https://www.duolingo.com/n6zs

The subtlety of "you" (tu vs. vous)

  • 1716

English speakers may struggle with the French using two different words for "you": tu and vous. We learn that "tu" is used for informal (close) relationships and "vous" is the more formal (polite) term used when addressing an individual. But recognizing there are different words for "you" does not help us to really grasp the sense of it because, in English, there is only "you". We may even conclude that the French are being overly particular in the use of tu/vous but believe me when I say that it is part of the French psyche that may take a while to fully sink in. I try to read a lot of French books and this point was made so clearly in Marcel Pagnol's Angèle. The title character, Angèle, is the victim of bad judgment involving some bad people but ultimately finds true love with a humble paysan. After addressing each other as "vous" throughout the story, she finally - and inadvertently - blurts out "toi" and as she does so, she says, "Oh...j'ai dit « tu »!", to which the young man replies, "Merci, ma belle." Thus they were both keenly aware and appreciative of the change in the intimate nature of their relationship as expressed by one little word.

Duolingo begins by teaching "tu" as "you" and only introduces "vous" a bit later. The explanation is there in the comments but many learners are so focused on memorizing individual words that "tu" becomes embedded as "you" and the subtlety of vous/tu is lost.

November 25, 2016

42 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/arcusimpetus

As a second language speaker, this is what I understand (please tell me if I've left anything out). You tutoyer:

Really close friends on a similar social standing

Your lovers

Children, or in general people who are on a lower social standing (e.g., a captain tutoyers a sergeant; a teacher, a student,;a king, a guard; a guard, a peasant, etc.)

Your enemies, when you're not trying to hide the fact that you're enemies

Job applicants (if you're in Quebec)—just kidding!

And you "vous" everyone else.

To add another example of the TV distinction, and the subtleties conveyed in social interactions, in Victor Hugo's "Quatrevingt-treize," Cimourdain is Gauvain's old priest and teacher, having known him since he was a boy. Therefore, Cimourdain always tutoyers Gauvain, even though Gauvain is now a commander in the revolutionary army.

At the end, a chapter ends like this:

"La voix de Cimourdain avait repris son accent ordinaire. — [Gauvain], dit-il, levez-vous.

"Il ne tutoyait plus Gauvain."

That's how you know that their relationship and the plot has taken a dark, dramatic, and serious turn.

November 25, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/n6zs
  • 1716

That pretty much sums it up. I shared this because so many new learners get the idea that "tu" and "vous" are always interchangeable and especially young learners say "my teacher told me that 'you' is 'tu'." So there are very good reasons to respect the "vous" form and only use "tu" when you are aware of what you are doing when you use it.

November 26, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/Sitesurf

Thanks G. for sharing your understanding of the French "tu" and "vous". Reading this carefully, I have realized that since 1934 (issue date of Marcel Pagnol's 'Angèle'), a lot has changed in the French society.

Three main events have happened since: WWII, the French May 1968 Events, and the on-going 'digital revolution' of the 21st century.

As a consequence, nowadays, 4 overlapping generations are using "tu" and "vous" with different rules.

French translators (of books, movies, TV series) do know it, and their use of "tu" and "vous" is first and foremost driven by the time the story is supposed to be taking place. The second criteria is the protagonists' age ranges and the third one is the socio-economic environment of the story.

November 26, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/peephole

This is interesting-- the breakdown of those time periods. I've never lived somewhere French-speaking, but a few times discussions came up here (& elsewhere) that were reminders of how out-of-date pieces of my knowledge were. I first studied French in the first half of the 1980s, and my teacher was old and not a native speaker. Reverse-engineering the math now, she could certainly have done her studies pre-war (quite possibly with teachers born before the year 1900.) Vous was absolutely the default "you" in high school. And I can look at certain changes made official by the Académie française in the years between my last college class (1989) and last year when I started focusing on Duolingo and then taking some in-person and online classes again and realize definite gaps in my knowledge that come from lack of a natural evolution.

November 26, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/wstockall

Out of curiosity, do these same shifts apply outside of France? For example Canadian French, or the French spoken in various African countries?

November 27, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/peephole

I've been studying French for years, and still have massive anxiety over this. After taking it up again last year I also started going to conversation classes, and because it's a class, address the teachers as Vous. But it's not actually school school, and at this point, they are usually younger than me, and they all know I'm a teacher too, so it feels a lot like artifice. (I guess it is, really, but designed to sort of simulate some alternate reality.)

Likewise with lessons on Verbling, where I am definitely much older than my tutors. Some have tutoyer-ed me right off the bat, and others (esp. the youngest of them used vous.) I never know what to do there. I feel like I talk about myself too much because of it. :P

November 26, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/Sitesurf

You might adopt a simple conduct: use the pronoun they use first. This means that you have to manage that they use a pronoun first!

Start with "comment ça va ?" instead of "comment allez-vous/vas-tu ?"

Then don't address the person directly, save time, beat around the bush with your little talk, in other words, avoid the thing.

Be careful with non-words, like "you know", in: "It's been a long time, you know?" - change it to "ça fait longtemps, non ?"

If you need more of these, just ask me.

November 26, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/peephole

Thanks. Yes, this is pretty much the approach I take-- it just doesn't particularly fill me with confidence. (And speaking of confidence, I am really at a point where I casually throw in filler words-- you know-- etc.)

November 26, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/Koopafro

However, it isn't always proper to use the same pronoun they're using to adress you. Old people usually say "tu" to me since I'm way younger, but it certainly isn't an invitation to start tutoyer them.

My advice would be to always start with "vous" if you're not sure what to use, and then switch to "tu" if the other person says it's okay. Your accent will mark you as a non-native speaker anyway, so they'll know you're probably struggling with this.

November 26, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/CommeuneTexane

Good to know.

I have delayed addressing a person directly in hopes they will use a pronoun first, but it can feel awkward. To me, there is this big elephant in the room, this tu/vous question hovering over the conversation. As an anglophone, it is difficult to fully comprehend all the fine nuances, and as you mentioned, the rules vary somewhat from generation to generation. Additionally, when first meeting a person in American culture, it is considered polite to inquire about them and show an interest in the person. However, that necessitates using pronouns. Scary pronouns...

As a last resort, I just use vous. It's generally safest.

Your suggestions for filler phrases and indirect chit-chat are very welcome!

November 26, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/PlumeJaune

If one confuses the two is it best to err on the side of using vous?

November 25, 2016

[deactivated user]

    Yes. That is more formal. The person to whom you are talking may well ask you to use ''tu'', but better that than accidentally insulting somebody.

    November 25, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/n6zs
    • 1716

    Yes, unless your familiar relationship is well-established, it's always best to start with "vous".

    November 26, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/chrelias

    It depends a lot on the age gap. If one of two young people were to start with "vous", it would come across as very awkward and snobbish.

    November 27, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/BrookeLorren

    This is a very good explanation... but I have found out something very interesting in the past year or so...

    German has the formal/informal you as well. I joined a Facebook group where we only talk to each other in German - there are native and non-native speakers in this group - everyone refers to each other informally!

    Now, if I were to travel to Germany again, I would most certainly address everybody formally. But I found it very strange that, after learning to use formal you my entire life, social media is often informal.

    I wonder if this is just specific to this group, or if it's just German, or if people are becoming more informal in general?

    November 27, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/n6zs
    • 1716

    Hi, Brooke. It is so true (as Sitesurf has also pointed out) that there are certainly other factors at play here. The group which meets for conversation over social media is likely to be informal since they are a group of friends with a level playing field. And people (in general) are likely to be more informal today because of the influence of social media. It is just something to be aware of so we don't throw our knowledge of the language under the bus. For example, some French classes involving young children may find the teacher only giving the "quick and dirty" explanation that "you" is "tu". Since everybody in the room is a child, they are naturally going to use "tu" anyway. In the spirit of egalitarianism, the teacher may not bother to explain about the use of "vous" thinking that it may just confuse them. So they come away from that brief experience thinking that they have mastered it. What parent has not been confronted with their child coming home from school saying "Of course it's true. My teacher said so." So, to answer your question. My opinion is that many people are more informal these days and will speak that way unless there is some other reason not to. It is the ability to assess the situation and know that speaking informally is going to be accepted with the group. It also means assessing the situation to know when there is a reason to speak more formally and to slip into that mode when it is appropriate. Basically, it involves being sensitive to one's environment and adapting to it. As much as it is to say that when one enters a little shop in Paris, you will say "Bonjour" to the shop clerk and say "Merci, au revoir" when you leave. In the U.S., this little bit of protocol is generally not on anyone's radar.

    November 27, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/Nozz44

    Interesting and helpful....as always! Thank you.

    November 26, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/scott800

    So as a new learner im guessing for holiday French ( iwont know people that well) i would be best using vous all the time?

    November 28, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/n6zs
    • 1716

    It will depend a lot of your age, the circumstances in which you find yourself, and how willing you are to be familiar with people you don't know. We constantly being told about somebody being offended if you use "tu" and they expect "vous" (being too familiar when the person doesn't expect it) and being offended if you use "vous" when they would rather "tutoyer" and they think you are being snobbish. So it may be easy to offend someone and if so, be prepared with an appropriate response.

    November 28, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/Berto29441

    "The subtlety of you” or the confusion of you? You for tu and vous? But you have yourself and yourselves. Is "you" singular and plural? And why you say “you are" or “you were" (that are plural forms, as we/they are/were) and not you art/you was? And the funny thing is that the only "you" form arrived as a consequence of the invasion of the French Guillaume le Conquéreur (XI c.), but was in general usage only from the XVI-XVII c. (Shakespeare still uses both the forms): yesterday, for a language. Before English, as well as all the other civilized languages, had two distinct forms to be used when we turn to family members, relatives, close friends (and full stop. Once the servants too) versus all other interlocutors. I suppose that this habit was born, in the West, from the use of the Roman emperors. Thinking to represent all the people (“We, the people”, says the American Constitution, written some millennium afterwards) they did not say "Ego sum", but "NOS SUMUS" (= we are). But distinct forms exist also in the East, in Chinese, Korean, and - in an even more complicated way - in Japanese. While the French uses, as a courtesy form,"vous", the Italian and Spanish use the third singular person (lei /usted: you are = lei è = usted es), the German even "they" (= Sie, with capital “S”) followed by the plural of the verb (Ich habe Sie gestern angerufen, aber Sie haben nicht geantwortet: =Yesterday I called you, but you did’n reply). Today the usage of "tu" does not follow the strict rule I have given, but only for people that think they can change the grammar: wonderful, but for all the others to give the "tu" when they should give the "vous" is only sign of ill-breeding.

    November 27, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/Fatty.Lumpkin

    I do feel a bit sorry for our English word THOU which has all but fallen out of common speaking. I do like to use it though when I am speaking to God. I'm not sure how unusual that is it just feels a bit more respectful.

    November 25, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/Popp2

    Actually, "thou" was the informal version of "you." The reason we all only say "you" today is because people weren't sure when it was okay to use the informal "thou," so it was easier to just call everyone "you" to avoid insulting someone.

    November 25, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/AureliaUK

    Quite. Let it not be said that the English do not treat God as an equal.

    November 25, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/CommeuneTexane

    Perhaps not 'equal' so much as 'close' in relationship? Like a father/child?

    November 26, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/Osnakezz

    Wait, so 'you' actually was the formal version in English, whereas 'thou' was informal?

    November 25, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/kkayda

    ye and you were used as formal and collectively, while thee and thou were used as familiar singular

    November 26, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/AureliaUK

    Yes, exactly so.

    November 27, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/peephole

    In French, "tu" is actually used when speaking to god.

    November 26, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/Sitesurf

    It has been the case since 1969.

    November 26, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/piguy3

    Fascinating. Do you know who orchestrated this change?

    November 27, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/Sitesurf

    I think it was decided after the Second Vatican Council, so probably by the French catholic church with the blessing of Pope Paul VI.

    November 28, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/Fatty.Lumpkin

    wow I didn't know thou was informal that is actually quite funny! Thank you for that. French tu for God is interesting. Perhaps it has something to do with thy being used in the Lord's prayer in English. I wonder what word there is for Thy will be done in French probably the informal maybe peephole?

    November 26, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/piguy3

    "que ta volonté soit faite"

    Not a neutral article (it's point is a theological objection to the French version adopted in 1965), but mentions, if I understand correctly, that the usage of vous in the Lord's Prayer dates from the 1600s. So I'd imagine it was tu before that, in common with the "thou" forms in English? http://maranatha.mmic.net/Notre_Pere.htm#_ftn1

    November 27, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/daughterofAlbion

    I wonder how much it was affected by the fact that the Pater Noster (the Latin version of the Lord's Prayer) uses the tu form?
    According to The Oxford Handbook of Classical Antiquity (ed. S.F. Johnson, 2012), the use of vos as an honorific singular developed in Medieval Latin. Thus, at the time at which prayer in the vernacular language developed in churches, the T-V distinction in Latin would be equivalent to that in French, although the use of tu in the Latin Mass would presumably arise from it being originally the normal Latin singular form.

    November 28, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/CommeuneTexane

    This thread started interesting, and has become only more and more so. Thanks for the information! It is quite intriguing to me the ways that Latin permeated French and English, and then later the profound impact that French had on English. Odd cousins: the two languages.

    November 28, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/Berto29441

    The "Pater noster" is the only prayer taught directly from Jesus, according to St. Matthew (VI, 5-15) and St. Luc (XI, 1-4), with little differences between the two Authors. The language originally used was Greek (perhaps Aramaic for Matthew, but very soon translated in Greek). The Greek text starts with “ Πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου, that is exactly the Latin “Pàter nòster, qui es in caelis, sanctificètur nomen tùum, advèniat regnum tùum, fiat volùntas tua, which is the Vulgate text, dated end of the 4th century. Both the languages use the 2nd singular person, as also nowadays Italian, French, Spanish., etc. do with the parents and, according to what the prayer says, God is our Father. I am sorry for the Oxford Handbook, but the "vos" ( in reply to the "nos", pluralis maiestatis) entered in use in the 1st c. A.D, but already Cicero (II-I c. B.C.) used that form in his "orationes" ( nos consules / nobis consulibus). .

    November 28, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/daughterofAlbion

    Since Κοινη (the form of Greek used in the 1st century CE) only uses ὑμεῖς for plural persons and did not make the T-V distinction, then σύ was the only possible form of address that would not imply God was plural.

    It is true that there is some usage of the majestic plural (pluralis maiestatis) in Imperial Rome i.e. the usage where the monarch speaks of him/herself as "we" and is addressed with the plural form of "you".
    (As for Cicero addressing the consuls - of course he will use the plural "you" (vos) to a plural audience. Vos has always existed as the plural form; the discussion here is about its honorific application to a singular personage.)

    But that is the only plural "you" for a single person attested before the mediaeval era, and since God is never represented in the Greek scripture by the "majestic we", there is no reason to bring the "majestic you" into this discussion.
    So there is no reason to doubt the Oxford Handbook's statement honorific singular V

    November 28, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/Berto29441

    Let me start from the bottom. The pluralis maiestatis was brought in the conversation by yourself ("the use of vos as an honorific singular developed in Medieval Latin"). Oxford handbook is surely wrong.. When Cicero says "nos senatores" is speaking about himself of course, not of his colleagues, and he uses this form in all his autobiographical works, useless to insist on, but this form was used, for the first time (it seems) by Quintus Ennius (239-169 a.C.), centuries before. The Κοινη ( κοινὴ διάλεκτος = common language) was the common Greek language, based on the Attic dialect (please! leave "vernacular ", from Latin vernaculus "domestic, native, indigenous; pertaining to home-born slaves: the Church's Latin was and is Latin), that became the language spoken in all the Mediterranean area, but starting from the IV Century, not the first. But what do you mean with this? In Greek both "thou" and you are present. Thales (VII-VI c. b.C.), they say, was the author of the famous γνῶθι σαυτόν: gnosce te ipsum, not "vos ipsos". All this does not change what I wrote: in the Gospel's Pater noster is used the 2nd singular person, as in each language having two different form for the 2nd singular/plural person and, for what we know, is the "person" used by Jesus.

    November 28, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/Berto29441

    "thou" = tu, "thy" = ton (m.), ta (f,) thine (pronoun) = tien (m.) tienne (f.)

    November 28, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/Teolan

    Mercì

    November 29, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/Berto29441

    Pas de quoi

    November 29, 2016

    https://www.duolingo.com/CommeuneTexane

    Well, when you think about it, who else should you be on more intimate terms with than with God? ;) But yes, the thees and thous sound quaint and formal to our modern ears. Language is a funny, evolving thing!

    November 26, 2016
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