French 2sg pronouns

On the Language Nerd Facebook page yesterday, this playfully framed, but seriously intended, flowchart, “Your guide to being polite in French”, for choosing between the 2sg pronouns tu (‘familiar’) and vous (‘polite’) in current French — a bow to the treatment of T and V pronouns in Brown & Gilman 1960:


Comments on the substance of this flowchart (and its background) to come below. But first some angry complaints.

First angry rant: the Facebook page gives not a clue as to the source of the flowchart, though it’s obviously the creation of a specific person with their own very distinctive ways of thinking and talking, someone WHO DESERVES CREDIT FOR THEIR WORK. Sure, sure, whoever put it on the Facebook page — someone hiding in cowardly anonymity — just found it somewhere and passed it on — without a moment’s thought that doing so was a fucking insult and also potential grounds for a lawsuit. This craven poster’s monumental cluelessness moved me to SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS, which I almost never do.

With a little searching, I was led to a posting of the chart with this attribution appended:


(Yes, somewhere along the line, some asshole went to the trouble to REMOVE THE CREDIT LINE!)

Alexander’s book, which sounds entertaining:


Second angry rant, about the FB group Language Nerds. Here’s the complete characterization of the group:

(#4) The group’s logo

The Language Nerds was founded to host and connect together people who are passionate about language and linguistics. It’s a place for fun and for knowledge. We are so glad we have you here with us. Please make yourself at home.

Not a single person involved with the group is named, anywhere (including in the postings), and virtually all of the postings are unsourced: language-related things that somehow floated through the ether of the web onto this landing site. Some of the stuff is complete bullshit, some of it is naive burbling about language, some pieces are thoughtful, but since none of it has any context or evaluation, none of it can be trusted as a source of information. The group is an irresponsible trash heap.

But French 2sg pronouns. The chart in #1 in jaunty and jokey, but Alexander meant it as a serious description of the main conditions on the use of tu and vous for many current French speakers.

The intellectual background for the enterprise (which concerns the choice of address terms as well as pronouns):

Roger Brown & Marilyn Ford, Address in American English. J. Abnorm. Soc. Psych. 62.375-85 (1961). Reprinted in Laver & Hutcheson 1972:128-45.

Roger Brown & Albert Gilman, The pronouns of power and solidarity. In Sebeok 1960:253-76. Reprinted in Laver & Hutcheson 1972:103-27.

[John Laver & Sandy Hutcheson (eds.), Communication in Face to Face Interaction. Penguin Books (1972).]

[Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.), Style in Language. MIT Press (1960).]

Arnold M. Zwicky, “Hey, whatsyourname!”  [on vocatives in English]. Chicago Linguistic Society (1974).

(Address terms come up frequently on this blog; there’s a Page here inventorying these postings.)

The central insight of Brown & Gilman was to abandon the idea of T and V pronouns (not just in French, but in many languages — German T pronoun du, V pronoun Sie, for instance) as a simple binary contrast, and instead to see T and V as representing two separate cross-cutting domains of social relationship: respectively solidarity (social closeness, intimacy) and power (social dominance, distance). At the extreme, a T pronoun connotes both high solidarity (closeness) and low power (subordination); a V pronoun connotes both low solidarity (distance) and high power (dominance). Clearly, the two considerations will often conflict to some degree, so that people have to learn the details of how they are balanced in many particular social situations. Hence the charts.

Provisos: these details are variable, across different social groups, in different regions, at different times. Moreover, in some circumstances, both pronouns are acceptable; and in some circumstances, neither will quite do. And in a further complication, the pronouns can be deployed strategically, flouting the usual conditions on their use: you can, for instance, show disapproval by using V where T would ordinarily be called for, or contempt by using T instead of expected V.

Any particular chart is a snapshot of one system among a great many. The charts often represent the usage of the social group to which the investigator belongs, typically the educated urban middle class of a politically dominant region: it’s always easiest to study your the practices of a group that’s familiar to you, at least as a first stab at a description. (Getting a reliable account of the actual practices of some group is another matter: doing good sociolinguistics ain’t easy.)

The comments on Alexander’s chart in #1 in the Language Nerd group are mostly thoughtful, but two try to undo Brown & Gilman’s conceptual work, by insisting that there’s only one criterion for choosing T or V:

– Matt Voghel:

Do you know this person? No? Vous.
There, it’s simple.

– Thierry Chapaud:

I have a personal approach of the “tu” and the “vous” thingy.
I’m French. I’m a little different from other French people.
When I like or love someone, I use the “tu” form.
When I dislike a person, I use the “vous” form in order to keep some distance from that person

(These proposals might, of course, be meant as jokes. Or, possibly, the commenters might have honestly packed a whole lot into how they use the verbs know and like, respectively.)

The dimensions of power and solidarity also play a significant role in how people choose address terms (where the universe of choice is significantly larger than with 2sg pronouns).

Finally, even in the choice of a name for yourself. From my 7/15/13 posting “Remarkable names”:

There’s a choice, in porn as well as in real life, between full names (like Michael) and nicknames (like Mike). Roughly speaking, the choice is between a name of power (with gravitas, often connoting distance) and a name of solidarity (connoting closeness) — to adapt the terminology of Roger Brown and Albert Gilman in their famous (and influential) “Pronouns of Power and Solidarity” (1960).

Pornstar names lean heavily towards nicknames — Rick, Rich, Dick, Ricky, or Richie, rather than Richard; T(h)om or Tommy rather than Thomas, etc. — for obvious reasons. That takes Michael Hunt to Mike Hunt.

Yes, a porn name that’s a play on my cunt. Details in that 2013 posting.

3 Responses to “French 2sg pronouns”

  1. kenru Says:

    At least I would unreservedly tutoyer thou, Arnold, if we were conversing in French. I love this amusing chart; but when I was steeped in French culture in my youth I never had trouble with tu vs. vous.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, yes, if you’re steeped in a culture you don’t need information about the tacit social rules of the culture, just as you don’t need information about the tacit rules that govern its language (the syntax, in particular). There are two reasons for exposing these systems: as an aid for outsiders learning the system; and as a scientific exercise, demonstrating regularities and complexities in the system. (But of course the findings of the second enterprise can be put to use in pursuing the first. Brown & Gilman’s descriptions, of the second type, can be repurposed as help for those coming into a culture.)

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Some comments from a Facebook discussion of the diagram:

    Bill Poser: This omits some cases. Members of the Communist party address each other as “tu”. University students address fellow students as “tu”. Enlisted soldiers address each other as “tu”, officers as “vous”. Officers address enlisted soldiers as “tu”. Humans address animals of other species as “tu”. [AZ: of course it omits some cases: the inventory of relevant social situations is gigantic. But some of these are pretty everyday contexts.]

    Bill Poser: I knew a couple in which the man addressed his wife as tu whereas she addressed him as vous. That is, fortunately, far from the norm.

    Arnold Zwicky Alas, predictable from the social situation — an analogue of adult to child, or of master to servant. What would be rare is a woman addressing her husband as tu while he addresses her as vous — maybe an empress and a commoner consort?

    [I then pointedly noted the words of St. Paul:

    Ephesians 5:22-33 (KJV)
    22 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
    23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church…]

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