LINGUIST List 2.592

Mon 30 Sep 1991

Disc: Polite Pronouns (Tu/Vous)

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Ron Smyth, Re: 2.581 Tu/Vous
  2. bert peeters, 2.581 Tu/Vous
  3. , Tu/vous
  4. , Tu/Vous, Sie/Du

Message 1: Re: 2.581 Tu/Vous

Date: Sun, 29 Sep 91 00:46:18 EDT
From: Ron Smyth <>
Subject: Re: 2.581 Tu/Vous
I would like to hear more about tu/vous in Quebec. Michel Eytan suggests
that the levelling impoverishes the language, but I cringe at statements
like that (knee-jerk, you might say, but cringe I do). In my first jobe,
as a research assistant in the federal government, I was very surprised to
find that not only were my employers at every level willing to call me tu
right off, but that they expected the same in return. What are the present
functions of 'vous' in Quebec and other areas where the levelling exists?
Ron Smyth
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Message 2: 2.581 Tu/Vous

Date: Sun, 29 Sep 91 13:19:15 EST
From: bert peeters <>
Subject: 2.581 Tu/Vous
Well, it looks as though I've started something again... and it's got nothing
to do with teleology... :-)
> Date: Fri, 27 Sep 91 10:49 EDT
> From: Jean Veronis <>
> I do not share Bert Peeters' feeling that "*tu* is increasingly popular in
> French these days, even when talking to absolute strangers". Being addressed
> as *tu* by a waitress or cashier in a cafe' when you are more than, let us
> say, 16 years old, is almost unthinkable (unless you are in a *very* special
> kind of place...). But, I am from France, and I wonder if there could be
> differences in the use of *tu/vous* between Canada (as in Bert's example)
> and France.
I've got a feeling I know what *very* special kind of place is referred to,
but that's not where it happened. The scene for this picturesque adventure
was a "cre^perie" at about half a kilometer from the Laval campus in Quebec.
I was 23 years old at that point in time, and I'm sure I didn't look as
though I was 16 or younger - but the girl who addressed me using "tu" may
well have been about 16 or so. Before it happened, I would have considered
it "almost unthinkable" myself, but happen it did.
> Also, (still in France), I think that there was a big change in the use of
> *tu/vous* especially among young people, or at work. I remember my father
> addressing everyday's colleagues as *vous* in the early sixties. Now,
> immediate colleagues would use *tu*. But I have the feeling that this change
> froze at a certain point in time.
Question: "it froze" in what sense? Did it stop spreading? But then how could
one say that today *tu* would be used (this seems to imply that *vous* in that
context has disappeared). Or does it depend just on how close the colleagues
are, on how much collegiality there is? Could this be clarified?
> Date: Sat, 28 Sep 91 14:41:11 +0100
> From: (Michel Eytan LILoL)
> It seems to me that the distinction tends to be entirely obliterated in
> 'peripheral' francophone countries much more than in France; eg Belgians
> and Quebecois are known for this. Personal experience in France tends to
> prove that tu "at first sight" spreads among social equals (eg university
> professors only.
The Laval experience was not an isolated event, but happened to be the one
I thought of first when posting my first message on *tu* and *vous*. At one
other occasion, I had lost my way and asked a passer-by (in French, and
using *vous*) for assistance. Once again, that happened when I was in my
twenties (I guess about 26), and the passer-by was I suppose in his early
thirties (a wild guess, my memories here are not quite as precise). Again,
I was shocked to be addressed with *tu* (although I had started off with
*vous* myself). Where did it happen? In Brussels. This, then, seems to
corroborate Michel Eytan's claim that the distinction between familiar and
polite forms tends to get obliterated in the "peripheral" francophone areas
(not countries: Belgium is not just French speaking :-)).
Dr Bert Peeters Tel: +61 02 202344
Department of Modern Languages 002 202344
University of Tasmania at Hobart Fax: 002 207813
GPO Box 252C
Hobart TAS 7001
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Message 3: Tu/vous

Date: Mon, 30 Sep 1991 00:57:51 PDT
From: <paramskasdmCCVAX.CCS.CSUS.EDU>
Subject: Tu/vous
Re: tu/vous
In response to several postings re the geographical variations in
the use of tu/vous:
1) "tu" is indeed more widely used in Quebec than in France.
Not, however, in all registers. A waitress (as quoted by one
member) would indeed be likely to use the "tu" as the base form
for addressing customers. In other registers, say among
professionals, there is still a strong inclusive/exclusive
factor. Initially, "vous" is used until affinities are
established, at which point generally the "tu" form prevails.
2) Outside of Quebec, there are interesting variations. One of
my students, coming from a fairly unilingual part of Northern
Ontario, suffered a real culture shock when she was told by some
of her French (from France) profs that they felt insulted by her
"tutoiement". In her dialect, "tu" is the base form; "vous" is
reserved strictly for the "ancients" - i.e., very old folk,
somehow considered to have already graduated from humanity, as it
were. So whenever she used the required "vous", she herself felt
that she was insulting the prof!
3) I haven't been back to France in too many years to mention,
but was startled by the following behaviour in some of our
assistant-e-s (exchange TA's). While I was a mere prof, they had
no trouble using "tu" with me. When I had the misfortune of
being named head of our French section, with the full-blown title
of "Directrice", they could not bring themselves to "tutoyer". I
felt as though I had aged many years overnight! When my term of
office was over, I reintegrated the ranks of "tu-able" folk...
4) I know only a few Belgians, and they are *very* formal in
their use of tu/vous. Might it be a question of register in
Belgium also?
Dana Paramskas (
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Message 4: Tu/Vous, Sie/Du

Date: 30 Sep 91 12:12
From: <>
Subject: Tu/Vous, Sie/Du
It is interesting that the German Sie/Du distinction seems to have undergone
a similar change as the French tu/vous distinction (as reported by Jean
Veronis). For instance, when my parents were at university in the fifties,
students would use Sie to each other, and Du only to close friends
and relatives. Nowadays it would be unthinkable for a college student to
address another student with Sie.
 I feel that one is increasingly addressed with Du by strangers, especially
in places near a university campus. This also has political connotations,
of course. In the seventies, many high school teachers required their
students to use the mutual Du. With the collapse of leftist illusions,
this usage seems to be receding, but Du is clearly much stronger now
than decades ago.
 It is perhaps little surprising that German parallels French in this regard,
but is this really a pan-European phenomenon? (or at least pan-West European?
My impression is that Russian Ty/Vy is used much like German Du/Sie in the
first half of this century)
Martin Haspelmath, Free University of Berlin
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