The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Apr 1, 2008

Second Person

Ever since the English gave up on thou in their speech, the language has become quite egalitarian in its usage. Notwithstanding the King James' Bible and occasional hold-outs such as the Quakers, you has become the second person pronoun of choice among speakers of the Queen's language.

This phenomenon is sufficiently different among the world's languages that it has been given a name of its own: the T-V distinction. Consider almost any other tongue, and it will differentiate between the formal and the informal you. Differences appear in nuance, sure, and owe much to the social rank of the interlocutor, but for all intents and purposes, the rule is clear: use the singular form informally, and the plural form formally.

The Germans have raised this to a high art. The formal version, Sie, is used almost exclusively in normal speech even with people one has known for decades. I must point out that when spelt in the lower case, sie is the third person plural. The ultra-formal second person plural ihr fell out of use in this context in the last century or so. The joke goes that one needs a legal document (or at least Bruderschaft trinken, a brotherhood drink) to switch to the informal du. I encountered an example of this several years ago when I read The Born-Einstein Letters, a collection of epistles between the two giants of modern physics over a period of almost 40 years, discussing politics, religion, science, and philosophy, amidst matters more personal. After twenty years of correspondence, Max Born diffidently asked Einstein if he would like to switch to the du form. Einstein received this sign of amity most effusively, and the two adopted the informality thereafter.

But twenty years of formality! This boggles the mind. The French, traditionally, are not that far from hauteur either, although my teacher Sylvie says that young people these days use tu almost all the time, particularly amongst each other. Nicolas Sarkozy seems to follow this dictum, addressing Angela Merkel in this way (yet another reason why she can't stand the fellow, I daresay). This would not have won him plaudits from François Mitterrand who responded to one of his parliamentarians' suggestion to use tu with a famous and very frosty Si vous voulez.

Le Figaro huffs that the diminution of the formal is all owing to the influence of the country bumpkins north of the Channel. This is quite different from 1793 when the Republicans banned the use of the formal 'vous' on pain of imprisonment. Égalité!

But see the Wikipedia article for regional variations of French.

The Russians have a similar dichotomy, although they are a bit more lax in its application. The formal Vy (вы) applies to strangers and seniors, but not to parents, while the informal Ty (ты) works with everybody else. The youngsters, as youngsters everywhere, have no truck with this sort of pomposity, and generally tend to be informal.

None of this should bother desis, of course. We are a famously hierarchical people. As far as I can tell, in Malayalam (which has the formal/informal distinction too), the second person is not used except to contemporaries and juniors. To address anyone formally, you would not utter the equivalent of you (which does exist). Instead, you would use a noun describing your counterparty, such as 'father' or 'teacher'. Thus, you have constructs such as 'Will father like to have his meal now?' when you speak to your old man. Not having lived in Kerala at all, and being somewhat disconnected from the realities of modern life there, I can't say if this usage continues to this day, or if Malloos are even now mourning the loss of formality and the steady encroachment of rudeness among their youth.

Lastly, in Hindustani, we have long had the distinction and usage of aap and tum, and the very informal tu. We know who to use these forms with and when. Aap is used with all elders, strangers, and indeed anyone deserving of our servility. Tum applies to children, contemporaries and anyone we are reasonably sure can be beaten up with impunity. For the truly courtly aap, we will defer to the Lucknowis, who utter such insults as Aap sooar hai (You, Sir or Madam, are a pig).


Veena said...

Rest assured the usage continues across Malluland even in the new century.

When I was a kid, this used to confuse the hell out of me. I could never figure out why when someone came home I had to ask them "uncle kazhikunno?" I spoke Tam at home and my immediate instinct was to translate to Mallu what I would say in Tam but it didn't quite work that way.

There are many theories to why this is so - this old chap who taught me Mallu in ninth grade had an interesting one. His view was that Mallu is not a very respectful language as culturally, people do not like being unnecessarily respectful which is why they hardly use the formal you. For instance, in mallu, if you want to say "uncle come, lets eat", the "come" has no conjugated formal version. It is just "vaa"/"varu" as opposed to "vaanga" in Tam or "aayiye" in certain vague n indian languages.

Even when used, the word for you in Mallu doesn't sound respectful - it sounds like you are almost mocking the person. As opposed to the Tam you which sounds like you are all ready to be bound in servitude to this person forever and ever. I have seen this theory stretched to get to comic theories such as the correlation between the way the languages are spoken and the stereotypical culture of the speakers (i.e. the hospitable but sycophantic Tam vs. the distant and rebellious Mallu etc.)

Fëanor said...

Good grief! Distant and Rebellious Malloos? First I have heard of it, heh. But you know, I thought varu was the polite form? My folks would have a synchronised heart attack if I said vaa to them.

Has Bill stopped humming that song? It's been ringing in my head since I saw that video too. Make it stop! Please make it stop!

Shefaly said...

Fëanor: Good post. I knew of the tu-toyer-vous-voyer and du-Sie distinctions but not of the analogues in Malayalam or Russian.

In Hindi, the status of 'tu' is a tad different from tu/ du in other languages. We use 'tu' not just for persons younger than us but also to show closeness (or apnaa-pan, if you will).

Friends often address each other as 'tu'. Small children address their mothers as 'tu' which suggest a very close relationship. Religious types also save it for 'bhagwan' (can you recall any bhajans that use 'aap'?) because they see that as the ultimate in intimacy. As a related aside, the word 'ishq' in Urdu refers to divine love and intimacy and it used to distinguish between ordinary, eartly 'muhabbat' from a devotion-like 'ishq'. This was to explain the previous note about God and 'tu' and otherwise not wholly relevant. :-)

As for 'aap' in the 'aap bade badmijaaz hain' type of usage, it is not very far from referring to oneself as 'hum'. The former implies formal respect - although as Veena points out it may not always be meant seriously (have you seen fathers giving their sons the third degree by asking 'janaab, aap kahaan thei?') - the latter implies humility, although the use of the Royal 'we' or 'one' (in third person) is just a weird way to distinguish one's own status.

Fëanor said...

Shefaly: thou speakest truly, my friend! The use of the informal 'tu' for God in Hindi has its analogues in European languages as well, signifying an intimacy with the divine, as you point out.

But I think English is a rarity in its 'egalitarian' second person, at least among the major tongues. Any ideas?

Re: the use of 'hum' to refer to oneself, this of course was raised to a heavenly adorability by Juhi Chawla in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. As someone said, had she used the singular first person, she would not have been half as cute (which is still very cute, heh). Excuse me while I think fondly of Juhi ;-)

Shefaly said...

Fëanor: Ai-yai-yo! Juhi Chawla? Tsk, tsk! There is no accounting for boys and their preferences.

I remember seeing QSQT in the midst of my first semester exams in engineering and both my friend Reena and I slept through the film. Despite Amir Khan.

Veena said...

feanor: Was going to comment yesterday but then I figured you needed atleast a full day to think fondly of Juhi.

varu is slightly more polite that va, but it is not tied to the formal you as they are in other languages. You can say that to anyone.

And yeah, he has stopped humming that song but he seems to have found more interesting stuff on this actress which he keeps informing me about. Also searched all of Westminster libraries and placed a reservation on a movie. Not looking good.

Fëanor said...

Shefaly: I suspect it was the exam tension and not Juhi's cuteness that rendered you guys somnolent! Aamir Khan, I thought, was a popinjay in said flick :-)

Veena: The Curse of the Gypsy strikes young Bill, eh? Watch out, there's no cure for exposure to Ms Toma. ;-) It's been nigh on thirty years since I saw the film and now she rises from my subconscious like a sleeper cell.

Post a Comment