When vous becomes tu
January 27, 2007 3:06 PM   Subscribe

In languages which use different pronouns to distinguish 'you' (close, informal, equal) and 'you' (distant, formal, hierarchical), how is a shift between the two handled?

I'm interested in situations where the use of one shades into another as social relationships change.

If you've grown up within a culture that uses this distinction, is there an instinctive appreciation of when to use which that means it's rarely an issue? Or is it something that can be a source of embarrassment? When two people start to become closer, is the shift a moment of some significance - or a possible foot in the mouth which could damage a relationship? Is it used in comedy or drama; can it be a deliberate insult within conversation?
posted by reynir to Human Relations (50 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I think it is not much different from saying "Hi Jane!" versus "Hello Mrs Smith". If you would say "Mrs Smith" you would use the formal you ("u", in Dutch). If you would say "Jane", you would use the informal you ("jij/je").
posted by davar at 3:18 PM on January 27, 2007

I know that sometimes, if there's a question about propriety, in French, you can ask someone if you can 'tutoyez' (infinitive: tutoyer) them -- to use 'tu' instead of 'vous'. Similarly, you can ask someone 'vousvoyez' if they're getting too personal.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 3:23 PM on January 27, 2007

I lived in Germany during a time when the use of formal versus informal "you" was changing. In more formal circumstances, one would use "sie", the formal you, until the other person explicitly gave you permission to use "du", the informal. Nowadays, especially among the younger generation, the rules seem to have relaxed quite a bit and "du" is often used even when meeting someone for the first time.

I think it's still verboten to ever use "du" when addressing someone of higher rank (your boss, for example), or people you have a professional relationship with (doctors, lawyers).
posted by backseatpilot at 3:25 PM on January 27, 2007

In french there's actually a verb for this - where the informal 'you' is 'tu' (as opposed to the formal 'vous'), 'se tutoyer' means 'to call each other tu' ... so you could say to someone with whom you'd hitherro been using the formal 'vous', "Est-ce qu'on peut se tutoyer?", meaning "Can we call each other 'tu'?". Of course this can happen more informally, but interesting to note that there's a specific verb to address this situation
posted by kitschbitch at 3:27 PM on January 27, 2007

Ah, on preview, what flibbertigibbet said....
posted by kitschbitch at 3:27 PM on January 27, 2007

I've come accross this in three slightly different cultures - the Frisian, the Dutch, and the German - and the unwritten rules differ slightly and subtilly between either of them. So, the answer to your question is more difficult than can be answered here.

Generally speaking, in 1960 and 1970, the formal ways of addressing other people disappeared, in the Netherlands. Still, one always approaches people who are older, or of a higher status, than you formally, with 'u'.

There's one notable exception to this, though. In a court of law it was always custom to address a suspect informally, or paternalistically, with 'jij' or 'je'. But, when the whole Dutch society dropped its formals ways, the courts suddenly became very strict. So, nowadays any suspect will be addressed with a respectful 'u'.
posted by ijsbrand at 3:30 PM on January 27, 2007

If not equal (boss vs. employee, professor vs. student), only the higher one can offer or suggest to address each other informal

If equal you can just ask for it. To use the formal or informal way of adressing a person also depends on the age difference. While students will not use it at all when talking to each other, you may use it to address a person that is older than you.

It was not uncommen that children had to address their parents in a formal way but I think this has become uncommen.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 3:31 PM on January 27, 2007

Generally, when meeting someone in a professional relationship in Germany, I would always start out with "Sie" (formal, verb: siezen). If they were comfortable with me calling them "du" (informal, verb: duzen), they would say "You can du me" and the relationship would be established from there. It's not that different from being introduced to someone:

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Schmidt."
"Please, call me David."

(Disclaimer: I was an American who only lived in Germany for a few years, and that nearly ten years ago, so I don't always grasp subtleties.)
posted by kdar at 3:34 PM on January 27, 2007

English used to have this distinction, too, with "thou" (close, informal, equal) and "you" (distant, formal, hierarchical).

To your question about comedy or drama, Shakespeare used the distinction often. One example is in an exchange between Hamlet and his mother (III.iv):
Qu. Hamlet, thou hast thy Father much offended.
Ham. Mother, you have my Father much offended.
The effect is that the Queen is trying for intimacy, but Hamlet insists on distance. The rest of the scene continues with them both using "you" until Hamlet brandishes his sword and his mother shifts back to "thou," emphasizing their (supposed) affectionate relationship as she pleads that he not injure her.
posted by kittydelsol at 3:36 PM on January 27, 2007 [6 favorites]

I grew up largely in a culture that has this distinction in its language.

I think it's mostly instinctive, but there's also a very real kind of social anxiety that goes along with this, both when you're anxious that you're being too formal or too casual with someone, and when you feel that someone is being too formal or too casual with you.

The last time I was there, I'd apparently passed some invisible boundary of age (I was 29), and people who would not have previously used the formal form with me (taxi drivers, waiters, etc) suddenly were doing so. TOTALLY FREAKED ME OUT.

My own grasp of this is also largely instinctive, so I think I'm probably not going to be very good at answering your specific questions, but I know I've heard people use both forms in a purposefully insulting way. Most often, I've heard people use the formal form as a method of creating artificial distance between them and someone else (sometimes it sounds like someone is emphasizing that they are very well-bred, and the other person is some kind of hick who doesn't understand proper behavior, for instance.)
posted by thehmsbeagle at 3:42 PM on January 27, 2007

There's no equivalent to the word "tutoyer" in Japanese, but a close approximate comes from just telling people something along the lines of "Please, feel free to relax."

Also, there's a quirk of the language that makes shifting easy: the formal isn't in the pronoun as much as the verb (similar to Spanish, where the pronoun can be dropped in a sentence, so you have things like "Tienes razon" ("you're right", informal) and "Tiene razon" ("you're right", formal, where the formality is coming from the verb, not the pronoun, which is omitted)). However, in Japanese, grammatically, the proper formal verb is just the one that comes at the end of the sentence, and all the verbs before it use the informal tense, not because they're informal, but because that's how the grammar works.

So, for example, in a sentence like "I'm tired, so I'm going to sleep", the word "tired" would be the informal, no matter who you're speaking to, but "sleep" would be in the formal, if you're speaking to someone you're not on equal friendly terms with.

However, that allows this quirk: you can kinda trail off sentences if the ends are clear. For example, "I'm tired, so..." And because you haven't actually ended the sentence, there is no formal verb, just the informal one.

You can use this in quite a few contexts, and it's a way to ease into decreasing the formality. If you do it, you're not being rude. If the person you're also speaking with starts to do it, you get the idea that they wouldn't mind speaking more informally. And by the time you do make the jump, both of you have used formal verbs so seldom lately that it doesn't make for a jarring transition.

This quirk is something I've noticed as a non-native speaker, and it's one that I don't think the average Japanese actually notice, because they aren't analysing the language as much as someone trying to learn it.
posted by Bugbread at 3:55 PM on January 27, 2007

thehmsbeagle : "I know I've heard people use both forms in a purposefully insulting way. Most often, I've heard people use the formal form as a method of creating artificial distance between them and someone else"

You see this in Japan, not so much as a way of showing off class/breeding/education distinction (after all, even hick farmers use the formal with eachother if they don't know eachother), but to put the "icy cold" into a comment to a friend you're arguing with. That is, if my wife says something to me with the formal tense, I know she's pissed. It's kinda like when American parents get pissed at their kids and suddenly stop using nicknames and use full names ("Joseph Tolbert Henderson! Come here, now!!")
posted by Bugbread at 3:58 PM on January 27, 2007

In Spanish there's a verb (tutear) that means exactly what tutoyer means in French. That said, I've never heard anyone use it.

The decision of whether to use or usted is a source of great stress for me when I'm speaking Spanish. I've noticed that the native speakers I talk with at work frequently switch back and forth between the two in the course of a conversation with the same person, and I've yet to figure out what guides their choices. I just know it makes me very anxious when I greet someone with whom I've previously used by saying ¿Cómo estas? and they respond to me with Bien, y usted?. It always makes me feel like I've done something to piss them off without knowing it.

The whole thing is complicated by the fact that in some Spanish-speaking countries, sometimes people who are quite intimate still use the formal to address each other. In Costa Rica (where I studied), husbands and wives, and even parents and children, used usted to speak to each other, a custom that my friend from Spain finds absolutely bizarre.

All of this is to say that I suspect asking ten native speakers this question will get you ten different answers.
posted by jesourie at 4:08 PM on January 27, 2007

Yeah, I think Spanish is a tempting study of the formal vs. informal uses, but since the area of its use is so immense, dispersed and evolutionarily diverse, an awful lot of dialectical developments are found. So, the "queen's English" has possibly no best Spanish counterpart, though I've heard Uruguayans are structually consistent and elocutionarily clear.

I also recall a "Puedo tutearte?" activity in Spanish 1 in high school that was a little story of misunderstanding, based on the fact that verbal forms used with usted are interchangable with a third person usage, so that a person you're addressing with respect could somehow think you were talking about someone else.

I think kittydelsol's example of how it can be used to create pointed distance is a good one.

In my (decent) Spanish, I find it pretty easy to determine when to use tú, but I also botch using usted and I think it makes my lack of fluency clear, but doesn't seem to be disrespectful.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 4:33 PM on January 27, 2007

There's some discussion of a German ceremony to celebrate when two friends go from formal to informal here. (For a move to informality, having a ceremony seems a little formal to me.)
posted by Xalf at 4:41 PM on January 27, 2007

In Polish, the equivalent is to use the word "ty" (you, second person, informal) vs. "Pan" or "Pani" (Mr. or Mrs., third person, formal, same words for Lord and Lady), as in: "would Sir like to see the menu?". Switching from formal to informal can happen by suggesting that you are "na ty", or "on 'you'", as in: "We're on 'you', and don't need call each other Mr. or Mrs.". I think by default, all adults are formal with one another.
posted by migurski at 4:57 PM on January 27, 2007

You probably wouldn't switch from one pronoun to the other within a single conversation.

The only way to go from a formal you to an informal you is by converting a distant acquaintance into a close friend. Sometimes that takes quite a bit of time, other times it happens fast.

So I could imagine that the fastest way for someone to switch from addressing an acquaintance from a formal to an informal you would be by meeting this "stranger" at a very casual party with drinks, music, and boisterous behavior.

In that context where all pretense to polite formal social discourse is dropped, the stranger is suddenly treated like a close friend and addressed with an informal you.

Of course, ironically enough, if the two individuals do not feel that the party experience has brought them close for more than a moment, they can regain their distance to each other by switching back to a formal you the next time they meet in a less casual and more formal context. ;-)
posted by gregb1007 at 4:59 PM on January 27, 2007

English used to have this distinction, too, with "thou" (close, informal, equal) and "you" (distant, formal, hierarchical).

English still has it. In formal English, it exists in the Lord's Prayer, for example - Our Father who art in Heaven. (An aside that I have found interesting is that of the major Western European languages, French, AFAIK, is the only one that uses the vous form to God and, of course, vice versa.). In dialect English, the thou form still exists in the North of English. You can see examples of it in D H Lawrence (e.g. Sons and Lovers). Coming from the North of England, I can tell you that the rules are similar to the ones given above for other European languages.

Spanish is complicated by the fact that the Spanish from Spain are more inclined to use tu than the Latin Americans, particularly formal countries like Chile. Of course, the Argentinians make it more complicated by using vos. Similarly the French are more inclined to tutoyer than the francophone Africans.

Basic rule for a foreigner, use the vous, Sie, lei, etc. form till the native speaker says otherwise.
posted by TheRaven at 5:23 PM on January 27, 2007

As is presumably apparent by now, it's different for every language, and in most it's changing rapidly enough that older generations (or people who have been out of the country for a while) have a hard time with the usage of the younger generations. And you can't really lump in languages like Japanese (which don't really have "pronouns" as such; check out the even messier situation in Malay) with European languages that have the classic tu/vous distinction.
posted by languagehat at 5:23 PM on January 27, 2007

Hindi (and other Indian languages, I'm sure) has different pronouns for the equivalent of 'you' as well.

In ascending order of formality, they go as : Tu, Tum and Aap.

Which one to use depends on, as others have mentioned, on things like the degree of familiarity between the conversers, the difference in their ages and social status and sometimes even the gender of the adressed person.

And this might be completely untrue, but I remember someone telling me that this lack of distinguishing pronouns in English was one of the reasons that French was the language in which all international documents like treaties etc. used to be written.
posted by sk381 at 5:41 PM on January 27, 2007

Completely untrue. French was the language of diplomacy well before English was more than a minor language on the edge of Europe.
posted by languagehat at 5:51 PM on January 27, 2007

Interestingly, I was watching the national speeling bee for kids which takes place in Washington DC, and "tutoyer" was one of the words, making it, I suppose, technically an "English" word too.

I speak a lot of languages that differentiate between a formal and informal 'you.' Generally, people college age or younger use the informal with their peers, even if they're strangers. But when there's a marked hierarchy (for instance, a nine-year old to a twenty-year old), the younger or subordinate person would use the formal, the elder person would not. But once one is truly in adulthood, one always would start out using the formal, except to children.

It's pretty instinctive when to change (once things get comfortably personal, or drinks start pouring or when it feels right.) People don't get too offended if you "tu" them early, unless you're being really creepy (the way a stranger may creep you out if he starts calling you "honey" and seems to want something.) Of course, if you're clearly not a native speaker, people are very forgiving. But the first response hits it right on, you would differentiate between "Hi, Jane!" and "Hello Mrs. Smith." It's like that.

BUT, I've noticed that in France or Germany or Holland, people switch to "tu" a bit more readily than in most Eastern bloc countries. In Hungary, for instance, people are still quite formal relative to France.

One rule of thumb is to let the older or higher-ranking person make the shift - a boss, a friend's parent, someone from an older generation. But among one's one age / peer group, it's rarely a problem.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:53 PM on January 27, 2007

Languagehat is right about French being a language of diplomacy before English was very relevant. And there's another point too - English used to use distinguishing pronouns as readily as most other European languages - you / thou / thee / yours ;/ thine (etc.)
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:55 PM on January 27, 2007

In Armenian, Russian, and Azerbaijani, one would not flip from formal you to informal you within the span of a conversation.

In fact, I would never speak to someone older than me (27) in the informal you without knowing them on a very intimate level for years.

And I would probably call a man of my own age the formal you for a while until we knew each other better... maybe after knowing each other for a few weeks.
posted by k8t at 6:00 PM on January 27, 2007

This is going to bring the wrath of LanguageHat down on me, as happens every time I play in his back yard. Sigh.

Much of the discussion above relates to IndoEuropean languages, primarily the Romance and Germanic groups. There is cultural commonality among them which isn't universal among all human tongues.

There was an excellent discussion above about formality in Japanese, but it (probably deliberately) skipped the fact that Japanese has a whole menagerie of pronouns. Where Romance and Germanic languages usually have two second person singular pronouns, Japanese has a swarm. In order to avoid the wrath of LanguageHat, I'll quote from someone else, and LanguageHat can criticize them instead of me. (if I'm lucky.) Note that this was written in 1997, and usages were beginning to change then.
Japanese second-person pronouns include omae, onore, kisama, anata, anta, kimi, onushi, and temee. In practice, second-person pronouns are usually avoided-something possible because the Japanese language doesn't demand that the subject be included in a sentence. There are signs that Japanese teenagers and young adults are starting to use omae as an all-purpose pronoun analogous to the English "you." This practice is not entrenched in the language yet, and older usages still survive, so use omae with caution. Omae is traditionally used in conversation with someone dear to the speaker, and to many Japanese it is this romantic connotation that is the truest sense of the word. Finally omae is used as a familiar form of address, signaling that the speaker is brash, casual , and doesn't respect convention.
This assumption of familiarity can be taken as insulting. Since omae has so many different (and sometimes clashing) connotations, use it with caution. Kisama is a masculine form of address which can be openly insulting. It seems that in anime the brash, defiant hero can use omae while his villainous counterpart will use kisama to indicate his distaste for the person he is addressing. Onore was once formal usage, but is now considered rude and offensive. Anata is generally used when speaking with social inferiors, and can be made insulting by tone of voice, BUT it also functions as an endearment when a woman uses it to speak with her husband. Anta is a variant of anata used by women, and is not necessarily rude. Kimi is male speech, used when speaking to people you have direct authority over, i.e. a vice-president speaking to the secretary, or a teacher addressing a student. Kimi is also how a boy refers to his girlfriend. Onushi is archaic polite usage, and sounds quaint when used in modern speech.
As a practical matter in real life, I'm told that the Japanese almost never use second person pronouns. (He mentioned that.) Instead, they use a variety of linguistic tricks such as omitting subjects and/or objects entirely (which is permitted in Japanese if they're reasonably obvious from context), or referring to people by name. (I'm not completely clear on how rude it would be to use "koitsu" as a replacement for "you"; I gather it's informal, and like all informality it could be rude in the wrong situation.)

Politeness levels in Japanese are grotesquely complicated and intricate. My friend Toren is fluent in Japanese. He's been married to a Japanese woman for 20 years. He works as a Japanese-English translator. Yet whenever he and his wife travel to Japan to visit her family, he tells me he spends a bunch of time practicing to make sure he doesn't "talk like anime" or worse, talk like his wife does, since male and female patterns of speech and politeness are much different. He almost invariably uses polite forms even when talking to his in-laws, and though they may giggle at him for being inappropriately formal, at least they're not scandalized or offended by inappropriate informality.

I sometimes wonder if the reason that the Japanese avoid using second person pronouns is because the rules of proper usage are too complicated even for them. It's better to duck the issue than to risk a terrible faux pa.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:34 PM on January 27, 2007

I do know that there are three variants in spoken hindi - aap, tum and tu . I didn't study the language formally but as far I know [its my mother tongue] aap is the politest most respectful version and if I ever met someone whom I would refer to as aap, I'd never ever shift to a tu with them [the third one] - at the most, if that person were an age peer they might become a tum reference.

The shift is rare and usually between family members or couples.
posted by infini at 6:38 PM on January 27, 2007

Bugbread's excellent comment also (probably deliberately) left out the fact that in Japanese there are more than two levels of politeness in verb conjugation. And let's not get into the fine points of honorific usage. chansankunsamakakadenka argh...

It's enough to make you say, "Screw it; I'm gonna talk like a Yakuza!"
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:07 PM on January 27, 2007

languagehat : "And you can't really lump in languages like Japanese (which don't really have 'pronouns' as such; check out the even messier situation in Malay) with European languages that have the classic tu/vous distinction."

LH, I can't believe I'm about to disagree with you on something grammatical, but, yes, Japanese does have pronouns as such, as SDCB points out above. I think what you meant to say was "Japanese doesn't use pronouns to nearly the degree that most other languages do".

Steven C. Den Beste : "I'm not completely clear on how rude it would be to use 'koitsu' as a replacement for 'you'; I gather it's informal, and like all informality it could be rude in the wrong situation."

It is extremely rude. It is actually third-person, meaning "him" or "her", and, depending on if you were using it jocularly or not, would either be kinda endearing or just insulting, but using it to refer to the second person is what you do when starting a fight.
posted by Bugbread at 7:13 PM on January 27, 2007

"Tutoyer" is an English word, too.
posted by Flunkie at 8:31 PM on January 27, 2007

In an erudite discussion about language, is "a terrible faux pa" a terrible faux pas?
posted by flabdablet at 9:19 PM on January 27, 2007

Bugbread, I thought "aitsu" was third person and "koitsu" was effectively second person. But I'll take your word for it that it's rude; I can well believe it.

Flabdablet, there's no place for the speling police in a discussion of grammer.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:12 PM on January 27, 2007

bugbread: Japanese does have pronouns ...

That depends on how you define "pronoun".

In English, there are classes of words, such as nouns, verbs and pronouns, which each behave so differently that it makes sense to group them into these classes. For examples, a verb will have tenses, a noun's possive form can be formed by adding 's, a pronoun stands for an antecedent or the speaking/addressed person, and so on.

In Japanese, there is no class of words "pronoun" that behaves in any way different from Japanese nouns. Therefore, in a linguistic sense, there are no pronouns in Japanese. Omae, temae, kimi, anta, anata, kisama, etc. etc. are basically just nouns.

Of course, you could also define Japanese pronouns as those Japanese words that map nicely with English pronouns. But this is not a very rigid application of the linguistic concept of "pronoun".
posted by sour cream at 11:48 PM on January 27, 2007

I'll chime in that Chiense also has this, ni vs. nin. (The nin character has an extra 'xin' (heart) at the bottom).

Other than that, can't give any insight.
posted by mphuie at 11:53 PM on January 27, 2007

In Russian the vy/ty distinction is similar to vous/tu in French. Assuming you begin with a new acquaintance "na vy", you or your acquaintance may at any point suggest you both talk instead "na ty". Alternatively, one of you can just launch into using ty in the expectation that the other will follow suit. The shift from vy to ty is not generally a moment of embarrassment, or even a big deal, although it could be if one side objected. You could also retreat from ty to vy if you wanted to signal the end of a closeness.
posted by londongeezer at 1:58 AM on January 28, 2007

Well I am German and my take is this:

Formal pronouns are still used when first meeting people who are older (social situations) than you or in the work place in general or any kind of professional situation.

In those situations the informal pronoun may be used once the older /higher up person has offered the 'Du' to the younger/lower rank person. Note that just offering to use the first name rather than surname in addressing somebody is usually equal to offering a 'Du' but not always!

Especially in the workplace people seem to compromise and use both! This is akin to anglosaxon practice. In the English speaking world I have always addressed my bosses with their first names yet my language is more formal/respectful than say talking to a colleague of equal/similar rank.

In purely social situations among the younger generations (under 40) it is very fluid. There is almost an assumption now that the informal is appropriate. Bear in mind though that some people still don't like this and it may not always be accepted even now.

I no longer live in Germany but that's how it works when I am over there meeting friends of friends - informal all the way - first names and Du.

But if I say ask for directions or talk to strangers in general I will still use the formal pronoun.

Also worth noting that there are regional differences. I grew up in Bavaria. In Bavarian dialect the informal pronoun was prevalent for most situations among people of similar rank. Less so now when dialect is used less and less.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:04 AM on January 28, 2007

Response by poster: Wow. Thank you to everyone who has responded. I'm not sure that I can mark any of these as best answer, as every answer adds something different and interesting to the discussion. Thank you all for taking the time to comment.
posted by reynir at 2:12 AM on January 28, 2007

Steven C. Den Beste : "Bugbread, I thought 'aitsu' was third person and 'koitsu' was effectively second person."

I can see why you'd think that (the whole "kore, sore, are" distinction), but "koitsu" is really more like "this guy here". That is, it's third person, but referring to someone near you, not far away. You wouldn't, for example, use it to refer to George Bush, because he's neither physically right in front of you, nor is he metaphysically right in front of you, like, for example, a MeFite you're having a conversation with.

So when you use it as a second-person pronoun, it's like you're referring to the person as an object, or, more accurately, like you're talking to yourself out loud. I guess a similar thing in English would be if someone gives you lip, and you look at him and say "What's wrong with this asshole?" You're not directly addressing him, you're talking about him out loud in third person to him.

sour cream : "In English, there are classes of words, such as nouns, verbs and pronouns, which each behave so differently that it makes sense to group them into these classes. For examples, a verb will have tenses, a noun's possive form can be formed by adding 's, a pronoun stands for an antecedent or the speaking/addressed person, and so on.

In Japanese, there is no class of words "pronoun" that behaves in any way different from Japanese nouns."

I'm curious what the distinction is (that's not a passive-aggressive way of saying "there is no distinction", but I'm genuinely curious). Wikipedia (yes, I know, not the best source in the world) defines/describes a pronoun: In linguistics and grammar, a pronoun is a pro-form that substitutes for a noun or noun phrase with or without a determiner, such as you and they in English. The replaced phrase is the antecedent of the pronoun. Which is what a Japanese pronoun does: it replaces "bugbread" with "watashi", and "sour cream" with "anata", et al. Grammatically, it doesn't follow any special rules, but neither do "he" or "she" in English, do they?
posted by Bugbread at 4:46 AM on January 28, 2007

When Larry David did standup, he would open with the following joke:

"Every morning I wake up and thank God that I wasn't born a wealthy Spanish landowner ... because if I was, I would never know whether to address the help using the tu form or the usted form. If I use the usted form, I don't want them to feel I'm being condescending, yet if I use the tu form, I don't want them to feel so familiar that they can just come into my kitchen and help themselves to anything in my refrigerator."

Apparently, you wouldn't even hear crickets chirping, because even the crickets were staring at him, dumbfounded.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:37 AM on January 28, 2007

yes, Japanese does have pronouns as such

I appreciate sour cream's answering this for me, since I'm still groggy on a Sunday morning and wasn't looking forward to doing it myself. It's a long story, bugbread, and there's a lot of controversy about how far you can stretch the concept "pronoun," but basically, as sour cream said, there is no class of words "pronoun" that behaves in any way different from Japanese nouns. To understand the details you'll have to do more linguistics study than looking at Wikipedia, but that's the nub of it. Pronouns are a separate, definable class in English; they're not in Japanese. (For a vague analogy, think of "Your/His/Her Highness/Excellency/Grace/etc."; are those pronouns? You'll probably say no. Well, those are far more analogous to Japanese "pronouns" than I, you, he, etc.)
posted by languagehat at 7:22 AM on January 28, 2007

Response by poster: Anna, who has read this but doesn't have a mefi account, has posted on her blog about her own experience of tutoyer ou vouvoyer.
posted by reynir at 8:14 AM on January 28, 2007

languagehat : "For a vague analogy, think of 'Your/His/Her Highness/Excellency/Grace/etc.'; are those pronouns? You'll probably say no."

Actually, I'd say "yes", which is one of the reasons I'm curious what the definition of pronoun is. Is it just predicated on things like "Mary" remaining "Mary" regardless of where it is in a sentence, while the third-person pronoun differs in the sentences "He threw the ball to Mary" and "Mary threw the ball to him"?
posted by Bugbread at 8:36 AM on January 28, 2007

My family is french-speaking, and when I was a child, I remember noticing that my mother addressed her inlaws as vous. I vousvoyed my grandma for a few days until my mother took me aside and explained that the relationship between grandparent and grandchild didn't have to be quite as formal as the one between inlaws.
It's better to risk being too formal though. Here in Canada, I'm always a little shocked when a secretary or a cashier says tu, because in France, it would be considered extremely rude and condescending.
posted by snoogles at 9:25 AM on January 28, 2007

bugbread: Which is what a Japanese pronoun does: it replaces "bugbread" with "watashi", and "sour cream" with "anata", et al. Grammatically, it doesn't follow any special rules, but neither do "he" or "she" in English, do they?

Like languagehat said, the whole noun/pronoun distinction is a bit murky, but it is well accepted that English nouns ordinarily do follow certain rules, e.g. you can pluralize them by adding "s", form their possive form by adding 's and they can be modified by a definite or an indefinie article. All this doesn't apply to English pronouns. In fact, the differences are so large that it makes sense to group them together in a separate class of words.

Simply calling Japanese words substituting an antecedent "pronouns" is not very convincining, though. Consider the following sentence, for example:

"Sensei-ha dou omoimasuka?"

Here, "sensei" is functionally equivalent to "you" in English, but would you call it a pronoun? Note how, still addressing someone directly, you can replace "sensei" with a slew of words that you wouldn't ordinarily consider pronouns and that you would all translate with "you" in English: kachou, onsha, okyakusama, otaku, minna, bugbread-san, shishou, onee-san, jibun (this last one might be a regional thing), etc. etc. Would you call all these words pronouns?

In any case, I think this is a good opportunity to present my discovery of an English pronoun that is rarely marked as such in dictionaries: Shit. As in "I don't know shit about Japanese grammar." Zilch is another little known pronoun.
posted by sour cream at 11:26 AM on January 28, 2007

So, if I'm following this right, one of the essential qualities of a pronoun is that it sometimes cannot be used absolutely interchangeably with a noun. For example, you could substitute "her" for "Jane" in "I like Jane" ("I like her"), but you couldn't substitute it in "I like Jane's car", because that would become "I like her's car". Similarly, in Spanish "Me gusta el coche de Jane" wouldn't remain (as far as my rusty Spanish leads me to remember) as "Me gusta el coche de ella", but would become "Me gusta su coche". So a pronoun is a word which replaces a noun, but has some sort of quirk that prevents it from being a 1 to 1 substitution in all cases? Am I parsing that right?
posted by Bugbread at 11:37 AM on January 28, 2007

I've always thought the German concept of "Bruederschafttrinken" (Brotherhood Drinking) was quite hilarious. Basically, any time you became close enough with somebody that you would switch from Sie to du, you would seal it by having a beer together.
posted by atomly at 8:34 PM on January 28, 2007

I grew up speaking Macedonian (all politics aside) it's a slavic language for those of you who don't know. And we, too have formalities like this. The differerence between Ti and Vie is similar enough to any other language that uses similar distinctions.
Personally I've never had a problem deciding when is the right time to use Ti or Vie, the reason I'm thinking is that it is a cultural custom that you learn since you're small. Your elders, people you don't know very well, and your superiors are all addressed formally. Judging from the amount of responses you've recieved you know all of this.

However the interesting thing is switching to a language which does not have such disctinctions. I cringe every time I have to address and elder I greatly respect with "you". For some strange reason it always feels too informal to me and I feel awkward assuming they are my equal in conversation.

However there's usually a point where the person who is being address more respectfully says "oh you can call me Joe" instead of Mr. Smith, and that's usually when you know that you're ok.
posted by apfel at 12:10 PM on January 29, 2007

Many Austronesian languages also have an exclusive / inclusive 1st person plural distinction, i.e. "we, including you" and "we, not including you".

In some languages, the use of a distal or proximal morpheme on pronouns can also be used to indicate honorific status.

Other languages
[pdf] use a particular subset of words (nouns and verbs) to indicate honorific status. The language linked to here also has an inclusive /exclusive distinction in its pronoun system.

And for bugbread: A pronoun is a word that can be used to substitute a complete "noun phrase." Therefore in a sentence like "I like Jane" you can substitute "Jane" with "her" and in a sentence like "I like Jane's car" you would have to substitute "Jane's car" with "it" because "Jane's car" is a noun phrase. If you want to know more about how cool pronoun's are, check out this.

Thanks for giving me a chance to nerd-out on linguistic info. Haven't had that much fun since finishing morpho-syntactic problem sets at 3 am back in undergrad.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 4:48 PM on January 29, 2007

This has been a very intellectual and interesting discussion.

At the risk of exposing myself as the hick that I am, I would like to add that the southern American dialect of English has the pronoun y'all, which can roughly be explained as "you all". However, I recently received an email that stated, "You know you're from Texas if you know that y'all is singular, and all y'all is plural." Just a day or two later I caught myself saying, "All y'all kids stay on the sidewalk." While this may seem cliche to someone not from the south US, it is very, very commonly used.
posted by rcavett at 7:32 PM on January 30, 2007

It's my understanding that the "'s" possessive ending is itself a contracted pronoun: "flabdablet's opinion" is a contraction of "flabdablet, his opinion". This may be why "her's" and "their's" are such grating misspellings.

Too, it seems to me like "shit" would be more your quantifier than your pronoun.
posted by flabdablet at 12:33 AM on January 31, 2007

Late to this, and off the main topic, but that's a common misconception, flabdablet. Apostrophe-s comes from the genitive ending -es in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon, depending on your alma mater).
posted by holgate at 11:02 PM on May 22, 2007

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