent fake reasons for it in the middle of WWII. But, as always, I will be happy to be proven wrong if you can come up with evidence that wartime Japan was in fact obsessed with pronoun use or verb endings.
    There was nothing insulting about it
    That’s your opinion.
    Paul was simply giving expression to the feeling that the convention engendered in him.
    And I was simply giving expression to the feeling that his response engendered in me. Perhaps you’re not aware that it’s a standard arrow in the quiver of Americaphobes everywhere to claim that Americans don’t know what real friendship is, unlike we Russians/French/Greeks/whoever. If you’re interested, I can try to dig up a piece I read not long ago by a European who came to the US full of such prejudices and soon realized he had been completely wrong—that Americans were, on the whole, genuinely friendly and could be just as caring and close as people back where he was from. It’s a matter of different social conventions and habits, nothing deeper and more damning.
    I also don’t care for it when people talk as though the dumbest Hollywood movies and/or the worst actions of the U.S. government express the desires and characteristics of the entire American population. Having lived abroad for long stretches of my life, I’ve gotten a bellyful of just about every foolish stereotype and assumption that’s out there, and while I don’t expect to cleanse the world of that sort of thing, I’m not about to pretend I like it.

  106. I also don’t care for it when people talk as though the dumbest Hollywood movies and/or the worst actions of the U.S. government express the desires and characteristics of the entire American population.
    Same goes for depictions of Germans as Nazis etc. As far as I’m concerned it’s a fact of life that all media presentations of “what people are like in other countries” are made to fit some narrow agenda – they’re evil, or wonderfully kind, or they live in fear, or are religious fanatics, or like eating cheese etc. You couldn’t make a movie or documentary without a restricted agenda – otherwise it would never end.
    The banal fact of the matter is that there are individual people of every kind everywhere, right next door and abroad. Some kind of generalization, or technique of conceptual subsumption, is needed in order to deal with all the variety – and yet how you generalize and subsume is where the unfairness usually starts.
    I myself sure don’t have any recipe for avoiding unfairness – that would be just a generalization about generalizations. All I know to do is follow my “conscience”, whatever that may be, and to accept that it will continue to take hard knocks and need to be overhauled at regular intervals.
    I suppose that sounds pretty wimpy, but that’s the way it is.

  107. The very notion of “unfairness” is a moving target.

  108. While I sympathise with your experiences abroad, I seriously don’t see Paul’s comment as “insulting”. He was talking about the American linguistic or social “convention” — particularly as it intruded into his own linguistic world — not about American people and their merits.
    The comments on Japanese etc. are getting sillier and sillier and I don’t think they are worthy of reply. Japan obviously had its linguistic issues in those days, but assuming that people of the time saw them as ‘signs of the country going to hell in a handbasket’ seems a highly peculiar slant to put on things. Anyhow, consider it dropped.
    Your original post made the point that you don’t want to be an old geezer who automatically replicates the lament modes of parents and grandparents by criticising language change across generations. In fact, as I’m sure you know, significant differences in language are found not only across generations; they are also found across regions, classes, races, and national boundaries. I found it interesting that you profess to smile benignly on linguistic change between generations and yet snap aggressively at a person who dares to comment on American first-name conventions as viewed from his own linguistic environment. If we’re going to be all mellow, let’s not be so discriminating in where we bestow our tolerance.
    I was similarly amused at AJP’s vehement rejection of vous and equivalents, suggesting that he welcomed a levelling of stuffy social conventions. This stance was rather quickly betrayed by the snarky comment he made when someone made a bad call on his professional standing. If social levelling and equality is desirable in language, just doing away with pronouns obviously isn’t going to do the trick. We need to stop thinking that way altogether.

  109. Same goes for depictions of Germans as Nazis etc.
    Oh, absolutely; I deprecate all such generalizations.
    While I sympathise with your experiences abroad, I seriously don’t see Paul’s comment as “insulting”. He was talking about the American linguistic or social “convention” — particularly as it intruded into his own linguistic world — not about American people and their merits.
    I’m sure Paul didn’t mean to be insulting, and I hope he doesn’t take my irritated response too much to heart, but how do you distinguish between language and people in “I have always found the American convention of almost instantly using first names with strangers feels totally insincere, conflating fleeting contacts with true friendship”? Sure, technically you could say “He didn’t say it is insincere, just that it feels that way,” but come on, that’s kind of weaselly. I wouldn’t expect a German to react well to someone saying “When I hear German spoken, it feels like hearing jackboots marching through Poland.” The fact is that an accusation of fake friendliness is one of the standard insulting stereotypes about Americans (as it is within America about Southerners), and I don’t see how you can expect me to treat Paul’s remark as some entirely separate phenomenon when it looks remarkably like a straightforward expression of that stereotype.
    The comments on Japanese etc. are getting sillier and sillier and I don’t think they are worthy of reply. Japan obviously had its linguistic issues in those days, but assuming that people of the time saw them as ‘signs of the country going to hell in a handbasket’ seems a highly peculiar slant to put on things.
    Well, I don’t quite understand how it developed that way; I wasn’t picking on Japanese in particular, I was just quoting you: “Come on, this discussion is a little too Eurocentric (Occidentocentric?) for Languagehat! …. Were social marking to disappear from languages like Japanese, Vietnamese, or Javanese…” If you’d talked about the Mande languages of West Africa, my response would have involved them. In any case, all I meant to express was what I thought was the utterly uncontroversial point of view that a high degree of concern with linguistic correctness probably indicates a lack of more important things to worry about; I intended no slight on the Japanese or whatever else you’re reading into my remarks on the subject, and I apologize for any annoyance they may have caused. I’m certainly happy to drop the derail.

  110. I was similarly amused at AJP’s vehement rejection of vous and equivalents, suggesting that he welcomed a levelling of stuffy social conventions. This stance was rather quickly betrayed by the snarky comment he made when someone made a bad call on his professional standing.
    The bad call was in assigning base motives to an operation where none existed, it had nothing to do with my professional standing.
    If social levelling and equality is desirable in language, just doing away with pronouns obviously isn’t going to do the trick. We need to stop thinking that way altogether.
    You can’t stop people behaving in ways you don’t like, not unless you’re running a dictatorship. I don’t lament the decline in the use of these pronouns. I also think that social attitudes are more sophisticated and less snotty in some countries that don’t have the dual-pronoun distinction than in some that do, but that’s not the same as saying that I’m convinced there’s any connection.
    I’d be happy to drop this now too.

  111. The reasons why Americans seem fake-friendly to people from other cultures have to do with our positive politeness and our particular use of compliments. See Lynne Murphy’s blog post and/or her video, which explains it all for both Americans and non-Americans. Here’s the most salient bit of the post:

    [As an American] I don’t have to approve of you in order to compliment you, I just have to find a fragment of you that I can approve of in order to develop a relationship of some sort with you. One can see why this might be taken as insincerity in some quarters, but if I tell you I like your shoes and that you play the tuba well, it’s almost certainly the case that I really do like your shoes and think you’re tuba-tastic. So, it’s a sincere attempt on my part to cement our relationship with shared values–at least as far as shoes and brass instruments are concerned.

    (I posted this quote in the Panu wipeout thread, explaining why Americans may have fewer problems with Dostoyevsky’s work than Russians do: they automatically disregard its context.)

  112. I don’t quite understand how it developed that way
    Hat, ‘going to hell in a handbasket’ is actually one of your standard phrases for debunking prescriptivism. My original point was not that I disapprove of your tolerance for linguistic change, which I think is fine, but that these socially (as opposed to grammatically) related aspects of language plug into a very different area of peevology. True, prescriptivism is also a ‘socially-conditioned’ reflex, but it doesn’t relate to the actual nitty-gritty of how people interact socially, which is something that touches all people in a relatively sensitive place, unlike descriptivist peeves which are often nonsense. That is why I felt that your rather easy extension of descriptivist tolerance to politeness forms of language (including languages where they are deeply entrenched) was just a little too, well, easy. The fact that you trotted out ‘going to hell in a handbasket’ shows quite well that this tolerance was simply an extension of your descriptivist stance.
    As for anti-Americanism, I was quite sincere in my sympathies since I realise how wearing it would be to encounter this constantly when visiting or living overseas. I think one reason for people’s propensity to criticise America and Americans (often in quite mistaken or ridiculous ways) is that American influence is so ubiquitous and difficult to ignore that it is perceived as a threat to established local ways. I suggested that American influence could be one factor in the decline in V/T distinctions. That is because American culture, including its commercial culture is, in my opinion, one of the driving forces in the ‘demoticisation’ or ‘levelling down’ of old hierarchical differences in cultures around the world. (If the British still ruled the world, perhaps their fondness for hierarchical differences would have provided a rather different model for people to follow. But that is, as I said, just speculation.)
    At any rate, given that American influence is so widespread and tends to have such a direct influence on cultures around the world, I don’t think it surprising that people feel ready to voice opinions (mistaken or otherwise). I took Paul’s remark in this spirit. I thought it was a perfectly valid expression of the way a person would feel about the informality of American culture in comparison to their own culture. I didn’t see Paul’s comment as ‘anti-American’, merely as an expression of discomfort with the ‘first-names only’ sort of culture that appears to emanate from the U.S.
    As for AJP’s comment, I’m sorry for getting that wrong. At any rate, AJP’s stance is quite different from Hat’s. Hat was willing to tolerate linguistic change; AJP was advocating it — a good illustration of the way that such socially-geared aspects of language are a concern of everyone, and not just those who are ‘into’ grammar or language.

  113. I think one reason for people’s propensity to criticise America and Americans (often in quite mistaken or ridiculous ways) is that American influence is so ubiquitous and difficult to ignore that it is perceived as a threat to established local ways.
    Sure, I understand that and sympathize with it; I got quite good at deflecting such criticism back when I had to deal with it frequently. (Pointing out that I too had an intense dislike for the policies of “my” government usually helped.) But I don’t expect to have to deal with it here, where a generous multiculturalism (in the best sense of that abused word) tends to reign.
    I didn’t see Paul’s comment as ‘anti-American’, merely as an expression of discomfort with the ‘first-names only’ sort of culture that appears to emanate from the U.S.
    You may be right in terms of his intent, but there are lots of ways to express one’s discomfort without saying that our culture “feels totally insincere, conflating fleeting contacts with true friendship.” I’m sorry, but I can’t see that as equivalent to “Americans do things differently than we do, but to each their own; I’m sure their human relations are just as deep and sincere as ours, merely expressed differently.”

  114. I have always found the American convention of almost instantly using first names with strangers feels totally insincere, conflating fleeting contacts with true friendship.
    As an American, I fucking HATE it. It’s the linguistic equivalent of bathouse sex – vulgarly familiar and ironically quite impersonal.
    Why do you condemn one and not the other? Because one of the criticisms was actually made by an American, so that’s all right?

  115. Ukrainian language used to have “vy” for kids addressing their parents, but now apparently there is a shift to use “ty”, presumably following Russian example.
    This is a rather curious distinction. Both languages tend to use “vy” to address older strangers, but parents, grandparents and older friends and relatives (who could be quite old sometimes) are addressed as “ty”.

  116. Ukrainian… shift to use “ty”, presumably following Russian example.
    I chat frequently with Ukrainians on FB, but we use ‘vy’. In Russia, the convention of using ‘vy’ when addressing in-laws still holds, in most cases, I think.
    About the Ukraine, what fascinates me is how Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking people communicate with each other using they’re own language. A Russian says something in Russian, Ukrainian replies in Ukrainian, and the Russian carries on in Russian.

  117. the American convention of almost instantly using first names with strangers feels totally insincere,
    I agree with Hat, strongly. What’s there to hate if it’s just a convention?
    Take handshakes, for example. In England and Russia a handshake is taken seriously, you shake hands with friends and don’t shake hands with people you don’t like. But in France it’s a must when you meet people, a convention. Does it show a national insincerity? Of course not.
    And the casual daily use of monsieur/madame is handy, while, the other way round, the disappearance of semi-formal addressing (mister, sir) in English creates a certain awkwardness.

  118. –A Russian says something in Russian, Ukrainian replies in Ukrainian, and the Russian carries on in Russian.
    This is because Russians in the Ukraine are accustomed to hearing and understanding Ukrainian (even if they can’t or won’t speak it) while pretty much all Ukrainians are of course fully bilingual in Russian.
    Now, if an Ukrainian tried to speak in Ukrainian to, say, a Muscovite, they won’t get beyond basic sentences….

  119. @Jesús:

    You know Spanish speakers say “usted” (or “vos” in some American countries) although it’s less and less used.

    Hmph. Two objections there.
    The first is that ‘vos’ is not equivalent to ‘usted’. Rather, it’s a straightforward replacement for ‘tú’ in most cases, while ‘usted’ remains the V form. There are some exceptions, such as Uruguayan Spanish, where there is a 3-way distinction between ‘tú’ (intimate), ‘vos’ (social equal without assuming intimacy) and ‘usted’ (deferential), but in no case that I know of has ‘vos’ replaced ‘usted’ in contemporary use.
    The second is that the trend towards dispensing with ‘usted’ is largely a Peninsular phenomenon, with perhaps a secondary focus centered in Buenos Aires. In most of the Americas, ‘usted’ is still de rigueur for addressing non-acquaintances, unless you want to sound boorish or condescending. (I think Rosina Márquez-Reiter did some very good work on this, focusing on the difficulties it poses for standardised scripts for service encounters.)
    Incidentally, Costa Rican Spanish has chosen the English route: the T forms are almost entirely dead in that variety, with ‘usted’ being used even for young children.

  120. >Alon
    “Usted” is right, or “vos tendis radón” (in the Fala) :- ). I generalized too much because of my limitations.

  121. Changing the subject entirely, it always amuses me to hear Americans like LH refer to themselves as “a geezer”. In BrE “geezer” simply means “male human”, usually with an insinuation of a lack of respectability about him – one down from a “bloke” and two down from a “chap”. You have to say “old geezer” if you actually mean someone elderly, and even then no one would say “I’m an old geezer” – the “geezer” is always “other”. The equivalent to LH’s “I’m a geezer” would be “I’m an old git” – which, personally, I am.

  122. I’ll try to remember that, since I like the sound of “I’m an old git” as well.

  123. In BrE “geezer” simply means “male human”, usually with an insinuation of a lack of respectability about him – one down from a “bloke” and two down from a “chap”.
    In the world of P. G. Wodehouse a geezer need not even be male. Bertie Wooster calls his cousin Angela a “silly young geezer” at one point.

  124. When I hear “I’m a geezer” I’m forever reminded of this (hope it works outside the UK). Hat’ll nick anything.

  125. I’m always amused when I see references to the Streets lyrics “Geezers need excitement / If their lives don’t provide them this, they incite violence / Common sense, simple common sense”. I picture a couple of guys in their seventies trying to bash each other with tire irons (aka wheel wrenches, the L-shaped variety).
    Here in NYC, we seem to have mostly a -only culture in Spanish, at least among the young, though I’m sure it’s stratified by age and how long people have been here. It’s still true, though, that you can’t say su madre in any context; you have to say su señora madre, which comes out in English as your lady mother, rather incongruously.

  126. Is there anyone writing later than Wodehouse who uses “cove” to mean chap, bloke or geezer? My uncle used to say cove in the 1970s, but that was in Australia. It’s my favourite of those expressions.

  127. Here is some quick N-gram data (using “a cove who”, to screen out coves who are bodies of water). It appears that this bit of slang popped up around 1840, had its ups and downs, almost died out around WW1, revived in the 30s, fell way off in the 40s, revived again …

  128. Oh, well researched! Why didn’t I think of that? You’ve shamed me into looking it up in the OED which says “Frequent in the 20th century in Austral. sources” but doesn’t cite anything after 1969. Dickens had it in Oliver Twist “that old cove at the book-stall”.

  129. @Sashura
    What’s there to hate if it’s just a convention?
    Interesting, this is the first time the word ‘hate’ has been mentioned.
    In fact, these differences in conventions are one of the things that create the different ‘textures’ of life in different locations. Functionally you could probably say that these conventions have similar roles, such that a handshake may be ‘functionally’ equivalent to a bow, but that seems like a very dry approach to the matter. The differences in the way that people interact are one of the things that make life so different in, say, Japan as opposed to Russia, or America, or the Middle East. The fact that, for instance, Americans tend to be on first-name terms certainly doesn’t make them ‘shallow’, but it does colour the way in which society is experienced.

  130. ‘Hate’ had appeared four times in this discussion before you and I used it. This is the seventh. But the one in caps is the achtung.
    No, I don’t deny the differences. It’s one thing to accept and enjoy them, and something completely different to complain about them or even hate them. I myself enjoy French kisses (in our region the custom is four) even more than French handshakes.
    Incidentally, Bob Diamond, the former Barclays chief, was criticised in England after he pointedly addressed British MPs as David or George at a hearing on the Libor scandal.

  131. Ah, yes, I forgot that our American friend hated the American custom.

  132. I always thought French kisses were something different :)

  133. to whom how, as we say in Russian.

  134. The American Friend is a good movie (or at least that’s how I felt 35 years ago; I’d like to see it again sometime).

  135. criticised in England after he pointedly addressed British MPs as David or George
    In fairness to the Committee, I think they were much more annoyed that he pretended to have known nothing about Barclays’ manipulation of exchange rates than that he called the Rt Hon. Keith Vaz by his first name.

  136. Keith my Vaz, a spineless bunch of useless gits, they were too shy to rub his face in the dirt.

  137. to whom how
    It seems my understanding of a French kiss is the more usual one, at least in English. E.g., Webster’s:
    “an open-mouth kiss usually involving tongue-to-tongue contact”

  138. J.W. Brewer says:

    Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath is now a geezer in the AmEng sense (being 63 years of age), but he’s been known by that nickname since he was a teenager, and all the best Sabbath albums came out when Wodehouse was still alive, although I’m not sure he was a fan.

  139. about mongolian ta-(vy in russian, vous i guess in french) and chi (ty in Russian, tu) it’s true it primarily indicates the age difference, one can be friends and very close with the older family members and older friends and still has to use ta and it doesn’t conway any emotional distance, only respect of the difference in age or status-wise, while chi can be only an expression of the equal or younger age and status and doesn’t have much of that emotional closeness like feeling to it, well, close friends are of course chi to each other
    it’s curious why english has only “you” form, not two different words, maybe there was another different word too which got eliminated
    if one wants to conway distancing one uses the expression ööröö (yourself), then it’s very clear that people are strangers to each other and it sounds very polite, bc sometimes people can get offended by the notion that one perceives them older than self, especially women, or if to be polite one talks with the other person in third person, not directly you, but, for example, “what LH would like to do, what LH thinks about this or that” etc when talking directly to LH
    with closer relatives and family members it’s forbidden to call them directly by their names though, that sounds very rude, just a tradition
    about french kisses, it seems as if like unhygienic, sorry, our traditional method is to touch by the lips and inhale slightly the smell of the skin, unerlekh, that’s the most intimate and caring gesture and i feel for example uncomfortable when people try to kiss on saying goodbye, i know it’s an american (western) custom, but that is like reserved for mostly only family and close friends and on the major occasions, like, departures/arrivals for/after some extended time,for example, so it seems strange to exchange kisses too often, daily, morning and evening, that as if like devalues their meaning, no? but those are not the same gestures, i know, people’s temperaments are basically too different that it can’t be interpreted cross-culturally exactly the same
    i prefer not a handshake strictly but as if like a little pat on the arm/forearm, mol, bye-bye, poka, svidemsya etc.

  140. English had untill very recently “thou” which is direct cognate of Russian “ty”, French “tu”, German “du” and probably of Mongolian “chi” and Turkic “sen” as well.
    But then the English just got very very polite….

  141. Thou hasn’t been in general English use since the 17th century, which is not so very recent. There are the following exceptions:
    People in the North of England still use it;
    Religious people, especially Protestants, used it to talk to God until the middle of the 20th century — some still do;
    Poets stopped using it sometime in the late 19th century;
    Quakers stopped using it (in the accusative form thee) around the beginning of the 20th;
    Tolkien used it for a variety of purposes in The Lord of the Rings.

  142. ooh, then the ta form survived in english, not chi as i thought you is
    it’s nice that it doesn’t sound itself too formal, so our ta sounds like you too, chi is a bit too direct and sometimes could be regarded as if like even rude, two confronting sides would call each other naturally chi, to express disregard, but ta or ooroo would make a confrontation sound as if like ironical (yojlokh) and the quarrel sounds then as if like comically exagerrated
    so if one of them is going to die off, it probably more likely would be chi too
    then it’s curious why in french not vous would survive, but tu’s usage is getting more that, cultural shift
    in russian i guess vy and ty will never be eliminated or used interchangebly, but their evolution went more like from more widespread use of ty to almost everybody, i think that’s bc of the serfdom i guess, even the nobility would call the lower rank ty for example tzar would ty anybody, to calling all the strangers na vy too, so ty is not used with others cz it would
    sound impolite except one’s close family and friends circles

  143. Coens used it too.

  144. with closer relatives and family members it’s forbidden to call them directly by their names though, that sounds very rude
    In Norwegian, there’s a deferential or distancing way of speaking to the king (queen, crown prince) used by TV interviewers (and no doubt others) of, instead of using “you”, saying to him for example “And how did the king enjoy his visit?”
    As for Keith Vaz, many regard him as being only slightly more reputable than “Bob” Diamond himself. There is also a tradition in Britain of not showing MPs too much respect, since they’re probably already too big for their boots, and though Diamond’s usage of the MPs’ first names was slightly bizarre sounding it was certainly in the right spirit, in my opinion.

  145. What I find interesting is the default to the intimate. When the Quakers led the charge in England, they forced a default to the formal, to distinguish one from those pesky radicals. Hence we all use the plural “you”.

  146. J.W. Brewer says:

    One can certainly find poets using thee/thou subsequent to the late 19th century, although no doubt with diminished frequency, but I assume there was less in the 19th C. than the 18th, etc. I wonder if we yet have sufficiently well-constructed poetry-only corpora to empirically track the arc? I mean, in a 20th century poem it seems a very self-conscious archaism, but who’s to say that wouldn’t have been true in the 19th C.? The difference in subjective feel between an archaism and a current-but-only-in-poetry usage seems difficult to measure. Not a lot of thee/thou usage in the corpus of rock lyrics in the back of my brain (other than in what are obvious biblical quotes/allusions, and the search function for that corpus is far from perfect), but “thee” does appear in e.g. Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” And if the explanation there is that he was a published poet before he went into the rock and roll business, he was a very post-19th-C. poet.

  147. Diamond’s usage of the MPs’ first names was slightly bizarre sounding it was certainly in the right spirit
    He should have used ‘my Right Honourable friend’ to show that they come from the same house.

  148. Even I know that the Quakers have nothing to do with the decline of thee.
    Hence we all use the plural “you”.
    The plural of thee wasn’t “you”, it was ye.

  149. I’ve heard it once, from an Amish woman asking me if I wanted a bag for the bread I was buying from her and I was so startled by the “thee” (or “thou”, I don’t remember exactly) that I didn’t register the question, and had to ask her to repeat it.

  150. There is also a tradition in Britain of not showing MPs too much respect
    And quite right too; I wish American reporters would follow their lead.
    When the Quakers led the charge in England, they forced a default to the formal, to distinguish one from those pesky radicals. Hence we all use the plural “you”.
    I don’t know if you’re serious, but I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with the pesky Quakers.

  151. The plural of thee wasn’t “you”, it was ye.

    Ye was the plural of thou. You was the plural of thee.

  152. Ye is the plural of thou.
    You is the plural of thee.
    Kine is the plural of cow.
    Us is the plural of me.

  153. I’ll be on my way, then. You decline, I fall.

  154. Ye is the plural of thou.
    You is the plural of thee.
    Kine is the plural of cow.
    Us is the plural of me.
    Leaves is the plural of leaf.
    Elves is the plural of elf.
    Thieves is the plural of thief.
    Selves is the plural of self.
    Swine is the plural of swine.
    Knives is the plural of knife.
    Deer is the plural of deer.
    Wives is the plural of wife.
    Women’s the plural of woman.
    Grouse is the plural of grouse.
    Men is the plural of man.
    Spice is the plural of spouse.

  155. The ye/you distinction broke down well before the you/thou distinction, because in unstressed form ye and you sounded the same. My guess is that the Quakers and other plain people who retained the 2nd person singular used thee instead of thou in parallel with using you (in the plural) instead of ye.

  156. The Scots use ye, though I’m not certain if it’s only as a plural.

  157. LH: A Guardian piece by Agnès Poirier (10 September 2012)
    I was sure I had read something about the same topic before that date. And there it is, on the BBC’s website:

    6 September 2012
    Tu and Twitter: Is it the end for ‘vous’ in French?
    By Rebecca Law

    Was there a specific reason why British media would focus on the tu and vous in French at the beginning of September 2012? L’actualité brûlante du moment…
    The BBC article mentions the same incident about the Nouvel Observateur journalist angry after being tutoyed on the internet, but also “cyber-utopian California-style libertarian discourse”!

  158. Thou hasn’t been in general English use since the 17th century, which is not so very recent. There are the following exceptions
    The plural ye is in common use in much of Ireland and – I’m told – elsewhere (now as the plural of you of course).
    On the main subject, during a “plebgate” item on a political talkshow on the BBC the other day (here about 3:30) former minister Michael Portillo (a nationalist Europhobe type, mind) was lamenting the lack in English of the polite form of address found in other European languages and even proposing to invent one.
    Not sure whether that too counts as “peevery”…

  159. I went to infants school with Michael Portillo, we were in the same class from 5 to 7 years-old. He doesn’t mention it much nowadays.

  160. John Cowan says:

    Bulbul, were I to go to work at the HellPit (which Heaven forfend!), I’d be hard put to it to obey the T-only policy, since Englysshe is my only tongue. Tell me, should I say to my errant colleague “Thou art an errant baboon” anent his naughty code, or is a more pacific “Thee has not well done, friend” more suitable?

  161. marie-lucie says:

    In the past couple of days I read the entirety (454 comments before my latest one) of an earlier post (2008) about the same topic, to which I contributed several comments. I don’t remember the title. I don’t want to repeat what I said there (or above), but I still have something to add.

    It has alwyas seemed to me that characterizing the T/V difference as ‘informal/formal’ or ‘familiar/polite’ was missing the point. In my earlier comments I emphasized that the difference (at least for French) is not one of style of situation but of type of relationship. I was glad to read Sashura’s comment about kisses (here = pecks on the cheek, usually 3 but in Normandy 4) and handshaking, which is an all-purpose greeting and leave-taking with people you know or meet socially or professionally. Roughly speaking, if I were to give a foreigner advice, I would say (for France) Never use Tu with someone with thom it would not be appropriate to get closer than a handshake (at least in the circumstances of your meeting). Surely, those of you anglophones who are advocates of “breaking down social barriers” would not recommend making a habit of exchanging pecks on the cheeks with your doctor or store clerk or a person you just happen to run into occasionally. Vous does not “erect a social barrier”, it is neutral, it preserves and respects a personal space. Inappropriate use of Tu is an unwanted break into a personal space. That was Sarkozy’s problem before he learned to restrain himself: people felt that not only he appeared ill-bred but he was not respecting them. The amount of personal space a person wants or needs varies with the person’s age, circumstances and potential for sharing experiences, the latter being more likely among young people than older ones. But the fact that young people today are much more likely to use Tu than Vous does not mean that Vous is on its way out: when they have children, they will probably teach them to address other adults with Vous.

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