Vous or tu? That is the question...

American newspaper’s tongue-in-cheek "infographic" reignites debate on growing informality of French language

15 July 2014

A LOS ANGELES Times graphic that sets out explain the rules of using “vous” and “tu” has reignited the debate on growing informality in French society.

The slightly tongue-in-cheek flowchart, “infographic” examines a series of situations and points out which version of the French “you” should be used in each.

It points out that children should only use “tu” when speaking to friends or close family members, for example.

The graphic, published on Bastille Day, highlights the riots of May 1968 as a turning point in French linguistic history, when many people stopped routinely using "vous" in formal situations.

Until then, “tu” was generally reserved for use with close family and friends.

Today, however, many people automatically use “tu”, and it is employed across the board in some workplaces - such as Google.

And, with the rise in social media, the traditional rules of “vous” and “tu” are being rejected, with many people embracing the more informal “tu”, if only because it uses fewer characters.

Not everyone is impressed with the rising tide of informality, however.

One commenter on a Le Monde blog discussing the graphic blamed the popularity of American TV shows such as Game of Thrones and True Detective, which - when dubbed into French - “make little distinction” between “tu” and “vous”.

The commenter wrote: “There is no longer any respect. I'm amazed how rapidly people who don’t know me and who are younger than me use “tu” to me at work or in the street”.

In spite of the trend for “tutoiement”, some are still determined that the more respectful “vous” has its place.

Two years ago, then-interior minister Manuel Valls told police to refrain from using “tu” or “toi” when dealing with members of the public.

And when, in 2011, a young journalist used “tu” in a Twitter exchange with Laurent Joffrin, editor of Le Nouvel Observateur magazine, Mr Joffrin responded with the tweet: “qui vous autorise a me tutoyer?” (who let you address me as “tu”?).

His reply prompted an outcry on the social media site, but he later defended his comment by saying that social media needed a more respectful “vous” culture.

Famously, a Socialist Party supporter once asked future French president François Mitterrand – just after he had been elected head of the Socialist Party – “On se tutoie?”

Mr Mitterrand replied: “Comme vous voulez.”

Image: LA Times

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