Wednesday 20 February 2013

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Formality and Informality)

One of my favourite poems by the late Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti is Sery Estar. Although heavily political the piece also has a nice combination of humour and didacticism. The latter is illustrated by the author’s poetic explanation of the difference between the verbs ser and estar (hence the title) in Spanish to an imaginary US marine. This is always confusing for people learning Spanish. In English, there’s only to be. Or not, as Shakespeare put it. In French, there’s être and in German there’s sein. But in Spanish we have two verbs, one of which denotes identity (ser) and another one that infers condition (estar). Confusing, uh? You bet.

Yet, Anglo speakers can occasionally indulge in the pleasure of hanging a sign outside their houses that reads “Schadenfreude” (or epicaricacy, in English) and watch us, speakers of other languages, struggling to come to terms with modern linguistic currents. For instance, when to be formal and when to be informal.

Spanish has a common trait with French and German, the other two languages I speak (although not as fluently as I used to). They all have formal ways of addressing someone according to age or social status. For instance, if I were in Spain or any other country from the Diaspora, it would never occur to me to use the “” with a new acquaintance unless he or she was my age or younger. Anyone over fifty would be given the “usted” treatment straight away. Same with French and “vous” and the German “Sie”. Besides, in the case of German, one of the reasons why I usually stay with the formal is that it makes it easier for me to conjugate verbs. They usually keep the infinitive form – with the exception of “sein”, methinks. Even when my interlocutor assures me that "Wir sagen doch du, ja?", I still sometimes use the "Sie". Which is just as rude as "Du-ing" someone without his or her consent.

I can hear Anglophones laughing their heads off now. But we only have “you” for both singular and plural, they’re probably shouting out. And they’re right. What makes matters more confusing is that nowadays the distinction between “tú/usted”, “tu/vous” and “du/Sie” is fading away rapidly. Part of it is technology. There are five letters in “usted” and 140 characters to contend with in Twitter. Guess which of the two addresses is handier? Well done for figuring that one out. Another reason for this linguistic shift might be the drive to turn less dynamic languages (Spanish and French come to mind) into lexica more attuned to the times we’re living, like English has done for the past few decades. Readers of this blog know that I’ve neither time nor patience, for the Real Academia Española, the body tasked with looking after the correct use of our grammar and syntax. The overhaul of the “tú/usted” division might be a way of reacting against centuries-old, traditional dogma which made even relatives observe formality when addressing each other. In fact, I know that in some countries in South America (Ecuador and Peru, for instance) children still address their parents as “usted”.

There is a third reason why the confusion about when “se tutoyer” and when “se vouvoyer”, or when to “du” or “Sie” someone, has come to the surface in recent years. There are countries, mainly in Europe, that are still resistant to the Americanisation of their culture. They see US influence as detrimental to their heritage. I’ve no truck with this attitude, but it was interesting to see a few years ago the short shrift the British ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair was given when he was presumably addressed as “Yo, Blair!” by ex-White House dweller, George W. Bush. Never mind the lack of a formal second person singular in English, this chumminess was a step too far. Especially on the back of the ill-fated invasion of Iraq a few years before and the too-close-for-comfort relationship between Downing Street and Washington during that period. In these circumstances, maybe keeping our “tú/usted”, “tu/vous” and “du/Sie” dichotomy is a sign of showing respect to people we meet for the first time. It also creates a space between individuals to get to know each other progressively. In the same way I wouldn’t dream of calling my former line-manager (a headteacher) “mate” in public, I wouldn’t “du” anyone just because it’s cool to do so. Surely a question for the marine boy of Benedetti’s poem to ask the Uruguayan master. After all, the poet uses “” al the way through.

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: “Coffee, Music and Reflections”, to be published on Sunday 24th February at 10am (GMT)


  1. It's not easy to know when to use tu or usted. I remember this from my Spanish and French courses.

    Of course, English is extremely complicated, but on this one point - at least - it's simple with only one kind of you.

  2. Interesting look at the different ways the languages speak to each other. I think it is fine if they address how they should , yo is stupid no matter where you are haha

  3. the challenge as we progress is to keep our own individual culture and not become a bit mushy soup you know...i took a couple years of spanish...i know enough to get me in trouble...and some latin....i wish i was more fluent in other languages...

  4. Creo que en parte el uso de tu o usted hace parte de la educación y cultura. Yo siempre lo he odiado, nunca me gusta dirigirme ni que se dirijan con el usted, y ahora mismo los niños apenas usan el usted, con el tiempo va a desaparecer de la lengua española, no por ello dejas de tener respecto a la persona tratándola de tu.
    Muy buenas aclaraciones, un abrazo

  5. So called 'English' has many interwoven languages within its vocabulary and grammar, and thus has it has been since time immemorial - unavoidable in a tiny island whose inhabitants were among the first to travel the globe!
    But respect has little to do with tu/usted etc etc, more to do with attitude, which is often found wanting !!

  6. No me gusta el usted es una manera de poner distancia, por lo menos aqui. Yo no trato a NADIE de usted todos son tú tengo amigas de mi mamá (80 años) que son mis amigas y jamas las trataría de usted y ellas hacen lo mismo.
    Si, en el pasado cuando la relacion padres e hijos era distante se trataban de usted gracias a Dios ahora no.
    Trato de acercarme a las personas, no de alejarlas pero a veces es malentendido ,ja!

  7. 'Yo, Blair!' would've raised eyebrows, until one considers it was accompanied by the empty suit that is George W. Bush.

    Anyway, like you, I still find myself using 'usted' with anyone older than me. In this day and age, some would agree I'm a little old-fashioned—but only in Spanish :)

  8. ha - the du and Sie is a pest in my opinion...makes things more difficult than necessary...esp. when you work in a large company and you're not quite sure...sagen wir schon du oder immer noch Sie...ha...du sprichst also wirklich deutsch? pretty cool

  9. oh and i speak a bit of spanisch as well...manos arriba...est es un robo...ha...from speedy gonzales you know...smiles

  10. Thanks for this. It is so interesting to hear how it is changing. K.

  11. Thank you for this.
    I found it really interesting. It made me think about the different ways people address each other...and made me chuckle!
    Some of them are so funny! :D

  12. Thanks for your comments. I'm with Marysol. I address everyone as "usted", especially if they're older, except for my relatives and friends. However I don't like people to use "usted" with me at all. It makes me feel old. As for German, I learnt it with teachers who were old-fashioned so I still address new acquaintances as "Sie". And I insist on being addressed as "Herr..." whenever I'm teaching my German club. When it comes to French and to talking to some of the parents of the school I work at, I, again, default to "vous" until they begin to "tutoyer" me and I change.

    Difficult, uh? That's languages for you.

    Greetings from London.

  13. I am laughing so hard right son is a junior and is in his second year of Spanish in high school...for some reason he has chosen moi...his mother, who took French in school, to be his Spanish tutor. I'm starting to get it...some of it....slowly :)

  14. There are so many English languages, it's difficult to know which one you're speaking sometimes, but the Blair/Bush episode is well chosen as exemplar of what can go wrong - or was it not a mistake?

  15. Having been born and raised in French Montreal, I understand the tu/vous thing. I have a clear logic of when to use each (though my French isn't anything even close to fluent) but I also figure that respect as represented by language use is subjective and changeable (as you indicated with Twitter use).

    And much of it has less to do with the words we chose than how we convey them. I'd rather be addressed as "hey you" if it's said with warmth and humour. But that's just me. :)

  16. There's some work in sociolinguistics at the moment to map the changing landscape of pronouns. Unfortunately, it will probably be a few years before they publish their results - by which time, it may all have changed still further ;)

  17. It's interesting to learn a little about the Spanish language. I never learned Spanish, but did take four years of French in high school and college. I have forgotten most of it now, but do remember the tu/vous part.



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