September 27, 2005

Times Have Changed

In French there are two singular forms of "you", tu and vous, and two associated verb forms, one used to intimates, the other more distant. It used to be that the rules for using these were reasonably clear. You used tu toward people whom you knew well and toward whom it was not necessary to show respect or deference, vous toward everyone else. There were a few special cases: anyone could use tu toward children or animals, and common soldiers addressed each other as tu, as did members of the Communist party. If two adults hit it off, they might decide to switch to tu after a fairly short time, but they would always start out with vous.

I've noticed that even in my lifetime the use of tu has become much freer. Even though I am not a formal person, it still feels odd to me to be addressed as tu by someone I have just met. But things have changed even more than I had realized. My mother recently gave me her copy of Savoir écrire toutes les lettres, a guide to letter-writing published in 1955. Among other things, it contains the appropriate salutations and closings for dignitaries of various sorts, some of which are amusing in their pretentiousness. Here, for example, is how you are supposed to close a letter to the Pope:

Prosterné aux pieds de votre Sainteté
et implorant la faveur
de Sa bénédiction apostolique,
J'ai l'honneur d'être,
Très Saint Père,
Avec la plus profonde vénération,
De Votre Sainteté,
Le très humble et très obéissant serviteur et fils

Prostrate at the feet of Your Holiness
and begging the favor
of His apostolic blessing,
I have the honor to be,
Very Holy Father,
With the most profound veneration,
The very humble and very obedient servant and son
Of Your Holiness.


[To clarify the meaning, I've swapped the last line and the penultimate lines in the translation.]

Much of the book is taken up with sample letters. Some of them deal with such odd situations that one is tempted to suspect a bit of tongue-in-cheek on the part of the author, for example the letter of condolence "To a woman who has killed her husband in an automobile accident", but I fear that the author was in fact entirely serious.

One section is devoted to proposals of marriage. I have to admit that I rather like their extravagant language, but what I find truly stunning is the fact that every single one addresses its recipient as vous! I find it difficult to imagine proposing marriage to someone with whom one is not on sufficiently intimate terms to use tu.

[Addendum 2005/09/28: Several readers have commented that even for 1955 this is a rather archaic usage, one that reflects a conservative and aristocratic orientation, which is of course what you tend to find in etiquette guides. Indeed, proposing marriage by letter was in and of itself rather old-fashioned..]

[On the other hand, there has been a real change over not too long a period. I have frequently had the experience of being addressed as tu by people to whom I have just been introduced, in circumstances where this could not be explained by solidarity. (For example, when I was an undergraduate, I remember being addressed as tu by others of the same age whom I did not know when browsing in bookstores and so forth. That did not strike me as odd.) People of my parents' generation with whom I have discussed this say that that was not normal for them and that they would find it uncomfortable.]

Posted by Bill Poser at September 27, 2005 01:34 AM