What They Don’t Teach You in French Class, Part I

How to Get Familiar with the French. Or Not.

January 17, 2012By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
In France, friends with privileges have one more privilege than we do. But not the one that Gabrielle d’Estrées’s bathmate is demonstrating here. [Note: the image of the famous 16th-century painting “Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters,” from the Louvre, has been removed to comply with Google’s “family-safe” guidelines.] Drawing by Charles Giai-Gischia.
French familiar formal

When you study French in school, there are some things that the teachers and textbooks don’t tell you. For example, slang expressions, swear words and effective pickup lines are all beyond the scope of the syllabus. So you never learn what you should say in France when you hit your thumb with a hammer. And you are left at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to venting la rage de la route.

Another thing that is usually glossed over is the practical use of “tu” and “vous,” the two different forms of address. This is one of those things that just do not exist in English, like nuns having sex. (Oops! I meant nouns.) In my beloved native tongue, everyone from popes to pet iguanas gets addressed as “you” and no one is ever offended.

But, like many other languages around the world (possibly most, and maybe all – I would look up the actual figures but I am forbidden by contract from learning anything for C’est Ironique), French has a formal second-person pronoun, vous, and a familiar, tu, each with its own array of cases, possessives, etc.

More importantly, each address form has its own verb forms, which makes learning French conjugation – already a set of rules so Byzantine it makes the U.S. tax code seem as easy to understand and memorize as the Cub Scout Oath – that much harder.

Actually, English used to have two forms of address, but the familiar one, the old “thee and thou” usage, was gradually abandoned except in liturgical texts during the 19th century, presumably because the Anglophones of this world had become such formal, stiff, stilted, straight-laced, prim, proper, punctilious prigs.

Which, linguistically at least, we still are. And which makes it all the more difficult for us to get used to the French system. This situation is not helped by the fact that, since tu is used to address friends and family (and in some other situations explained below) and vous for everyone else, French classes tend to concentrate on the vous form.

Apparently, the assumption is that no one studying French as a foreigner is likely to have family in France, and even less likely, after one semester of French 101, ever to make any French friends. Not with that accent.

So what they teach you is that, in practice, you will use vous a whole lot more than tu. What they don’t teach you is that, in practice, you will use tu a whole lot more than vous. As I realized when I moved here and started living and working in Paris.

To sum up rather haphazardly (my favorite way of doing everything), the tu form is used for:

1. As mentioned above, friends.

This isn’t as straightforward as it seems. You don’t actually have to like someone to tu them. The amis category is usually extended to include peers like friends of friends and fellow students or co-workers.

If you’re under 30, you can pretty safely tu anyone else under 30 who doesn’t happen to be your boss or S&M master. Also, certain extended social groups always tu each other even if they’ve never met before: jazz musicians, bikers, prisoners, Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s mistresses, etc.

2. Family members.

This category is pretty clear-cut, although there are still families in which the parents call the children tu and the children call the parents vous, to show respect for their elders and for an archaic tradition dating back to before the Revolution.

These are usually the same stiff, prim, stilted, proper, straight-laced, punctilious prigs who vote for the Royalist party, which (no kidding) wants to restore the monarchy in France (as discussed in a previous Ironique).

3. Children.

This seems simple, but it can get sticky. The problem is: they grow up. For children you see regularly over a period of years, when do you switch to vous? Or do you ever?

The concierge in my building has two sons who were toddlers when I moved in and are now teenagers. Pretty soon they’ll be adults – working, voting, paying taxes, getting into long pointless arguments, possibly becoming bosses and/or S&M masters – and at some point I guess I should start calling them vous.

I have no idea how to handle this. For the moment I just avoid them. I may have to move.

4. Animals.

This seems perfectly logical, although I can imagine situations when one might not want to get too familiar with a member of a different genus. The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, for example.

5. Deities.

I guess it’s comforting to consider oneself to be on close, friendly terms with the Almighty. French students take note: if the Virgin Mary ever appears before you, you can tu her with no fear of pissing her off.

6. Crime suspects.

But only if you are a police officer. This is something that I have noticed on cop shows on TV, but I’m not sure exactly how it works.

What I need here is a research assistant: a selfless, knowledge-hungry Ironique reader who is willing to get arrested for a felony and report back to me on forensic pronoun usage in, say, 16 to 20 years. Any volunteers?

7. Inanimate objects.

Especially hammers that you just smashed your thumb with.

8. People you are about to beat up.

I don’t recommend using this one in the field, but if you do, take my advice: win the fight. Otherwise you have to go back to vous, and you need your upper teeth to pronounce the “v.”

But, of course, like every other aspect of life on Earth, it’s never that simple. In my experience, people from what is perceived as the upper social classes stick to vous more.

I have friends who tu everyone in their families except certain in-laws (and no way am I going to ask why). And then there are some people who just like to be called vous even in situations in which everyone else in France would use tu.

For the native English speaker living in France, this is a never-ending dilemma. Although it’s not a problem in most situations, I still often find myself wondering which form to use for this or that recent acquaintance.

And beware: it’s a grievous insult to get the form wrong either way. Tu-ing someone with whom you should be more formal is heinous, and continuing to vous somebody who has opened their semantic heart to you by calling you tu is perhaps even worse. And, depending on the circumstances, could cost you a night of even greater, repeated familiarity.

Just to make it even more complicated, when you’re talking to a group of friends, children, animals or fellow DSK mistresses, the plural of tu is vous.

Readers who, like myself, have trouble with this can take heart in the knowledge that they are not alone. Even the French agonize once in a while over which form of address to use.

Look at the pensive expression of the guy in the middle of Édouard Manet’s “Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.” The backstory of this painting has been the subject of much debate and speculation over the years (What’s for lunch? Are those women nuns? etc.), but I can assure you that I know exactly what he’s thinking: “I wonder if I can call her tu now?”

Next week: What they don’t teach you in French class, Part II: A kiss is not (really) a kiss

Reader Paul Scott writes: “With respect to point 5, students of French would be better off using vous were they to encounter the Virgin Mary. Whereas the Lord’s Prayer and the liturgy were revised by the French Catholic authorites during the 1960s and 1970s to use the tu form with which to address God, the Hail Mary resolutely retains the formal form of ‘Je vous salue, Marie’. Some ladies are not for turning…”

Reader Jacqueline Martin writes:I speak French very conversationally and spend a month or two in Paris every fall. I have a rule – I ‘vous’ everyone unless they smile and ‘tu’ back to me. Then it’s ‘tu’ all the way. It seems to work well and satisfies most shopkeepers, waiters, etc. Thank you for your column. It’s indispensable reading and I save snippets from many columns to use on my next trip.”

Reader Jacqueline writes: “Concerning tu-ing children who grow into potential vous-ees, I’d suggest that you maintain the vous-tu because, alas, they grow up, but we grow older. Since entering my 40s, some well-bred young people outside my circle of amis are only comfortable vous-ing me while I tu them. My own mother-in-law, whom I met when I was 20, still uses tu with me (and we do get along :-), while I address her with vous.”

Reader Nick Hammond writes: “Thanks to David Jaggard for another excellent ‘C’est Ironique’ column. My tu/vous dilemma comes to the fore every time I see my concierge after a short time away, because we always kiss each other on the cheeks yet still resolutely call each other ‘vous.’ It never feels right somehow, but the horrified reaction of the concierge to a (French) neighbor’s suggestion to her that they ‘tu’ each other has made me persist in calling her ‘vous’ both post- and pre-kisses.”

David Jaggard replies: “Speaking of which, I pay lip service to the subject of cheek kissing in the next C’est Ironique. Watch this space.”



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