Home » Language and Language related » The use of “VOUS” versus “TU” — in EUROPE – Post 1 of 2 (#268)

The use of “VOUS” versus “TU” — in EUROPE – Post 1 of 2 (#268)

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Introduction to the use of “vous” and “tu”

A good number of the followers of this blog are Anglophone Canadians who are learning French.  Many people are following these posts to gain additional cultural insight as they integrate more and more of our Canadian Francophone culture into their English-dominant lives.

Anglophones who are learning French often have a good deal of questions regarding the use of “vous” and “tu”.  I have been giving a good deal of thought on how to describe the use of “vous” and “tu” in a Canadian and Québec context.

In Europe, there exist more concrete and tangible rules regarding their use than here in Canada.

On this side of the Atlantic, you almost have to “feel” the situation out, and make a “judgement call” as to whether or not to tutoie or vousvoie (to use “tu” or “vous”) with the person to whom you are speaking.

It’s not as tricky as it sounds if you regularly live or interact in French.  This is because the correct use of vocabulary becomes a natural reflex the more you use it (and the more you hear it being used).   Thus, for those of us who consistently interact with others in French, we “naturally” known when and where to use “vous” or “tu”.

But for those who are learning French, it must often feel like an adventure of epic proportions; one of trial and error, sometimes with a little uncertainty.

Fortunately, it need not be.  There are a number of loose rules you can use to get by until you develop a firmer feel for the “concept” (and never forget that in Canada, the use of “tu” and “vous” is just that:  a concept – thus there is a relative amount of flexibility when choosing to use of “tu” or “vous”).

Before I try to explain how and when to use “tu” and “vous” in Canada and Québec, let us first look at how “tu” and “vous” is used in Europe.   By extension, the European rules also apply in the many countries which comprise Francophone Africa (I lived and worked for a period in Africa, and I can confirm that Africa uses “tu” and “vous” in the same context as Europeans).

The EUROPEAN use of “TU” and “VOUS”

I asked the author and blogger, William Alexander, to contribute a guest post to explain the EUROPEAN use of “tu” and “vous” His works have been featured in publications as diverse as L’Actualité (the French counterpart of Maclean’s), the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times (several times), the Washington Post, Bloomberg TV, and many other prestigious media outlets.

William Alexander is also the author of the well-selling book “Flirting with French”.  His book has been featured on the New York Times best-sellers’ list.   If you have an interest in French, I’d encourage you to check out his book.

(Click to englarge)

Flirting with French

His blog can be found here:  http://www.thefrenchblog.com/

The following is William Alexander’s gracious contribution to this blog post. (Thanks very much Bill!  Much appreciated).


Guest Contribution by William Alexander

Asking me to contribute to a blog that attempts to bridge the cultural divide between French and English speakers is like inviting an arsonist to a campfire, but I’ve been asked, so I’ll try to forget the 13 months I recently spent not learning French and discuss one of my favorite topics: navigating the hazardous waters of vous and tu.

First, a little background: Until the fourth century, Latin (from which, of course, French is derived) had only one form of the third person singular: tu, as in, “Et tu, Brute?” Thus addressing other people (even those who’d just stabbed you) was easy until the Roman empire split into two, with Eastern and Western emperors ruling from Constantinople and Rome. The two emperors wanted to make it clear that, although separated by a thousand miles, they spoke with a single voice, so they each started to refer to themselves in the plural (“We decree that…” or even “We’d like a cup of coffee.”) Well, it didn’t take long for everyone else to figure out that if your boss refers to himself in the plural (however bizarrely), you’d better follow suit, so the emperors’ subjects started to refer to each emperor using the plural “you,” vos. This made the pope jealous, so he demanded to be called vos, and, predictably, the kings followed suit, and then the nobles, and the not-so-nobles, as the custom filtered down through society until (and we’ll move the story to France here) French peasants, at the bottom rung of the social ladder, demanded that their children start calling them “vous.”

France, in particular, has turned this business into a bit of a fetish, with social rules so complicated that, as Mary Blume once pointed out in the International Herald Tribune, “Foreigners can’t hope to master the intricacies of the tu and vous forms of address because the French can’t either.” But fear not: For my book, Flirting with French, I drew up this foolproof flowchart to help you navigate these treacherous waters.

Note that these rules were written for France: In Canada, you have a slightly different set of unfathomable rules, so adapt as needed — but you’re used to doing that!

(CLICK the diagram to ENLARGE)

tu versus vous


With the above introduction and explanation of the EUROPEAN use of “tu” and “vous” behind us, the next post will look at the CANADIAN and QUÉBEC use of “tu” and “vous”.

Click here for the next post:





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