English comes across as a bit of an exception when it comes to ‘politeness’ in languages. Sure, ask anyone English who’s been to a busy city centre and they’ll say they’ve said “Sorry!” to someone who was blocking their way (why do we do that?!), but how does politeness appear in other languages?
If you grew up in Britain, you’ll more than likely have studied a foreign language (usually French, Spanish or German) up until at least 13 or 14 years old (or Year 9). It might have been mentioned that you have to consider the person you are speaking to before deciding upon which form of address to use, usually by changing a pronoun – I, you, he, she, they, etc. – or a conjugation – you play vs. he plays. In linguistics, this is known as the T-V Distinction, and a brief look at the contents of this article will show you that it occurs all over the world!*
As the first paragraph suggests, we don’t really need to worry too much about this distinction in English. While it pays to be polite, the T-V distinction doesn’t really occur. When we want to refer to someone to whom we are writing a letter, or someone stood in front of us, we use “you.” Occasionally, we may alter our language slightly, whether it be using “Sir / Madam / Miss” when talking to a teacher, or “buddy / amigo / mate” when speaking to a friend. This, however, is more a case of register: the type of structures and words you use depending on the formality of the situation.
Hopefully this is sinking in so far. It’s going to get a little more complex from here on (sorry)…
If you find yourself in France, you’ll be confronted with a couple of linguistic dilemmas for something we take for granted in English. There are two ways of saying ‘you’ – “tu” and “vous.” Each one comes with its own conjugations (e.g.”jouer” means ‘to play;’ “tu joues” and “vous jouez” both effectively mean ‘you play’). However, “tu” is singular and informal, “vous” is plural and formal. The grammatical implications of this mean that whenever you are communicating with someone, you need to pick the correct form for the right person…
…but how do you know? Is it really that important? What if you get it wrong?!
In the case of French, the LA Times created this handy flowchart to explain which form of address you choose. In general, you pick “tu” for people that you know well or who are the same age/younger, and “vous” for strangers, officials and elders.** Of course, registers exist in French, but these have to be coupled with the correct pronouns.
So is it important to get the right one? In short: yes. It’s a sign of respect and a sign of solidarity, showing you are aware of the context in which you find yourself. In fact, the French have created verbs from these two options: tutoyer (to use the “tu” form) and vouvoyer (to use the “vous” form). Think of it like going into a job interview and addressing your potential future boss: you can choose to call her “Mrs. Jones” or “Janet!”
Don’t fret too much, though. If you’re not a native speaker (and the French are very quick at identifying who is and who isn’t) then you’ve got a bit of leeway. You might be kindly reminded or given an unusual look, or even told outright something similar to “Don’t use “vous” with me, I’m not that old!”
German takes the distinction a little further with three forms: du (informal singular ), ihr (informal plural) and Sie (formal; notice the capital S). Spanish has four forms: tú (informal singular), usted (formal singular), vosotros (informal plural) and ustedes (formal plural).
What about in other languages? If you’re reading this and speak a language with a T-V distinction, leave a comment about how it’s used!
* The list includes English but this refers to earlier forms of the language when multiple pronoun forms were used to address others, rather than just modern day “you,” “he/she,” “you all” and “they.”
** Note that if you are speaking to a God, you use “Tu.” I have no idea why…