21 October 2005

Tu? Vous? Or both?

Watching Laurent Ruquier's TV show on France 2 a couple of nights ago. One of the chroniqueurs, Pierre Bénichou, answering his co-chroniqueur Elsa Fayère in mock anger, said: "D'abord, ne me tutoyez pas en public !" ("Don't say tu to me in public!") So they say tu to each other in private, but vous to each other on the TV show. All the chroniqueurs and Laurent Ruquier say vous to each other during the show. That's probably just for the show, and probably doesn't apply offstage, where they say tu to each other.

With one exception: Claude Sarraute, a retired journalist at Le Monde, says tu to almost everybody. She is over 80 years old, and she says she now uses the tu form with anyone younger than she is.

Here in Saint-Aignan, it seems like nearly everybody says tu to everybody else.

In 2003 when we met J.-L., who is 6 or 7 years younger than I am, he said tu to me immediately. His friend G., a woman 20 years older than I am, told him to stop using tu with everybody he meets. I told them that in this case I preferred tu instead of vous.

A few weeks later, we were with at our neighbors' house (M., 70-year-old woman, and B., 75-year-old man) having lunch with them and the woman we bought our house from, J., who is 77. Somehow the subject of whether we should use the tu or vous forms with each other came up. Up to that moment, we were all addressing each other as vous, the polite form. M. looked at J., a friend since the early 1980s, and said, "But J., I don't think I could ever use the tu form with you." J. looked crestfallen. But that was the end of that. She clearly wanted to be addressed as tu.

M. then looked at me and said: "Ken, I don't know if I can permit myself to say tu to you." I didn't really know what to make of that, but I encouraged her to try. Then we started addressing each other as tu and have continued to do so for the past 2 years. She had no problem saying tu to Walt, she said. He is 25 years her junior.

A few days later, I had occasion to call J. on the telephone. I began the telephone conversation by reminding her that we had agreed to say tu to each other, and told her that that was my intention. She seemed pleased, and we have been on the tu basis ever since. Remember, she is more than 20 years older than I am.

Through G., we have become acquainted with S., a woman who was born in the U.S. to a French mother and an American father. She has lived in France since she was six years old, so to us she seems perfectly French. Her spoken French is perfect. But all the French people describe her as an American. S. has stated at least twice, during parties where she and I have been guests, that she doesn't say tu to anybody.

At one event in July 2005, J.-L. (who obviously prefers tu) was talking to S. She used the vous form in speaking to him. He said, S., you can use the tu form with me -- and he used the tu form with her to say this. She again replied that she doesn't use the tu form with anybody.

We have had daily bread delivery for about a year now. The woman who delivers the bread is a very friendly, talkative person who must be in her 40s. She and I dance back and forth. She calls me monsieur, which to me is very formal, and sometimes she uses vous when she speaks to me. Other days, she uses tu when she talks to me. I try to use tu with her, but sometimes it feels awkward, and I slip back into the vous form.

Use of tu and vous is one of the things I find the most interesting about the French language. Most other European languages have an equivalent pronoun distinction, and English used to (you vs. thee and thou). One of the most interesting aspects is the transitional moment when you go from using the polite vous form with a person to the more intimate tu form, when it happens, how it happens, and what it means to a relationship. More later...


  1. Oh, boy, it must make your head spin! I understand why Suzanne is playing it safe with "vous," but then using "vous" also seems to maintain a barrier. Good for

  2. Fascinating. I always wondered about these subtleties. You might have a little book in this. Suzanne being called "the American" reminds me of when a friend returned to the rural village in Greece where she'd done anthropology fieldwork for a year -- and they still called her "the tourist." This was a village where they still plowed the fields with mules, back in '85. ...Happy autumn to you and Walt!-Monet

  3. Hi Monet, Suzanne has invited us and some other friends of ours to her "propriété" north of Blois for an American Thanksgiving dinner. It should be interesting. More later...

    Bises, Ken

  4. I'm so glad we only have one form of "you" - though some Scots speakers pluralise it with yous.


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