LINGUIST List 2.605

Tue 01 Oct 1991

Disc: Polite Pronouns

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  1. "Michel, 2.598 Polite Pronouns
  2. "Michel, Polite Pronouns: Mischstil
  3. Victor Raskin, Tu/vous

Message 1: 2.598 Polite Pronouns

Date: Mon, 30 Sep 1991 22:04 EDT
From: "Michel <>
Subject: 2.598 Polite Pronouns
Marianne Schoch (La Linguistique, 14, 1978, 55-73) discusses TU/VOUS in yet
another francophone country, Switzerland and -- of course (?) -- comes to
the same old conclusion first brought out by Brown in the 1960 Sebeok
volume on _Style in Language_ -- that TU is commoner and VOUS becoming less
frequent; but that the use of polite pronouns varies with AGE and SOCIAL
CLASS there as in other European countries.
Brown had already suggested that this trend had been going on for a couple
of centuries. I have looked at the TU/VOUS distinction within the broader
framework of terms of address and found a steady evolution from the 17th
century on in France. (The system of address in the Middle Ages is rather
drastically different.)
	[See Michel Grimaud, "Les appellatifs dans le discours"
	_Le Francais moderne_, 57, 1989, 54-78]
The trend, then, concerns FORMS OF ADDRESS IN GENERAL and the significance
of TU/VOUS in European is largely related to the usage of other terms of
address (e.g., "tu" with first name vs. last name; "vous" with last name vs
. first name).
My feeling is that indeed NON-METROPOLITAN FRENCH DIALECTS use TU more
freely that the French do -- even though there was a clean break during the
May 1968 "revolution" which was marked (like all revolutions) with a change
in forms of address (more "tu" in this case). But I know of no study of
Caribbean or African French.
Michel Grimaud
Wellesley College
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Message 2: Polite Pronouns: Mischstil

Date: Mon, 30 Sep 1991 22:25 EDT
From: "Michel <>
Subject: Polite Pronouns: Mischstil
There exists a kind of RAPID SWITCHING between TU/VOUS in French drama
which has not been studied much (... except my "Tutoiement, titres et
identite sociale" in _Poetique_ no. 77, 1989, 53-75).
Medieval French scholars call it "Mischstil" or mixed style. What is
striking is that it has continued in French drama almost unnoticed since
them. All French students learn about the notorious passage in
_Andromaque_ where Hermione says _tu_ with disgust to Orestes -- but the
rapid switch technique continues into the 20th century in all kinds of
dramatic productions.
I have been trying to find out whether this rapid switching is a tacit
dramatic writing convention or was (is?) indeed used in everyday life.
The issue is not easy to solve since written texts tend to be somewhat
untrusworthy, and overhearing conversations difficult... especially when
one lives in the U.S. as I do.
Moreover, the issue is not so much the kind of dramatic change in a
relationship found in Corneille or Racine or even the more subtle ones
exploited by Marivaux, Beaumarchais, Musset, and Hugo -- but the quick
people who are living in an otherwise STABLE RELATIONSHIP.
I have however in published private letters of the 19th century some
evidence that this could and did occur with more frequency that I expected.
I have also noted similar trends in terms of address in French and English
today: on _Hill Street Blues_, when the police captain and his wife are in
bed, he suggests that they make love and asks her by addressing her as
"councillor." This humorous distance is typical and not infrequent.
But what I have been unable to establish is whether there is much switching
outside of such special, usually humorous, circumstances.
Does anybody know of similar switching in contemporary European?
As a footnote let me add that VOUS is used by some French married people
today who object to what they feel is the trivialization of TU. A typical
socioliguistic reaction, I suppose.
Michel Grimaud
Wellesley College
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Message 3: Tu/vous

Date: Mon, 30 Sep 91 21:29:17 EST
From: Victor Raskin <>
Subject: Tu/vous
The Russian ty/vy, calqued directly from French a couple of centuries
ago (I am not sure of the exact time), is different from the French
original in its current usage. When I was in France in the late 1970s,
French friends whom I did not know too well, were quite tolerant of my
French and even generous in their praise of it, but they did
eventually ask me to switch from vous to tu. They told me that they
had actually expected me to start out with tu because vous meant
detachment, arrogance, "I am not like you." I had, of course, been
using my native Russian honorificity rules.
 In Russian, vy is common and unmarked. Ty automatically applies to
friends of the same age when young. It applies to children, but
teachers are instructed to switch to vy when talking to an individual
student in seventh or eighth grade (14-15). It also applies to parents
and grandparents, but not necessarily to aunts and uncles (not in my
 If you are addressed in the ty form, otherwise, it is a very marked
and often unwelcome claim by a stranger to be exactly like you and,
therefore, close, familiar. A blunt and openly hostile response to
that is "My s vami na brudershaft ne pili!" /You--the vy form--and I
did not drink to bruderschaft--a reference to an old German ritual of
switching from sie to do in a special toast drunk with intertwined
arms/. A subtler way to discourage the unwelcome ty usage is to
continue to respond with vy, very similar to the American insistence
on using Mr Doe instead of John.
 Alexander Pushkin wrote in the 1820s, "Pustoe vy serdechnym ty/ona
obmolvyas' zamenila" /She replaced the empty vy with an affectionate
ty, but it was a slip of the tongue/. This notion of ty/vy is still
there today. It has also resulted in a peculiar literary translation
practice. When a man and a woman meet at the beginning of an
English-language story or novel translated into Russian, they must
start out with vy. At the end of the story or novel, after having
become intimate, they must use ty. When to switch them becomes the
translator's decision because, of course, the English original often
lacks a usable clue.
 The standard practice is to do the switch when the heroes go to bed
together for the first time. But what if it is not entirely clear in
the original or left deliberately ambiguous by a modernist author as
to exactly when it happens? The translator does not have the luxury of
being vague or ambiguous about that--either way sends a clear yes or
no message.
 In other words, the translator cannot help informing the readers,
ordinary people, not just the literati, that the heroes have been to
bed the moment the switch from vy to ty occurs. Needless to say, the
translator can make a mistake or disambiguate a situation against the
author's attention, and you definitely do not want one translator's
personal interpretation imposed on you. But there is not much choice:
leaving the heroes on the vy basis precludes intimacy.
 I am sure people familiar with various honorific systems can tell
many anecdotes about the horrors of translating from a language with
less honorificity into a language with more. This may be the beginning
of a new list.
Victor Raskin
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