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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