Language variation and change and the tu/vous, tú/Usted distinction

Yesterday in Spanish class we got to talking about when to use tú and when to use Usted – the formal/informal “you” distinction that modern English doesn’t possess. Our instructor, Alejandro, asked about how English got to where it is, and described how the formal/informal choice in Spanish varies from country to country, social group to social group and even on an individual level.

It’s these kinds of sociolinguistic decisions that make me glad pronunciation isn’t my forte. So long as I can’t be mistaken for a native speaker in French, Russian or Spanish, people are a lot less likely to judge me for choosing the wrong you.

Alejandro is from Cuba, and he explained how in Honduras, he was visiting with a group of academics (and colleagues and friends) in a professor’s home (I think I’m getting those details right) and they were all addressing each other with Usted, the polite form of “you” – even the professor to his wife. And I suddenly thought, is that where English “thou” went? And if you could take a group of Spanish speakers who err on the side of Usted, would tú eventually just disappear?

Back before I abandoned the PhD, when people asked what my main area of interest was, I would have to say both synchronic and diachronic, or, more accurately, that nebulous space in between. It doesn’t exist, of course; at least, not yet. While we can discuss variations in language today, we can’t say for sure which of those variations might take hold and wipe out the other by the year 2500 – or, perhaps, whether all will survive, or be supplanted by something else. And since recordings and phonetic transcriptions are a relatively modern affair, it’s impossible to go back and look at living language in the past. Perhaps linguists of the distant future or of outer space will write papers on the linguistic subtleties of global versions of Big Brother and what they mean for their modern tongue.

But back to “you” – a word that’s a failure of English, to tell the truth. In losing the distinction between thou and you – one that was primarily one of number but also of formality, it seems, though the jury is apparently out due to lack of decent sources (excuse me for my poor knowledge of the history of English) – we lost so many nuances of meaning that speakers are working hard to replace them. “You” has gone from plural to mostly singular, and various dialects have various ways of fudging to make it plural. I would love to have a time machine to see what wins (I’m a “you guys” myself, like most Canadians); unfortunately I’m highly unlikely to live that long, despite all the kale.

As for Spanish, it seems it’s best to defer to Usted – if a native speaker wants you to use tú, they’ll probably tell you, which has been my experience in Russian. In France, on the other hand, it seems that tu is winning the war among the young, though they still manage to insult the old by it. (The old, it seems, or some of them, will manage to find insult in anything the young do.) Though it’s ridiculous to think Twitter’s character limit is the reason.

This post on language hat has some interesting comments on the topic, at least until halfway down the page, where they devolve into (articulate) discussion of popcorn, word stress and French as a polysynthetic language (about which, yes, I want to think more on that).

Photo by Gregory Morris on Flickr

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