Monday, August 27, 2007

Using 'tu' and 'vous': a Philosopher's View

One of the major stumbling blocks for foreigners learning French is when to use 'tu' (the familiar form of the word 'you') and when to use 'vous' the formal form of the word. Generally, 'tu' is reserved for discussion with friends, however, in the workplace it is quite commonly used among colleagues, almost to the extent that it becomes the standard form of address, with 'vous' being reserved as a sign of respect for superiors. If you start using 'vous' with colleagues, they will often quickly exclaim: 'je pense que nous pouvons tutoyer' (I think we can say 'tu' to each other). Basically, the use of 'vous' introduces a certain 'froideur' and formality into a conversation.

Here is a view on the 'tu' and 'vous' issue from French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, reported in the Sunday Times a few weeks ago:

My wife and I don't use the familiar 'tu' form of address when we talk to each other. We use the more formal 'vous'. That's her idea: she's a bit old-fashioned that way. I think unconsciously she wants to create distance between us. All theoreticians of eroticism know that when there is no distance, there is no border; when there is no border, there is no taboo; when there is no taboo there is no transgression; and when there is no transgression there is no desire.

7 comments:

Kai Carver said...

'je pense que nous pouvons nous tutoyer'

Lesley said...

He is such a pretentious prat.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thank you Kai. If you keep coming back to read, you will have plenty of opportunities to correct my French!

Lesley. Yes, it is rather 'pseuds corner' isn't it...

Autolycus said...

I note he doesn't seem to allow for the possibility that his wife might just want to create some distance from him.

Rose Carroll said...

My husband, who is Australian, never knows whether to say tu or vous to my mother, so he invariably uses both. It is a dilemma for non-native speakers.

Jonathan Wonham said...

How nice, some new readers.

Autolycus, yes, it would be very nice to have the wife's opinion. I suspect we would find that BHL's argument was a complete fantasy.

Rose, yes, I know the feeling. Mixing and matching 'tu' and 'vous' in a single sentence. You know you're doing it, but you just can't stop. Why don't you have a quiet word with your mother and ask her to put your husband out of his misery?
Or is there some advantage to keeping him guessing?

Autolycus said...

I'm not sure I'd want to investigate BHL's fantasies; but I do doubt whether "naughty but nice" depends on vouvoyant.