By Libby Lueck
In French, there’s always a mental debate about whether to use vous (known as vouvoyer) or tu (known as tutoyer), both meaning “you” in this context. Vous is formal, plural, and used when you are trying to be respectful to elders, parents, strangers, etc.,whereas tu is informal, singular, and casual, that is, used only with close friends and family. When used in its regular context, tu means “you” and vous means “you guys.” It’s like in English when you call your friend’s mom Mrs. Johnson for example, instead of by her first name: it’s a respect thing. This debate begins when you go to talk to someone new or an acquaintance: Are we close enough for me to be casual, or will I seem pompous? Should I be more formal and risk them being offended that I don’t consider us close enough to address them as “tu”?
So, where did this concept come from and how has it evolved for us to know at the present time which word to use? The origins of this sign of respect began between the 3rd and 4th centuries with the Roman emperor Diocletian, who decided to divide the Roman Empire. Thus, creating a spot for an emperor, known as Auguste, of each sect of the tetrarchy. When talking about himself and the tetrarchy, each Auguste renounced use of the ego (first person singular in Latin), choosing instead the nos (first person plural in Latin), and everyone responded to them with the vos (second person plural in Latin). This concept then spread to the general population, became the norm, and has stuck with us until now. It stood strong in Molière’s time, in the 1600s, when there was strict etiquette as to when it was required to be formal, usually based on hierarchy.
Up until the 18th century, there were strict rules: beggars could only tutoyer other beggars and had to vouvoyer anyone else of higher class; the bourgeois could not tutoyer aristocrats, and nobles could tutoyer the bourgeois. The rules apply to those high up in the hierarchy chain as well: aristocrats never respect those below them enough to vouvoyer them; rather, tutoiement is always applied in this situation. Molière’s plays follow these rules to a tee. No servant ever uses the word tu when talking to a master, aristocrat, noble, etc., since they wouldn’t dare take that risk! As for aristocrats, they would never dare respect anyone of lower class by addressing them as vous.
The line between when to use the two different words began to blur more and more each century. Tutoiement can be a sign of disrespect, but can also show that you have something in common with someone and get along with them. Vouvoiement can be a sign of respect but can also show that you feel you don’t know an acquaintance well enough and therefore seem distant. It’s obvious where this fine line starts to blur, right?
As we have started to move away from these strict rules, the line gets blurrier and blurrier. It is common nowadays for employees to ask for fellow employees to tutoyer them. It is now often seen as a system that is simply conforming to a hierarchical society. French citizens are starting to realize that this system of vouvoiement and tutoiement is highly based on social classes, making it rather unjust in today’s society. It is said that France is moving away from this social norm, but much slower than other nations. As we move away from these rules, it is evident that one of them must go: vous or tu? Only time will tell, but there is one thing we do know: Molière would be highly offended by what our society has done to vouvoiement, especially if he was addressed as tu!
Figaro Plume. “Vouvoiement, Tutoiement: d'où Vient cet usage en France?” LE FIGARO, 2 oct. 2020, www.lefigaro.fr/langue-francaise/expressions-francaises/vouvoiement-tutoiement-d-ou-vient-cet-usage-en-france-20201002.
“Pourquoi utilise-t-on le vouvoiement?” FranceSoir, 15 August 2017, www.francesoir.fr/lifestyle-vie-quotidienne/pourquoi-utilise-t-le-vouvoiement.
Wolff, Phillip. “Premières Recherches sur l'apparition du vouvoiement en latin médiéval [Article].” Comptes Rendus des Séances de L'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Persée - Portail Des Revues Scientifiques En SHS, 23 Feb. 2018, www.persee.fr/doc/crai_0065-0536_1986_num_130_2_14393.