Thursday, May 12, 2011

Thinking of "You"

The pronoun you provides an interesting view of society.  While it is true that all languages (as far as I know) have a second person form, the number and uses of these forms vary from language to language and even from culture to culture of the same language.
Hebrew and Arabic are very concerned about gender.  Both the singular and plural forms of you have masculine and feminine versions, making writing instruction manuals very interesting.  Ata and Atem 9 (singular and plural) are the masculine forms while at and aten are the female forms in Hebrew.   This clear distinction reflects the clear role differences in society.  For example, among Druze and religious Jews , men and women naturally segregate themselves when socializing.
European countries, by contrast, place their emphasis on status.  The informal form in French is tu, which is used when talking to dogs, children, friends, and family.  In the past, it wasn’t even used between husband and wife in some circles.  Some people were and are even insulted when addressed in the tu form.  French children learn to use vous, the formal form, on anyone who looks like an adult unless that person is close family.  I personally remember hearing a child say vous to me on the Paris metro.  I was 16 years old.  It made feel so adult.  Interesting, most French speakers from North Africa very quickly turn to the tu.  Apparently, it is too hot and/or too poor there to stand on ceremony.
English is the egalitarian language.  King James’s thee and thou have long since been replaced by the catch-all you, good for young and old, rich and poor.  In my opinion, this reflects the more open nature of English-speaking society, especially the United States and Australia, where rags-to-riches-to rags in three generations keeps everybody humble.
I would be interested in knowing how you is expressed in other languages.

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