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How polite is your language?

 Language Learning Forum : Cultural Experiences in Foreign Languages Post Reply
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Ogrim
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France
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 Message 1 of 51
21 August 2012 at 4:17pm | IP Logged 
The topic for this post is about the use of different forms for addressing a person or persons, i.e. the distinction between “polite” and “familiar” pronouns. English has not made such a distinction for centuries, where it is actually the old polite form which has replaced the Old English “thou”. However, in in many languages there are polite and familiar forms.

The challenge is to use the forms correctly, and here the situation varies greatly from language to language and country to country. I have therefore made an attempt to summarise my own observations in languages and countries I know. However, I really look forward to receiving input from other members and stand to be corrected if I am mistaken.

Norwegian: In my mother tongue, although the distinction exists (familiar “du” and polite “De”), the polite form is not used any more (except maybe by some really old and conservative persons). Everyone says “du” to everyone.

French: The “vous” is still very much the norm in France, and you would never address a stranger (e.g. a shop attendant or a waiter) with “tu”. However, I do feel that there is a slight tendency for younger people to switch to “tu” more rapidly than what was maybe the norm some years ago. My approach is that I address everyone with “vous” and only switch to “tu” if they invite me to do so.

German: I am less familiar with the situation in Germany, but from my regular visits there it seems to be similar to France. I would love to have more information on this.

Spanish: The situation in Spain has developed enormously over the last 20 years or so. The polite from “usted” is still used, but less and less. Obviously, in formal and official settings it will be used. No journalist will address the Spanish Prime Minister as “tú”. However, it is quite normal that a waiter or a taxi driver will talk to you directly in the familiar form. In Latin America I have the impression that tú is still used in a much more restrictive way (not to mention that in the plural, “Ustedes” has replaced “vosotros”). In Spain I find it can sometimes be difficult to decide which form to use, but my advice would be that it is better to use “usted” if unsure – some people my still get offended if you address them directly with “tú” the first time you speak with them. However, you may expect them to reply to you using the familiar form.

Russian: I am still a beginner in Russian, so here I would ask for input. I do have the impression that the polite form is the norm.

I will leave it at this for the time being, and as said, I look forward to contributions and to learn about the situation in other languages and countries.

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Majka
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 Message 2 of 51
21 August 2012 at 4:39pm | IP Logged 
Czech: the same situation as in France - the polite "vy" is still very much the norm.
I have been working with some people more than 10 years and we are still using the polite form. On the other hand, I am using the familiar "ty" with the CEO of the company almost since I started there as a lowly assistant. Of course, this was his suggestion.

I can very well remember starting high school. This was the moment the teacher started to address us in the polite form.

As far as I know, the situation in Germany and Austria is similar to Czech. The familiar form is used among friends, is used more commonly even among passing acquaintances then few years ago. The formal "dance" of who can suggest to use the familiar form is less strongly observed. But even now, it is better to err on the polite side.
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Josquin
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 Message 3 of 51
21 August 2012 at 5:07pm | IP Logged 
Ogrim wrote:
German: I am less familiar with the situation in Germany, but from my regular visits there it seems to be similar to France. I would love to have more information on this.

You would address every unknown grown-up with "Sie". Younger people tend to offer the "du" faster than older people. University students always address each other with "du". Moreover, in rural areas, where "everybody knows everybody", the "du" is more common. Saying "Sie" would be regarded very impersonal in this case. Working class people tend to say "du" to each other, too. Formal situations always require the "Sie", though.

Ogrim wrote:
Russian: I am still a beginner in Russian, so here I would ask for input. I do have the impression that the polite form is the norm.

Yes, the polite form вы is still very much alive in Russian.

Edited by Josquin on 21 August 2012 at 5:09pm

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Teango
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 Message 4 of 51
21 August 2012 at 5:11pm | IP Logged 
I'm still unsure which to use with my Russian parents-in-law. My wife uses "ты" (informal "you"), whereas my sister-in-law's husband still uses "вы" (formal "you"), even after several years living with them. I wonder what other son- or daughter-in-laws do in Russia in this situation?

Personally, I see them as my own mum and dad now and feel very close to them, so I'd like to use "ты" like my wife. I was also brought up in an Irish family, so I prefer to be open-hearted and down-to-earth with everyone, without the need for too much formality.

When my wife asked her parents what they'd like me to use, they seemed very embarrassed and tried to swiftly change the topic. After a little persistence, they simply suggested whichever he feels most comfortable with, with a grinning side-glance to each other. At the time I guessed they simply didn't want to make waves with their other son-in-law. So I incorporated a mixture of both, which didn't seem to matter much in the end, as I had the Russian language skills of a dazed toddler anyhow!

Incidentally, I used to hear "tha" and "thee" used a lot in conversation whilst living in Yorkshire. In fact, you can get a flavour of this by just going on YouTube and finding a clip of Bill Owen in any episode of the tv comedy "Last of the Summer Wine". So the distinction in English hasn't completely died out yet... ;)

Edited by Teango on 21 August 2012 at 5:24pm

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Majka
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 Message 5 of 51
21 August 2012 at 5:35pm | IP Logged 
Teango wrote:
I'm still unsure which to use with my Russian parents-in-law. My wife uses "ты" (informal "you"), whereas my sister-in-law's husband still uses "вы" (formal "you"), even after several years living with them. I wonder what other son- or daughter-in-laws do in Russia in this situation?


^this^ is what I meant with the "formal dance". I suspect the situation is very similar to what we would and could do.
The "correct" way is to wait till the parents-in-law suggest to use the informal way. Usually, this gets solved with the birth of grandchildren, because they are nowadays expected to use the familiar form. Consequently, the parents get free pass. 100 years ago, even among family members the formal form was often used.
Then, there is the "dance around it" - use neither form. One can go years without really address people in one or other form.
And finally, there is the most risky way - assess the situation, take the risk and ask - not suggest - ask.

In your situation I would be probably using the polite form. It isn't necessarily a sign of distance, but more of respect.
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Ogrim
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France
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 Message 6 of 51
21 August 2012 at 5:39pm | IP Logged 
Teango, those are interesting observations. I've always used tú to my Spanish parents-in-law, but my mother-in-law always said "usted" to her mother-in-law. In Spain there has clearly been a change from one generation to the other.

I asked a few of my French friends how they address their parents-in-law. The majority said that they use "tu", but most of them had used "vous" when they first met their parents-in-law to be. Normally they would start to use "tu" when the relationship got really serious (i.e. marriage being planned;)

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Kartof
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 Message 7 of 51
21 August 2012 at 5:59pm | IP Logged 
Usually in Bulgarian, the formal Вие (Vie) is used with strangers and ти (ti) with family members, friends, and
acquaintances, similar to the use in other Slavic languages as mentioned above. I've always used ти with my
grandparents since i could remember. I think the common attitude in Bulgaria is to use Вие with people you
absolutely don't know such as people passing on the street, waiters and waitresses, or store personnel. You would
also use Вие with your boss and others in a respected position with whom you don't share a close personal
connection. I've noticed that most people who get together for dinner or drinks almost always refer to each other
with ти, simply because they are close enough to be in such a situation together. This almost reminds me of the
"drink to du" that I read about in my Danish textbook.

The Вие/ти distinction is one thing, but familiarity can also be expressed in other ways in Bulgarian such as use of
the particle бе (or more rarely ма). Use of бе implies extreme familiarity between individuals to the point where it
is downright insulting if used in any other situation. Бе used to be used exclusively with males which is where the
ма variation comes from (used for females). An interesting example of the fine line in familiarity in Bulgarian that
has stuck out to me is with my mother's use of the language. She refers to her mother as майче (majche) while she
refers to her mother-in-law as майко (majko). Майче is a diminutive of майка (majka) meaning mother while
майко is the vocative form of the same.

Edit: I forgot to note that Вие and derived pronouns are always capitalized when they have the formal meaning
(singular or plural) and are lowercase (except when beginning a sentence) when they mean the second person
informal plural.

Edited by Kartof on 21 August 2012 at 8:16pm

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vonPeterhof
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 Message 8 of 51
21 August 2012 at 6:22pm | IP Logged 
Teango wrote:
I wonder what other son- or daughter-in-laws do in Russia in this situation?

At least in my extended family addressing the parents-in-law as вы seems to be the norm. The only exception is my own father in relation to my mother's parents, but they have rather unusual circumstances - my father knew my grandfather back when the former was a little kid and the latter was in his early twenties, so my father sees him as more of a childhood friend of the family than an in-law.

Overall the situation in Russian seems to be similar to French, with some major changes having happened over the last few decades. My grandparents' generation would have used вы even with their parents. Actually, lots of my peers in Kazakhstan still do that, so I'm assuming that that's the norm in Kazakh. The difference in Kazakh is that the 2nd person polite pronoun and the 2nd person plural pronoun are not the same. The polite and plain forms are completely separate, each with its own plural (plain form "sen-sender", polite form "siz-sizder") and its own conjugation and declension pattern (although I believe those are still simpler and more consistent that the ones in Russian).

Abkhaz is an interesting case, in that originally there was no polite form of the second person pronoun, and people would only distinguish between the singular second person pronouns by the addressee's gender ("wara" for men, "bara" for women). Under the influence of Russian in the past century the Abkhaz started to use the second person plural "š°ara"* as the polite form. However, an Abkhaz speaker told me that it's still not as widespread as it is in Russian and mostly reserved for the most official circumstances.

And then there's Japanese with its complex multi-tiered politeness system and numerous first, second and third person pronouns whose usage depends on the speakers' gender, age and relative social position. I could talk about it for hours, but suffice it to say that knowing when to use which level of politeness and/or formality is very important.

*Edit: Corrected an error; I had originally written the word for "we" (hara) instead of the "you (pl.)".

Edited by vonPeterhof on 23 August 2012 at 2:26pm



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