Saturday, January 29, 2011

This Is Between You and Me

Today, the word of the week is a handy, French term that I first encountered on the blog A Walk in the Words, which I found when one of its featured the word longicorn and cited my blog as the source. A reciprocal move seemed appropriate, and this word fit the spirit of polite give-and-take.
tutoyer (too-twa-YAY) — verb: to address familiarly
If you’re at all familiar with Romance languages, you could have guessed that this was a verb. Its components, however, are the French pronouns tu, “thou,” and toi, “thee” — that is, the informal forms of the you in the nominative and accusative cases. So, literally, this word means something like “thou-thee-ing somebody.” But given that English no longer uses thou except in old phrases (such as holier-than-thou) and instances in which formality is needed (such as Star Wars’s “What is thy bidding, my master?”), I’m not sure that explanation gets the point across. So try this: Tutoyer is the “Hey, buddy” of verbs, the “All right, listen, lady” you’d use when it seems inappropriate to say, “If you don’t mind the intrusion, madam.”

Since I’m on the subject of you and thou, I’ll point out that the transition away from separate, singular and plural second-person pronouns is interesting, at least to me. It was French influence that flattened these terms into just one, all-around usage. French has polite and impolite pronouns, tu for your drinking buddy but vous for, like, your boss or the king or God. As a result, tu and its related forms can sound rude or even condescending. This rule got mapped onto English, and you became a safer bet than thou. It’s ironic, then, that thou today has an air of formality, history, ceremony and nobility. Personally, I think English would benefit from an accepted plural, second-person pronoun, since you can be confusing as a result of this lack. And y’all elicits weird reactions when you don’t have a Southern accent. If only youse guys would catch on.

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  1. minor quibble - 'toi' is 'thee', not 'te'. 'Te' is the accusative second person singular particle.

  2. Noted. And changed. Thanks.

  3. I am a big fan of y'all, and am happy that my iPhone recognizes my Southern accent and automatically inserts the apostrophe when I type yall.

  4. "It was French influence that flattened these terms into just one, all-around usage."
    I didn't know this. Out of curiosity, where did you learn it?

  5. Goofy: This one, for starters:

    I can look up other sources later, but in what I read before I wrote this, I found people claiming that thou went away in the 1600s as a result of the T/V distinction, which rubbed off on the British as a result contact with the French. Now that you mention it, I didn't read anything that noted that this was proven, but I read it more than once and got the impression that this was an accepted fact to experts in the field.

  6. Thanks Drew! The Languagehat entry says "you" was used as a respectful pronoun under French influence, but French influence is not given as an explanation as to why non-reciprocal use of "you" and "thou" in power-based relationships disappeared, is it? At least not in this article.

    I'm not saying you're wrong, and I hope I'm not coming across as snarky. I am sincerely interested in anything you know about it.

  7. Hey. Again, I will find the article, but I read the theory that the you/thou distinction was harder to put into practice in England than it was in other countries, given to a difference in class distinctions and class signifiers, so eventually people hedged their bets and just used the formal version with everyone. So I suppose that the French influence only caused the elimination of "thou" in a roundabout way.