The Linguist

The Linguist 52,2

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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FEATURES Vous: point final? 26 The Linguist APRIL/MAY THE CONDEMNED The execution of King Louis XVI in 1793. 'Vous' was supposed to be replaced by 'tu' following the French Revolution There is definitely a shift in the way people interact, partly because of the more casual rapport introduced by the net but also because the less formal US work environment model is seeping through the fabric of French society. Boundaries have become blurred. Baby boomers often feel too young to say vous and too old to use tu when they meet for the first time: they are in linguistic limbo. Some never break through the barrier. When a woman I know bumped into a childhood acquaintance in the 1980s, she could not decide between tu and vous so she used the third person, elle. Another woman told me she was not able to make a choice when her fiancé courted her, shortly before the 1968 student uprising generalised tu among young people and the Second Vatican Council ruled that God could be addressed as tu or vous. She felt that tu would have been too forward and vous too formal. Over their five decades together, she managed to address her husband without using tu or vous. TL Marie Gabriel is a freelance journalist and a qualified translator/interpreter. BY The art of opting for one pronoun over the other is governed by the unwritten codes that apply online. The rule of thumb is to imitate everyone else. Use tu uninvited during your first visit to a social forum at your peril, as some will take exception. Certain online games use tu only to tell someone off. Some people use vous to keep their distance. Others start a debate with tu and end it with vous if things get heated. Some contributors voussoient people when they are 'of a certain age'. Still others steer clear of this minefield by avoiding tu and vous altogether. When you send an email in a professional capacity or to someone you have not met, the safest approach is to use vous in your first message. Otherwise you may appear out of touch or rude to the point of alienating your correspondent. If they suggest le tutoiement after a while, it means a rapport has been established. But will vous disappear? 'I would be surprised if it did,' says Henriette Walter, a Professor of Linguistics at Rennes University. 'Vous is still here although tu was supposed to replace it after the Revolution. Besides, vous is also used to address more than one person so we need it.' But, she says, these are 'crucial times'. A turning point? Will the third tu revolution lead to enhanced communication as well as, perhaps, greater fraternity and equality – perceived or real – in France? On that subject, Twitter has not had its dernier mot. © ISTOCKPHOTO. PHOTO French police officers were asked last year to refrain from using tu during ID checks: the Interior Minister wanted to fight double standards, which are believed to have increased the social divide. But Facebook and Twitter may have a greater impact on the way the French relate to one another. Tu is ubiquitous on the internet, while 20 years ago vous would have been de rigueur for a first contact – over the phone, in a letter or face to face. As a result, vous is used less and some fear it will become redundant: they argue that there is a real point to the French reserving tu for relatives and friends, and vous for acquaintances. Yet the situation is more complex. People often end up using tu not because they are close but because they are expected to, with colleagues, neighbours and peers for instance (and the same goes for kissing on both cheeks). Left-wing politicians and journalists have traditionally used tu. Some aristocrats still say vous to their spouse and parents. Some people use vous to emphasise hierarchy: an editor I used to work under switched from tu to vous when he wanted to have the last word with a member of his team at an editorial meeting. In French Polynesia, it is customary to use tu whoever you are introduced to. This is also true in the other overseas territories and départements, where tu is the equivalent of the egalitarian 'you'. By contrast, a retired teacher in Vendée told me that she used tu with her pupils, while they were expected to vouvoyer her because 'they needed to be taught respect'. Her son, a teacher in his thirties, agrees. But, a generation later, children call him by his first name rather than Monsieur. HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES Marie Gabriel investigates the changing use of 'tu/vous' and asks whether the latter is becoming obsolete

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