A Rejection of the Power Semantic

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It has been over fifty years since Roger Brown and Albert Gilman published their classic article "The pronouns of power and solidarity" (American Anthropologist 4/6:24-39, 1960), analyzing what they called the T/V distinction. The letters refer not to a device on which one views reality shows, NOVA, soap operas, etc., but to the familiar (T for Latin or French tu) vs. formal (V for Latin vos/French vous) pronouns used to address someone. To oversimplify somewhat, reciprocal T expresses solidarity, and reciprocal V may also do so; non-reciprocal usage — using V to someone with superior status and receiving T from that person, or vice versa to someone of inferior status — expresses what Brown & Gilman called the power semantic. English, of course, can't express this difference with pronouns, because our only second person pronoun in general usage is you. But English does have address forms that capture the basic social distinction: reciprocal first-name (or sometimes last-name) usage for the solidarity semantic, non-reciprocal first-name vs. title plus last name for the power semantic. So, for instance, my formidable sixth-grade music teacher called me Sally, and I called her Miss Boe. Anything else would have been unthinkable.

All this is very old news. But I just ran across an interesting example in a terrific book I've been reading — David Halberstam's last book, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.

The example is in a passage about Averell Harriman and Douglas MacArthur. President Truman has sent Harriman to MacArthur's headquarters in Japan to try to get MacArthur to toe the administration's line in the conduct of the war. This effort fails, as do all other efforts to control MacArthur's behavior (the famous general is far from being a hero in this book). The linguistic interest comes in Halberstam's account of the first meeting between these two powerful men (p. 217):

Harriman `was in some ways as grand a figure as MacArthur, had been a major player almost as long, and was in no way intimidated by the general. On arrival, when MacArthur had first-named him — "Averell, good to see you" — he had first-named the commander right back; if it was Averell, then it would be Douglas as well.'

The implication is that MacArthur was expecting, or at least looking for, non-reciprocal T/V usage, in which he would address Harriman by his first name and would get title and last name — "General MacArthur" — in return. But it didn't work, because Harriman wouldn't play. MacArthur, to judge by Halberstam's account, viewed himself as residing at the top of a hierarchy comparable to the one depicted in Froissart's late 14th-century Chronicle of France, described by Brown & Gilman as follows: `God says T to His angels and they say V; all celestial beings say T to man and receive V.'


  1. Xmun said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

    All sorts of other considerations enter into this T/V distinction besides power and solidarity. I have come a cropper in both French and Spanish, in one by using T where V was appropriate and vice versa in the other. When I called on my former Spanish teacher in Mexico he expected me to use T where I gauchely used V, and when I chatted to a francophone family friend (and my junior by some 25 years) he expected me to use V where I gauchely used T. So now I throw up my hands and despair of ever mastering all the subtleties.

    Afterthought: is "gauchely" even a word?

  2. Erik Zyman Carrasco said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 10:54 pm

    @ Xmun: re: your afterthought, it's perfectly well formed for me (and it's also in Webster's Third).

  3. Martienne said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 11:16 pm

    We do have the archaic "thou" in English. Interestingly, use of this pronoun is thought of as formal and stuffy, when it was actually the informal form of address when it was in general use.

    [(myl) See "George Fox, Prescriptivist", 10/24/2010.]

  4. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 12:01 am

    But T forms tend to be used when addressing God in prayer.

    This is the one place where "thou" persists to some degree in English, but I think it's lost the connotation it used to have.

  5. John Cowan said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 12:36 am

    "But T forms tend to be used when addressing God in prayer."

    Except in French, where God is traditionally V, as in the Lord's Prayer, but may now sometimes be T. On this page of modern French prayers, God the Father and God the Sun are both T but the Virgin is still V.

  6. C Thornett said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 1:03 am

    Anecdotally at any rate, English-speaking church-goers have for some time regarded thou as formal and you as informal and even disrespectful if used to address God, presumably since thou dropped out of everyday use and was found only in the Bible, hymns and poetry or writing from an earlier period. This despite the Biblical examples which seem to be analysed incorrectly.

  7. Barrie England said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 2:59 am

    A fellow socialist once asked President Mitterrand ‘Puis-je vous tutoyer?’ The President replied ‘Comme vous le souhaitez’.

  8. Jarmila said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 3:01 am


    In French, as in Czech and (and other Slavic languages, as far as I know), you have to be asked to address somebody with T. Or you have to ask them yourself. (Usually it depends on age or position.)
    Children and teenagers are always using T to each other. It is used also in the family, and in some interest groups (sports clubs, groups of tourists etc. – but there is no rule; you come and see if the people are addressing you T, or not).
    Non-reciprocal usage is usual to children. But you would be considered to be rude, if you used T speaking with another adult (and expected he/she will use V).
    In Czech Republic some international companies want all their employees to use T to each other – apparently convicted that it is the same as using first name. It in not exactly the same. At my first job, I was nineteen and other employees were al least 15 years older (or more), and all of them called me with my first name (often using diminutive) and I called them Mr./Mrs. … But if they used T, I would feel offended.
    The use of T/V in Spanish may be an exception. Our Spanish teacher pointed to us, that it is common in Spain – to address all people with T.

  9. Barrie England said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 3:14 am

    French sometimes uses 'vous' in circumstances where you might least expect it, as when Juliette Greco sings ‘Déshabillez-moi’.

  10. maidhc said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 3:22 am

    My in-laws are fundamentalist Christians, and they often conduct conversations with God, along the lines of "Lord, we thank you for bringing Maidhc and Mrs. Maidhc safely through the long journey to our house". Always "you" and never "thou".

    Although it's not my primary occupation, I perform music professionally from time to time. But in my primary occupation, I have a PhD.

    We got hired to perform at this posh golf club by some medical doctor. When we arrived, he turns up and says "Hello Maidhc, I'm Dr. Smith". My wife immediately replied "This is Dr. MaidhcsSurname." It was like you had jammed a sabot into the weaving machine of his brain. He seemed a little off balance for the rest of the gig.

    I have friends who are working musicians who have PhDs in music, and I have friends who are medical doctors who do music on the side. And also many mathematicians, computer scientists and physicists who are weekend musicians. (More these professions, in my experience.)

  11. maidhc said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 3:32 am

    Barrie England: Not to mention "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi".

  12. Jens Ayton said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 4:14 am

    In Swedish, the polite form of address used to be third-person by title to superiors, and third-person by name or pronoun to inferiors. The system was quite intricate, and made it impossible to politely address someone without knowing their title (or that of their guardian).

    Repeated attempts were made to introduce a T/V system as a simpler alternative, but only people of relatively high social standing (familiar with foreign languages) understood the concept, and they wouldn’t dream of using V-form (“ni”) to refer to equals or superiors before it was fully established, so it became a talking-to-servants mode (with significant local variation, of course). In other words, using the V-form downwards took on the power semantic, rather than the T-form.

    In only a few years spanning the 60s and 70s, T-form (“du”) and first-name address became the norm in almost every context, except addressing royalty and in parliamentary sessions. The talking-to-royalty case is to the power semantic what a Vickers gun in a museum is to a show of force; I can’t think of an actual power semantic in present usage. Maybe this is why Scandinavians are ahead of the curve on discussing “master suppression techniques”.

    There’s been a sort of counter-revolution in the service sector, with some shop and restaurant staff using V-form to address customers. This causes a bit of friction with customers who remember being addressed as “ni” in the old sense, but seems to have stuck anyway.

  13. C Thornett said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 4:26 am

    Should I amend my previous comment to add 'in church or similar public occasions'? Further anecdotal evidence is that this is probably dependent on factors such as generation, denomination and preferred version or translation of the Bible. I would still suggest that T is now commonly regarded as formal, literary or religious rather than informal in English, but some prefer V in a religious context on grounds of informality or being contemporary language.

  14. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 4:36 am

    If anyone wants to get a sense of the complexities of the English T/V system as it was breaking down, read Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. There's class, status, regional, religious (Dixon's a Quaker) and style/genre nuances, and also complexities of case, with nominative thee making a few appearances in similar positions, I think, to modern nominative me, him etc.

  15. GeorgeW said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 6:00 am

    In Arabic, the power semantic can be expressed by using the plural 'you' instead of the singular. But, it is my impression that it is used in contexts in which there is a huge power differential (like king and commoner).

    I suspect the Christian 'thou' is more an exercise of sacred language than a power semantic.

  16. Lou Hevly said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 6:05 am

    I knew I was starting to look old when shop girls in Catalonia started V-ing me instead of T-ing me.

  17. Trimegistus said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 6:34 am

    The first-name/last-name dichotomy shows up in one's dealings with medical doctors. You're in the examining room, the guy with a stethescope comes in, he looks at the folder to remind himself who the heck you are, and says, "Good morning, Robert, what seems to be the trouble?"

    You respond "Well, Doctor Smith, it's my pronouns . . . "

    Assuming your condition isn't immediately life-threatening, it can be entertaining to go off script, simply by doing your homework. You reply "Well, Ernest, it's my pronouns . . . "

    At which point either you remain Robert and Ernest or the doctor gets the message and reverts to calling you Mr. Jones.

  18. Kathleen said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 6:36 am

    I'm a historian, not a linguist (Jim!). I remember being startled in college when I learned that "thou" was the familiar form in English. Since the only places I had ever encountered it were at church (surely God rates the formal?) and in Shakespeare (high culture), I had assumed that "thou" was formal and "you" was familiar.

    If you go to a Renaissance Faire and watch people addressing the "royalty," I can assure you it will be "thous" and "thees" all over the place.

  19. Mary Apodaca said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 7:08 am

    Maybe the use of T in biblical language was (partly — this is tongue in cheek) because there was only one god.

  20. Lektu said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 7:14 am

    What is really interesting (for some values of "interesting") is having to translate from a power-semantic-light language, like English, to a power-semantic-heavy language, like Spanish. You have to rely on all kind of clues, often not very explicit, to determine whether people is having T-T, T-V or V-V conversations. A nice example (that I translated, so I'm clearly not unbiased) was "Snow Crash", where the Y.T. character is a very strong-willed teenager and unlikely to accept T-V shit from anyone, so she has T-T conversations all along the novel, except when she's talking to Uncle Enzo (the Mafia boss), where T-V is the only thing that fits nicely with both characters' worldview (not out of fear on Y.T.'s part, but respect).
    In the book I'm translating right now, there's a three-way talk where the relationships between the characters (let's call them P, K and M) is quite confusing (and more so because K, the protagonist, ignores a crucial fact that makes him much more closer to P than he could image). The funny thing is, the P&K conversation just *begs* for T-T, but all exchanges between P&M and K&M are very stiff, with Mr. and Ms. thrown around a lot (and certainly there's a power semantic involved, because of M's status) and so V-V is required. At the end, I had to settle on V-V for P&K to make the scene less jarring for the reader, though I'm not sure I won't be back and revise it later. Whatever the final decision, it's a quite interesting aspect of translation.

  21. Alex said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 7:15 am

    In High School I remember being taught that use of thou for God in English has to do with intimacy. In Persian and Urdu, though, V is used for worldly and religious superiors (including angels and prophets) but not for the Creator, for whom T is used to avoid any ambiguity about divine Oneness. One does find beings who normally deserve V occasionally addressed with T out of intimacy (and to meet the demands of poetic meter.) But one would never find V for God in literary usage.

  22. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 7:22 am

    Pflaumbaum: Yes, I think Quakers at the time the book is set made a point of using T with everybody, though it was in the process of going away.

    Maidhc: I think "thou" is disappearing even in a prayer context, but it survives in direct Biblical quotes from translations that retain it. Evangelical Protestants might use "you" in personally composed prayers but "thou" in the KJV Lord's Prayer.

    Academic honorifics are interesting. In modern American usage, I think insistence on address as "Doctor" for people with PhDs is gradually vanishing, whereas it persists for medical doctors. It may depend on the profession. In physics, the big divide is between "Professor" and everything else, because there's a persistent glut of PhDs and professorships are hard to get.

  23. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 7:36 am

    …Another power-semantic distinction in English (which I think I've talked about here before) is address as "Sir/Ma'am". In most of the US, this is still widely used in commercial transactions, and of course in the military chain of command, but less often elsewhere. However, in the South, younger people often use it when addressing older people.

    And I think that in some parts of the country, it may be increasingly restricted to address of older people even in commercial contexts–at least, it's become a staple of standup comedy that people feel old when clerks and waiters start calling them Sir/Ma'am, a joke I never understood since in Virginia they sometimes did this even with children.

  24. C Thornett said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 8:06 am

    My late parents-in-law, Salvation Army officers, felt that it was less than respectful to address God as 'you', especially in a religious service. They were both born in the early 1900s. I have encountered the same attitude among other older people and the 'thou = formal, respectful' belief among people who are a generation or two younger, both in the US and the UK. Victorian hymn lyrics and poetry probably contribute to this belief. This could well run in parallel with T as a feature of a category of language which is historic, literary or religious.

    Showing respect and an assymetric power relationship are not necessarily the same thing, of course.

  25. GeorgeW said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 8:09 am

    @Matt McIrvin: As a Southern youth, I would never, ever consider using anything but Sir/Ma'am to an adult. Now, as a Southern geezer, I still use Sir/Ma'am for seniors and those in respected positions whom I don't know well.

  26. Tom Vinson said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 8:10 am

    @John Cowan: A French teacher told my class once that Catholics used "vous" in the Lord's Prayer while Protestants used "tu". Caveat: this was close to 50 years ago.

  27. Steve F said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 8:18 am

    The first name/last name dichotomy is something of an international minefield. My adult EFL students are encouraged to call me 'Steve', but quite a number of them have real difficulties with this – it just isn't sufficiently respectful when talking to a teacher. Consequently, a few call me 'sir' (perfectly standard for British school children talking to a male teacher, but not usual in adult education), 'teacher' (which sounds rather odd, and actually less respectful than using my first name, making them sound rather like a diner calling 'waiter!'), or, in the case of mostly Far Eastern students, 'Mr Steve' (which I rather like, though for its quaintness, not the respect it shows).

    And the use of first names has definitely escalated in British usage in recent years, to the extent that we are now considerably less 'formal' in this respect than Americans. At least, an American friend was amazed to hear a politician in a television interview refer to the then Prime Minister as 'Tony' not 'Mr Blair' (this was a few years ago obviously.)

  28. Gordonoz said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 8:27 am

    I was raised in Yorkshire where my grandfather, born in 1885, spoke with a `broad' accent and used many dialect words and phrases. He would speak to family members and friends using T forms such as thee, thou, varied as tha and thi. Eg `Keep this to thisen; tha never knows what t'others are (maybe `is') thinking.' Anthony Burgess mentions this usuage in `Inside Mr Enderby' when describing his relationship with a chef of Enderby's aquaintance.

  29. Dr. Decay said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    I've witnessed several examples of a humorous German-English T-T/V-V situation in which two German professors are on sabbatical in an American lab, and call each other by their 1st names. But when they're by themselves its: "Lieber Professor Gauss, darf ich Sie einladen?"

  30. Dimitri N said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 8:33 am

    It's not always the case that the person saying T has the power. In Greece I have had occasion to respond to someone in the plural (V) who is addressing me in the singular (T), because I see our relationship as formal/distant while s/he is trying to address me informally/as a friend. So it seems to me that controlling the play of the particular social encounter is more important than a strict T/V distinction.

  31. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 8:51 am

    In Sweden in the early 60s during the transition from 3rd-person to V form was taking place, some people wore little white buttons with a red "Ni" to indicate that they would not take it amiss to be addressed in the V form. As an added layer of complexity, people often addressed domestic servants in the unadorned 3rd person singular: "She can clear away the coffee things now." (That even carried over into Finnish.)

    The Swedish author Erik Zetterström (Kar de Mumma) wrote wonderful short stories that are very difficult to translate well because of his subtle use of power semantics.

    In Germany in the 50s, our Dresden-born housekeeper used to address my wife with du but me with ihr (plural T). This is after a couple of years of Sie (3rd person plural).

  32. MikeM said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 8:57 am

    I seem to recall reading somewhere that the letter "y" was originally pronounced "th." True?

  33. Spell Me Jeff said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 8:59 am

    My impression on religious t/v coincides with Alex: that the original KJ distinction was meant to suggest a personal relationship with one's god, which would of course reflect a more Pauline/New Testament attitude than the Old Testament contexts n which we so often encounter it.

    I suspect this Old Testament "interference," coupled with our contemporary misunderstanding of thee and thou, is at least partly responsible for the assumption that if one speaks to God, one does so formally; hence thee and thou must be formal.

    I also suspect that unwilling survivors of high-school English come away from their Shakespeare experience thinking that thee and thou belong to an old, more sophisticated era, and must therefore be formal, rather than familiar, as in this rather stuffy old speech:

    Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack
    and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon
    benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to
    demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know.

  34. Spell Me Jeff said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 9:03 am


    A somewhat stylized y was often used as a shortcut in printing and especially handwriting to represent th the letters. Pronunciation was coincident upon that.

  35. S. Norman said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 9:05 am

    When a sales clerk gets my first name off my credit card and starts using it in a pitch I always answer back using a cutesy version of their name. "Well, Markey…" "Not today, Johnnie…"

  36. Jarmila said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 9:20 am

    @Spell Me Jeff:
    I'd say the Bible was translated into European languages at the time when all people addressed each other only with T.
    T fomerly didn't suggest more personal relationship – it meant simply that I was speaking to one person, no matter if it was child, adult, servant, or king (or God :-). The more polite form using V developed later. It's an exception, that became a rule…
    V formerly meant the simple fact that I was speaking to two or more persons.
    And the language of the Bible, or of the Church generally, is changing more slowly, so there stayed the ancient singular form…

  37. VinnyD said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 9:32 am

    Pflaumbaum — At some point American Quakers lost the hang of thou/thee (and associated hast, art. wast etc) and starting using thee nominatively (governing "is" as the from of the verb to be). I don't know if Pynchon is accurate having that happen in the 18th century, if that's what you're describing.

    The original idea of the Quaker use of thou and thee was to treat all people as equals.

  38. linda seebach said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 9:41 am

    Why is it that when I see "power semantic" what I hear sounds like "forest primeval"?

  39. Rolig said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 9:45 am

    A hybrid usage in English, which I suspect is on the way out, is to combine an honorific with the first name as a sign of respect toward someone who is nevertheless viewed as part of one's circle of familiar acquaintances. When I was a child (in the 1960s in Baltimore), I would always address my parents' friends in this way: "Miss Margaret" (even though she was married), "Mr. John", etc. As I said, I suspect this is on the way out, at least in my own speech community. I have, however, encountered it in recent decades among African Americans, where elderly people are addressed as "Miss Betty" or "Mister Don" as a sign of respect for their age and experience. Of course, there is still a very much current practice to address clergy in this way: "Father Tom", "Reverend Sally".

    When I moved to Slovenia a few years ago, I found that there was a similar practice here: my landlord, a man in his 60s named Ciril Novak, was addressed by his tenants as "gospod [Mister] Ciril", and I myself (now in my mid-50s) am often addressed in a similar manner by younger colleagues (in their 20s or early 30s), at least in our initial interactions.

  40. John O'Toole said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 10:08 am

    There's a humorous turn in French on the informal "tu" that supposedly drops from the divine's mouth whenever He chooses to address us, dreamed up by the comic of genius Pierre Desproges (alas, he's gone to meet his maker and hasn't reported back since on the question). Raising his index finger, Desproges would quote during one of his stand-up bits, "Tu ne tueras ton prochain…" [Thou shalt not kill.] Then add, "Premièrement, dieu ou pas, j'aime pas qu'on me tutoie." [First of all, whether it's god or anybody else, I don't like being addressed so informally.]

  41. MarcL said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 10:43 am

    I spent three years in France during the 1960s and at the time my French was fluent. I was always addressed as "monsieur," sometimes with the addition of my surname, and I responded in kind. It was unthinkable to use tu, even with people I saw every day. At that time, unless things have changed in the last 40 years, one never totoyer'd anyone but family, lovers and children. N.b., in German, one always used the third person singular, never du. I believe that custom obtains in most European laqnguages with the exception of English.

  42. Eric P Smith said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    Historically, God was T in a Christian context because Jesus taught us to address God familiarly as Our Father: as "Abba, Father" ("Daddy").

  43. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 11:24 am

    I agree with C Thornett's point that "Showing respect and an assymetric power relationship are not necessarily the same thing, of course." Treating this as all about "power" seems excessively reductionist, not least because in a less formally egalitarian society neither power nor status are unidimensional; rather, there are often multiple social hierarchies that interact in different ways. In the old-fashioned country house, how do the master's young children and the butler/governess speak to each other? How do the impoverished nobleman from ancient lineage and the self-made baseborn millionaire who wants to marry his daughter speak to each other? If males in an inegalitarian society typically use more formal modes of address when speaking to females than to other males, are they being chivalrous or condescending?

    And there's the separate point that at least in modern English and I assume in other languages, formal/respectful modes of address can equally well be situationally deployed to be patronizing, or to display coldness / emotional distance / displeasure. Indeed, if an American child hears a parent use the child's full formal name in direct address ("FIRSTNAME MIDDLENAME LASTNAME!"), that is a pretty good indicator that the child may be in Big Trouble.

    Two other miscellaneous points: 1) the people I have recently noticed addressing me as "Mr. FIRSTNAME" are most often Hispanic immigrants with accents indicating they were not that young when they came to the U.S., from which I assume this is a calque for "Senor FIRSTNAME" or "Don FIRSTNAME" or some similar Spanish usage; 2) the notion that people who encounter thou/thee as a survival in religious contexts think of it as super-respectful/formal is plausible, but there's also the chance that the same sort of people will encounter it in old-fashioned-sounding or hackneyed poetry of the "how do I love thee? let me count the ways" variety, which ought to keep some sense of intimacy in the mix as well.

  44. C Thornett said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 12:03 pm

    Like Steve F, I have come up against a cultural conflict in the use of names with adult students, ESOL in my case. Many of my students (mainly South Asian) wish to show respect by addressing me as 'Teacher' rather than using my first name whereas addressing a teacher in this way was absolutely forbidden when I was at school. Mr/s Surname, sir or ma'am were required. Some of our students compromise with 'Teacher Firstname', especially when talking about one teacher to another teacher. I sometimes use this as a discussion point in lessons, including the use of kin names, mainly auntie/uncle with first or surnames for family friends as a blend of respect and intimacy, which seems to be a wide-spread custom.

    Our policy is to encourage the use of first names to promote informality and even levels of respect and of power, if you like.

  45. Gene Buckley said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

    @MikeM, regarding the use of "y" for "th": This practice developed from the earlier use of the runic letter thorn (þ) in Old English and earlier Middle English to represent the sound /θ/ that we write today as "th". Thorn became graphically indistinguishable from "y" in some styles of writing, hence the confusion. There's a brief summary on Wikipedia.

  46. Cecilieaux Bois de Murier said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

    Different instances of T/V power syntax:

    1. The firstname/surname game played by Harriman and MacArthur has a reverse: using Mr. X to address someone normally addressed Fristname, either in anger as an ironic putdown or as way of exerting command over that person (particularly frequent in private schools).

    2. In Argentine (and Uruguayan, Paraguayan and Nicaraguan) Spanish, the informal Tu is entirely omitted and replaced with Vos (originally a formal pronoun, found in prayer addressing God). Voseo is always informal, however. Usted (from vuestra merced, your mercy) is the formal pronoun, but uses 3rd person singular of verbs.

  47. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    @Eric P Smith: But in plenty of languages and cultures, children have addressed their fathers using the V forms.

  48. Mary Kuhner said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

    My Chinese student called me, after flailing around with different forms, "Dr. Mary". I had equally severe problems figuring out what to call him, and ended up calling him PersonalName FamilyName because everything else was even more awkward. I remember my student seizing on a published paper which listed me as "Kuhner Mary" and saying "See, you *do* write it that way around." I don't blame him for being confused!

    I think I use "Ma'am/Sir" almost exclusively in very impersonal contexts when I have no way to know the name and "Hey, you" is too rude: for example, "Ma'am, is this lost jacket yours?" I probably wouldn't use it to a teenager, maybe not to a young college student, but otherwise to any adult regardless of relative age or status. I would also say "Sir" or "Ma'am" to a police officer or judge, but not in general to authority figures (the President of my university wouldn't be "Sir").

    To round up the trivia grab-bag, I belong to a US school of a Japanese martial art. Teachers are FirstName Sensei except for the head instructor, who is sometimes LastName Sensei when speaking about her rather than to her. (We are very fond of her and concerned that we not do anything to embarrass her among her peers.) Nobody gets other honorifics except in a semi-teasing context, where they are FirstName-San. Some of our Japanese-speaking members object strongly to calling young children FirstName-San even when teasing, and suggest FirstName-Kun instead, but no one will do it. (I think there is a problem with the sound of -kun, pronounced "coon", to the American ear; it sounds derogatory.)

    Honorifics are complex enough in a monocultural context; they are crazy in a cross-cultural one like a transplanted martial arts school. I am sure the way we bow would drive the Japanese crazy; it runs the gamut from "unclear on the concept" to "trying way too hard" and many points in between.

  49. LDavidH said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

    Regarding biblical usage: it's obvious that the KJV simply uses Thou when addressing any individual, and Ye to address any group of two or more people (or gods). Modern Bible translations do not use either thou or ye, but follow current English usage addressing both God and men by you. Many churches still use the KJV version of the Lord's prayer, but far from all – there are modern versions based on the NIV or similar, that use you/your in the Lord's prayer. In the church I pastor (UK Baptist), people never address God as Thou except in the Lord's prayer, and I would like to change that quite soon – it sounds rather old-fashioned!

  50. Alexander said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

    In German, God is addressed with "du" (=thou), never with a plural or 'respectful' form.

  51. John said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

    There's another complexity to the T/V distinction in Spanish as spoken in Bogotá, Colombia (where I've been living for almost a year now).

    Bogotanos use Usted (the 2nd-person singular "V" prounoun) quite a bit more than other Latin Americans. It's the default among adult males, and even good friends who have known each other for decades will address each other as "Usted." It's also used in any kind of formal business transaction.

    In social situations where at least one of the two people involved is female, "tu" (the "T" pronoun) in the normal default.

    But then it gets more interesting: there is an "intimate Usted" that is often used with particularly close female relations such as family members or lovers. For example, I know a couple of Bogotana sisters in their early 30's who use exclusively "Usted." One of these sisters has told me that to her ear, "tu" can sound a bit corny and childish. (Also worth noting is that Bogotanos are famous for a certain level of formality and politeness. One often hears here the super-formal address of "sumercé" (="su merced") from people in service professions.)

  52. Ken Brown said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

    The AV/KJV bible was translated at a time when T was already dying out in English. But it is based on older versions. It uses pronoun number to translate the original Greek or Hebrew in a way that was probably already artificial in English. The Book of Common Prayer does the same thing – it was last revised in 1662 but was the main liturgy of the Church of England up to the 1970s, and that is probably why we called God "thou".

  53. Ken Brown said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

    I have, very rarely, been adressed in a T form in English by people who do that naturally. I suspect that quite a lot of northerners somtimes use it, possibly in the low millions. But if that form is only used inside the family or to children or in intimate situations it might be that it is almost never naturally appropriate to use it to an adult visitor. Hence its mostly invisible to the majority who have lost it.

  54. Neil Dolinger said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

    I love that French has verbs "tutoyer" and "vouvoyer" to refer to the act of (inappropriately?) addressing someone by a particular pronoun. Does French also have "nounoyer" to refer to (for example) the server who asks the table, "what are we having today?"

    Do other languages have verbs with similar functions?

  55. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 5:59 pm

    It seems clear from the comments (and from my own knowledge of a dozen or so languages) that Brown and Gilman's pronoun dichotomy is one of those brash American oversimplifications that were popular half a century ago, like Greenberg on typology and Ferguson on diglossia.

    When, about a dozen years ago, I translated Lessing's The Jews into English, I had to deal with the fact that in 18th-century German four pronoun forms were used for what was semantically the second person singular: the modern du and Sie, but also Ihr (grammatically 2nd p. pl.) and er/sie (grammatically 3nd p. sing.). Of course I translated them all as "you," but I had to adapt the form of address to each relationship, and, as some commenters have said, there's a lot more than power going on.

  56. maidhc said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 5:59 pm

    I second Pflaumbaum's recommendation of Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. It plays a lot with modes of speech. It's not necessarily historically accurate though. One amusing thing he does is to create a mode of speech suitable for sullen rebellious 18th-century teenagers.

  57. Joe Fineman said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

    When I studied Russian, I was told that T was for animals, intimate friends, family, small children, God, and the Tsar. I always thought that was a charmingly variegated list.

    Recently, in the process of inquiring about a bond, I received a telephone message from someone at the U.S. Treasury who gave only his first name, so that that was how I had to ask for him when returning the call. I was rather startled. Surely a government official, engaged in the august business of increasing the national debt, is entitled to more formality! When I mentioned this on Facebook, someone hypothesized that the idea was to protect his privacy, which seems even more bizarre.

  58. Steve the Steam Shovel said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 9:35 pm

    I too get title + first name from many of my students — Professor Steve rather than Professor Shovel — when they send me e-mail, especially from students of Indian heritage; but when they speak to me, I am usually "sir".

  59. marie-lucie said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 10:22 pm

    The T/V article was already too simple as well as too dated for the French social situations when it was published. Adressing social inferiors as "tu" might have been OK in the Ancient Regime, but had become less and less appropriate in the mid-20th century. It would be the height of boorishness for a person in a high position to say "tu" to a stranger in an obviously lower social position, for instance for a well-dressed, obviously wealthy person to say "tu" to a street cleaner or chambermaid. In France you should never say "tu" to a person who might have cause to suspect that you look down on them for whatever reason: your attempt at friendliness will be taken as indicating your desire to insult them by emphasizing the social gap (switching from "vous" to "tu" when interrogating a suspect is a well-known trick used by the police to demoralize the person, who had better not reciprocate). It would also be boorish (although not necessarily resented for the same reason) to say the same thing to a stranger of presumably equal position. When in doubt, a foreigner should use "vous", the neutral, default term of address between middle-class adults.

    Things are not quite the same in francophone Canada though, but I don't have enough acquaintance with the situation there to make definite comments.

    Neil Dolinger: I love that French has verbs "tutoyer" and "vouvoyer" to refer to the act of (inappropriately?) addressing someone by a particular pronoun.

    These verbs are descriptive and do not imply (in)appropriateness.

    Does French also have "nounoyer" to refer to (for example) the server who asks the table, "what are we having today?"

    There is no such verb in French. The equivalent of "we" is not usually "nous" (considered a formal pronoun) but "on", which is the normal subject in colloquial speech. Years ago my grandfather was visiting a man in serious condition in hospital, when a mutual friend strode into the room and said in a jovial tone: "Alors, G., on agonise?" ("So, G., we are dying aren't we?"), and G. perked up with "Pas tout de suite" ("not right away") in a voice still feeble but a little more assured than before. The friend would never have said "nous agonisons" which would be much too formal and would also imply that both of them were dying.

  60. Bob Davis said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 11:23 pm

    Back in 1980, living in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, I knew some parents who wanted their kids to use the "Usted" form with them, rather than "tú", similar to kids from southern states (USA) at that time who would reply: Yes, sir and Yes, Ma'am. I remember the Mexican parents being disappointed.

  61. Michael C. Dunn said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 11:59 pm

    Title plus first name — "Professor Mike," "Engineer Ahmad" — is common in Arabic (and often among Arabic speakers of English) mostly because there are several different systems of naming still in use and it's not always clear which part of the name someone prefers as a "surname." Arabic phone directories are generally indexed by first name for the same reason, leading to very large sections under "Muhammad."

  62. John Ward said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 12:45 am

    "And the use of first names has definitely escalated in British usage in recent years, to the extent that we are now considerably less 'formal' in this respect than Americans. At least, an American friend was amazed to hear a politician in a television interview refer to the then Prime Minister as 'Tony' not 'Mr Blair' (this was a few years ago obviously.)"

    I don't know if it's actually escalated recently. There's that recency illusion to watch out for. To my ears, addressing a politician by first name only isn't so much a sign of informality as old-fashioned. If it is becoming more common, that might be become the prime ministership is getting more powerful, not more informal.

    The form used to refer to people of high enough social status is generally the same as what you use to refer to lower people, because if they're sufficiently elevated, there's no possibility of confusion. We had no trouble here in California calling the last governor by just his first name: Arnold. And there's Oprah, and all the baronets, who get addressed by sir + first name. I remember a table in a book (I can't remember the name now) on this aspect of formality in English.

  63. Rube said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 7:52 am

    Watching "the Maltese Falcon" one time with the French subtitles on, noticed a nice bit shoing how "tu" can be used. In the scene where Sam Spade and the hotel detective are dealing with the young gunsel in the hotel lobby, they consistently "tutoyer" him. The contempt in which the older detectives hold the young punk, already apparent in the rest of the dialogue, is emphasised by the choice of pronoun.

  64. marie-lucie said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

    Rube, I have not seen the movie in either language, but I know the book, and having the detectives use "tu" with the young punk is exactly the right touch to convey contempt, not friendliness.

    To me, using "tu" conveys "entering the personal sphere" of someone else. Your family members and very close friends are already in your own sphere (and you in theirs), and young children do not really have such a sphere yet but need to share that of close adults. But using "tu" with adults who are not already in one's personal sphere is viewed as an invasion or even a violation of their own personal sphere, that's why using "tu" in the absence of a very personal relationship is seen as conveying utter contempt. Foreigners will often be forgiven, especially by people who have struggled with learning other languages, but if there is a considerable class or age difference the recipient of the unwanted "tu" might react in a very hostile manner.

  65. Jean-Pierre Metereau said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

    We knew French co-operants when we were in the Peace Corps, and one interchange between two men–one a socialist and the other a royalist–sticks in my mind. X (the socialist) said to Y, full of bonhomie, "Alors, Y, tu peut bien me tutoyer!" The response was chilling: "Monsieur, je ne vous tutoyerer jamais." Wow, I thought… how to kill with politesse.

  66. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

    I remember someone commenting during the London mayoral election a couple of years a go that this might be the first major election in which both the principal candidates (Ken [Livingstone] and Boris [Johnson]) were universally referred to by their first names.

  67. army1987 said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

    In Italian, it used to be “tu for family, children/teenagers and friends and lei for anyone else”, but now for most people under 40 it's more like “lei for strangers who are obviously older than you and superiors, tu for everyone else”. A weird consequence of that is that people in their middle twenties would be likely addressed as tu by someone in their thirties, but as lei by someone in their seventies.

  68. Xmun said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 10:00 pm

    Re French "on": I was startled to come across feminine plural past participles in sentences where the pronoun was "on" but the people referred to were women, as in this passage about celebrating Christmas in Guadeloupe:

    "Nous avions passé tant de Noël ensemble, sans dinde, sans huîtres, sans chocolat… mais quels Noël! Sans neige, sans sapin décoré, sans boules scintillantes… mais on n'était jamais restées, assises raides, les cuisses serrées, dans un salon avec le seul silence invité à la fête."

    I took it that this was an example of the non-standard French spoken in Guadeloupe or by people who come from there: but no, my ancient Grevisse (7th edn) cites similar constructions from Hugo, Loti, Montherlant, etc.

    The quotation comes from Gisèle Pineau, Un papillon dans la cité (2nd edn, Editions Sepia, 2009; first published 1992)

  69. ronbo said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    @marie-lucie: This goes back some time, but I used to be acquainted with a French couple (probably in their 40s at the time) who used vous with each other. I can't say why, but that always struck me as breathtakingly elegant.

  70. marie-lucie said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    ronbo, perhaps those people spoke that way in the presence of others, reserving tu for intimate moments only, in order to show off social pretensions. Or they were indeed from upper upper class families where people used vous to their parents and most relatives, and there were very few people with whom they would have used tu, so they were more comfortable with vous as the default pronoun. Apparently Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (born before WWI; she was from an aristocratic family) always (or mostly) used vous with each other too.

    In André Gide's Les Faux-Monnayeurs (which has mostly upper class characters), a man and his sister (probably his half-sister) use vous to each other, something which sounds very far-fetched nowadays.

    In the film La Grande Illusion, which takes place during WWI in a German camp for French prisoners of war, there are two intersecting lines drawn between people: one between the French and the Germans as can be expected, the other between the upper and lower classes. At one point the lower-class French private suggests to the upper-class French officer that they should use tu (as would be normal between prisoners sharing the same fate), and the officer says "I use vous with my mother and my wife", therefore he is not going to call a male stranger tu (the same attitude shown in the anecdote related by J-PM above).

  71. marie-lucie said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

    xmun, your examples of "on" meaning "nous" are quite straightforward as examples of colloquial style. The quotation starts with "nous" and continues with "on" which means the same thing but indicates a change of style: the switch suggests that the speaker starts her utterance on a rather formal level but the happy memories cause her to revert to the colloquial speech of her childhood.

  72. @boris_tweets said,

    May 29, 2011 @ 4:57 am

    Things have definitely changed. It all depends on the context, of course. But believe me, people "tutoient" left and right these days. I recently had a phone job interview with a C-level executive at an advertising company (I'm 25, he is in his mid-thirties) and I have not "tutoyé" him once. I did think about it for a second, to be fair, but I ended up deciding that using V would be more awkward, because given the type of person he seemed to be (works at an ad agency, is definitely under 40, works with younger/cool people, etc.) he was definitely going to T me (he did indeed). and T-ing him was a good way to (a) show that I get his "culture" and (b) give me some leverage (because if I am T-ing him, I am probably not only laid-back and open-minded, but also somewhat accomplished (otherwise would I really dare to T a C-level executive?)). The bottom line is that V/T in the workplace is like wearing a suit to work or not; most people will tell you it's an absolute necessity, but the truth is that many people do not in fact wear suits to work, and that it will play to your disadvantage in certain circumstances (depending on what firm I am interviewing with, I make a point of wearing or not wearing a suit).

    With all due respect, your claim that "In French […] you have to be asked to address somebody with T. Or you have to ask them yourself." is simply not accurate.

    Hehe, I liked your anecdote, although it sounds like a watered down version of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaOUjgFb7W4. I've probably watched this exchange 10 times, and I still find it hilarious, incredibly violent, and typical of Mitterrand. :)
    Speaking of presidents, it is worth noting that president Sarkozy is famous for T-ing reporters; here is one example: http://www.lepost.fr/article/2009/05/10/1529688_jean-daniel-sarkozy-m-a-tutoye-ca-m-a-deplu.html. Only a few of them have publicly stated that they thought T-ing him was inappropriate, but very often T-ing calls for reciprocity, which puts many journalists in a quite delicate situation: keeping on V-ing would make them come off as too cold (especially if other journalists do T Sarkozy) but T-ing him would make them appear closer to the president than they actually are, which might have a negative influence on their credibility, and potentially their careers.

    @Tom Vinson, @ John Cowan:
    Tom, it's funny you'd mention last you heard of this T/V prayer business was 50 years ago, because that's when it changed. In the mid 1960s–you know… Vatican II and all that…–, Catholics, Orthodoxs and Protestants supposedly switched from T to V: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notre_P%C3%A8re#Traduction_fran.C3.A7aise_dite_.C2.AB_.C5.93cum.C3.A9nique_.C2.BB. My mother (I love you Mom! It's Mother's Day in France, sorry), who went to Sunday School in the lat 50s in France definitely learned the V version of The Lord's Prayer/"Le Notre Père".

    @Neil Dolinger:
    "Tutoyer" and "vouvoyer" do not imply that "tu" or "vous" is being used inappropriately. And no, "nounoyer" hasn't made it to French dictionaries yet (to the French language either, for that matter).

    I agree with Marie-Lucie ("on" = "nous" is a very very common feature of standard informal French), but I probably wouldn't say that the sentence starts off formal. The first occurrence of "nous" (a) really doesn't sound that formal and (b) actually comes in quite handy to make it clear that the speaker is not interested in using the "impersonal pronoun" meaning of "on".

    Finally, one important note re: Second Person Plural Pronouns in French. They are identical to the formal Second Person Singular Pronoun, which means that:

    you (singular-formal) = you (plural-formal) = you (plural-informal)
    vous = vous = vous

    No difference whatsoever (unlike in Spanish, where Vd ≠ Vds ≠ vosotros)!

  73. Kiwanda said,

    May 29, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

    W's habit of addressing people by "cute" nicknames surely has some element of a T/V power differential about it: you must be a pretty big deal if you can call reporters "Stretch" or "Superstretch", and even call a United States Senator "The Big O", and the British Prime Minister "Landslide", and they (in general) address you as "Mr. President".

  74. marie-lucie said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 7:31 am


    … claim that "In French […] you have to be asked to address somebody with T. Or you have to ask them yourself." is simply not accurate.

    If you are talking about students or lower-level personnel among themselves, this is probably true, but read this:

    From Maureen Dowd, May 31, NYTimes, about the repercussions of the DSK scandal:

    ""On Tuesday, Libération [a leftist newspaper] presented interviews with a parade of women who poured out long-stifled grievances about their paternalistic culture: How they feel they must wear pants to work to fend off leering; how they’re tired of men tu-ing instead of vous-ing and making comments like “O.K., but just because you have pretty eyes” …"

    This refers to men taking it upon themselves to use non-reciprocal "tu" to women in the workplace, an inappropriate context especially if the women are younger subordinates who feel unable to protest this use, where "vous" would indicate respectful distance and preclude hints of intimacy.

  75. Xmun said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

    A notable use of T to express exasperation was the King of Spain's "¿Por qué no te callas?" at an international conference in Spain in November 2007 when Hugo Chávez was constantly interrupting the Spanish prime minister.

    See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3Kzbo7tNLg (which has English subtitles).

  76. Jennifer said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 7:21 pm

    @Neil Dolinger: German does have two rather charming verbs–at least hypothetically; they're not used much: (sich) duzen, "to address (each other) with du-form/informally", and (sich) siezen, "to address (each other) with Sie-form/formally." Careful with the former; the similar-sounding "sich duschen" means "to shower."

    As an American learning to speak German, the T/V distinction is a never-ending source of fascination/total nightmare. In a train station Subway restaurant, I found myself in the odd position of addressing the employee, who was about my age, with "Sie", while she addressed me with "du," which felt quite awkward. But my understanding of the T/V distinction is how marie-lucie described it: "du" is for people who, for one reason or another, have the right or permission to be within a certain social boundary; "Sie" maintains social and/or relational distance. This means that I'm always slightly ruffled when people I don't know, even in my own age group (early 20s), address me as "du", apparently out of solidarity/lack of formality. However, this doesn't seem to bother my German friends, so clearly I'm still missing several pieces of the puzzle…and the picture on the box.

  77. Leo said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 10:06 am

    The version of the Lord's prayer in was taught in Catholic school in France can't make up its mind:

    Our Father, which art (V) in heaven,
    hallowed be thy (T) name;
    thy (T) kingdom come;
    thy (T) will be done,
    in earth as it is in heaven.
    Give (V) us this day our daily bread.
    And forgive (V) us our trespasses,
    as we forgive them that trespass against us.
    And lead (T) us not into temptation;
    but deliver (T) us from evil.
    For thine (T) is the kingdom,
    the power, and the glory,
    for ever and ever.

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