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In praise of formal forms of address: What happened to thee and thou?

September 10, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
Did the English language lose something when it lost the regular use of "thee" and "thou'?

A column by the French writer Agnes Poirier in The Guardian makes me wonder. Poirier frets that today's young French people are so used to Facebook and Twitter that they use the informal "tu" in addressing people of all ages. The French language usually has reserved "tu" for people one is on familiar terms with and "vous" for formal occasions and addressing one's elders.

Poirier describes one elderly French journalist who got his back up when a younger colleague dared to address him as "tu" instead of "vous." Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy apparently irked more formal French speakers because he called everyone, old and young, by the informal "tu."

The words are the French equivalents of the English "you" and the old-style "thou," which no one has used much outside of a church or a historical novel since the 16th century.

"You" was actually originally the polite, formal form of address used as a sign of respect and "thee" was the form used with a child or a social inferior or a very close friend or family member. "Thee," "thou," "thy" and "thine" have a different context for most of us now because we use them only in very solemn settings, like church.

I memorized the Hail Mary: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee ..." when I was about six or seven and felt "thee" and "thou" must be very formal, even holy words. Whichever priest translated the Ave Maria into English may have been going for a more intimate, informal sort of effect. Maybe early English Catholics felt more like they were talking to their mom when they used "thee" and "thou" in that prayer.

When I studied Spanish and German, I remember being befuddled by the formal and informal forms of their terms for "you," so different from modern English. I didn't really understand that English had once been the same until I was forced to take the History of the English Language class in college. Most European languages make those distinctions between formal and informal forms of the term "you" and likely battle with the same tension between formality and informality in the age of Twitter.

Poirier argues that the formal "vous" enables people to maintain "a healthy adult distance" while they get to know one another and the point when they become close enough to use "tu" is an occasion to celebrate. English speakers don't seem to have anything resembling that formality. These days we seem to be on a first name basis with total strangers.

There are times when I might wish for the "healthy adult distance" that the French "vous" might give me. It's always irked me a bit that the doctor's office insists on calling me by my first name when I'm expected to call the doctor "Dr. Last Name." It seems to show a certain lack of respect. And certainly no person who calls me trying to sell me something has a right to call me "Andrea."

French teens and young adults apparently regard "vous" as kind of stuffy, so Poirier may be fighting a losing battle, but I wish the French luck in maintaining the distinction between "tu" and "vous."


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