Vous ou tu? French language, Twitter and why I like the English simplicity

7 Sept 2012

La langue anglaise est un fusil à plombs : le tir est dispersé. La langue française est un fusil qui tire à balle, de façon précise. Otto von Habsburg*

I have read quite a few articles this week about an interesting linguistic debate which has reached the media. The question of languages being influenced by social media is a recurrent one. But this one struck a cord with the expat part of me. Is it the death of 'vous', the polite form of 'you' in French? The articles noted that 'tu' is much more often used in French these days, in Twitter, for example. People who do not know each other would more easily use 'tu'. You can read the articles in Le Monde here in French or on the BBC website here.

If you are not familiar with the French language, in a few words, 'vous' is used in French as a polite form of address for someone in a socially higher position or older than you or someone you do not know well. 'Tu' is the less formal version. In English of course, there is only 'you' used today.
These articles got me thinking about my own use of those pronouns. I am a native French speaker but have spent 13 years in the UK. I generally have no problem on deciding whether to use one or the other. But I have been in a couple of situations that have led me to question my own use especially given the influence of the English form.

The first instance is with a woman who was my direct superior while I worked as researcher. We had an excellent working relationship and I would say we were even friends. She is French and had lived for most pf her adult life in England. We spoke in English most of the time not to exclude our colleagues, but also because we had both trained in the UK and knew more about our topics in English. However, on a few occasions where we were with other French native speakers or when we were in France, I found myself hesitating as to which pronoun to use with her. She is older than me and if we had been in France I would have used 'vous' as relationships in a French universities are more formal than in England. She felt my discomfort and encouraged me to use 'tu'. But it still felt strange to begin with. I felt so much more comfortable using 'you' in english and not having to worry about whether I would offend her.

The other example is with people I do not know in email conversations. I am not talking about people you email for the first time. I am talking about people I get to 'know' virtually. I feel like I should use 'tu' with them. But I always wonder how they will react if I do. So I usually stick to vous even though I feel it is too formal. I am not sure if this is the influence of my English brain or just me being odd!

Choosing between 'vous' and 'tu' is always difficult at some stage for most speakers of French (even more so if they are non-native) but I feel it is another of those French intricacies that make it a complex language - some would say a more precise language. I, however, am a simple girl and like simple things. 'You' is simple why complicate life with formal forms?

*I am not sure I completely agree with this quote but I thought it was quite fitting with the topic.


  1. I like your post and totally agree. I experienced similar situations at work with french, german or italian collegues and superiors. Sometimes they offered the "tu" (ital./french), sometimes they prefered to say "vous" or "Sie" but calling me by the first name. With some of them we had also situations where we talked english and the "you" really felt better to me too. Much simpler.

  2. As a non-native speaker of French, this always makes me nervous! I am never quite sure which to use and generally hope for the other person to pick the pronoun first. Although as someone might say 'tu' to you, while you say 'vous' to them, this is not foolproof!

  3. Absolutely! I have the same hesitancy when I speak Spanish. I really think it is something I will never be totally sure of. Asking native speakers for advice isn't that helpful either, there seems to be an intuitive aspect to getting it right.

  4. That is so interesting- I think in many Spanish-speaking countries (BUT NOT ALL!) we are losing the "Ud." Yes, some cultures still use it, but the younger generation of many areas is dropping the formal, or only use it in rare, extremely formal occasions.


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