As in many countries, online modes of address in French are more relaxed than in face-to-face encounters. But will this have a permanent effect on the French language?
I doubt it, frankly. Much as the Internet can affect our use of language (“web“, anyone?), I think the hierarchy of tu and vous is so ingrained in the way we use French that it will take more than just Twitter to shake it.
The French on Twitter
As of July 2012, there are over 8 million Twitter accounts in France out of half a billion Twitter accounts globally. Let’s assume that the vast majority of them tweet in French. I think that’s a safe bet, although there is probably some multilingualism and English influence, too. We would also have to factor in French speakers/tweeters in other parts of the world. I think Canada, parts of Switzerland and London* would be especially common – I’m not sure how many people in former French colonies (many of which are in Africa, where I imagine Internet access is more restricted) use Twitter.
So on the whole, the proportions of online conversations happening in French, and French conversations happening online, are quite small.
The French & the Internet so far
It’s clear that the Internet generally can add features to languages, including French. For instance,
C’est trop LOL!
I have heard that one spoken out loud on a regular basis for about ten years. It even gets adapted and integrated into vocabulary – C’est lollant being (I suspect) a portmanteau** of LOL and marrant ***. Je like is more recent, but I have also heard that one in the street.
The Académie Française is the institution which officially decides what is and is not French. Yes, we have one of those. And yes, it is composed almost exclusively of old, white men****, whose 40-strong membership of “Immortals” is elected… by the existing membership. They are a highly conservative group, and usually propose gallicised (or Frenchified if you will) versions of new words. See also their FAQ of French.
Mostly, the Académie‘s recommendations consist of things like fin de semaine instead of “le week-end”. However, in the world of technology and innovation, new objects and ideas needing names come up fairly often. As far back as the 1950s, IBM supposedly coined the word ordinateur for “computer” because they thought calculateur did not reflect the capabilities of their machines. For what’s it’s worth, I think there’s another reason. After all, who wants to have words which sound like con and pute (I’ll let you look those up for yourselves) in the name of their product?!
Another example is the official Académie term for e-mail: courriel, which is a portmanteau** of courrier (“post”) and électronique. This has given rise to a double portmanteau that I am particularly fond of: the word for “spam” is pourriel, which is a portmanteau** of pourri (“rotten”, or “rubbish” (as an adjective) and the aforementioned courriel. A double portmanteau. Of course, none of this stops anyone from using the terms un email, un mail or even un mél (*shudder*), as well as du spam.
[23 Jan. Update to add: The Tribune de Genève today reports that the "Journal Officiel" (I'm not sure what that is, but it sounds important) that the word "hashtag", as commonly used on Twitter, is to be replaced by "mot-dièse", which literally translates as "word-hash". The irony is not lost on me.]
Tu and vous in the real world
The nature of the relationship is key to whether we use tu or vous. I remember quite clearly the first day of school in CE2 (equivalent to Americans’ 3rd Grade or Year 3 in the UK). The teacher, Mr Rey, told us that we could each choose whether we wanted to call him tu or vous. However, if we picked tu, we would also have to use his first name (which I’ve since forgotten), for consistency. My classmates and I were in the habit of using last names for teachers (and mistakenly also called them tu), so we learned to stick to the more formal vous.
More recently, I was asked by a former teacher to give a careers talk to my old school. You know, one of those “what’s the real world like?” things. I gladly accepted the offer (well, any opportunity to show off…), but it occurs to me I don’t know how to address him. When I was still at school, there was no doubt that I was to call him vous and monsieur, and he called me tu and Alex. But what about now? He’s less than ten years older than me (I’m guessing), and we now know several of the same people in the real world. If we were to meet socially for the first time now, it would most certainly be on an equal footing, with tu and first names.
In 2010, I spent a couple of weeks working in a residential summer camp (i.e. where the kids stay overnight as well during the day). A significant proportion of the campers were from severely disadvantaged backgrounds, and many had behavioural difficulties. They typically spent most of their time either in foster care, or in children’s “homes”. The philosophy of the camp was that these children were on holiday; although we adults were there as authorities, we were primarily there for entertainment and pastoral care (though of course thoughts of discipline and safety were never far away). So, the kids were perfectly allowed to call us tu, and to use our first names. For most of them, this was easy enough. They just treated us like big friends (though with clear boundaries, don’t get the wrong idea). However, several of the children, especially those from the homes, chose to stick with vous. They could get around the issue of using first names instead of monsieur or mademoiselle (“sir” or “miss”), but couldn’t bring themselves to call us tu. Whenever we asked them why, they would all reply that they didn’t want to get out of the habit of calling grown-ups vous, for fear of being told off by their foster families or carers.
Some people call their parents vous, which I find odd. I speak to my parents in English, but on the rare occasion I do speak to them in French (for instance if we have company), I use tu. That might be down to the fact that I’m a grown-up now, but I think it would also have been true as a child (I used to refuse to speak to them in French, even in front of guests. It just felt weird. In fact, it still does, but I’m more polite about it now.)
In English, we already use the formal form of address. Indeed, “you” is the equivalent of vous, and tu translates to the historic form “thou”. For proof of this, look at religious texts, where God is called “Tu” in French and “Thou” in English, both with a captial T.
Tu and vous online
When it comes to the online version of the tu/vous debate, the social norms of interaction are unclear. Twitter gives people unprecented access to each other, bridging gaps between social groups. This brings with it new questions of social interaction. The key issue in French lies in the 140-character length limit. Vous is twice as long as tu, so it seems natural to use the shorter form, which technically has the same meaning.
The BBC article highlighted above points out a case of a politican being called “tu” by someone asking him a question. Instead of answering, he asked
“who gave you permission to call me tu?”
This inevitably led to considerable backlash.
I don’t tweet in French very often. Supposedly, tweeting in foreign puts people off. But if I were to Tweet @ someone much higher up the social order, I would still use “vous”. If I was really struggling for characters, I might abbreviate it to “vs”. But then I hardly ever use “u” instead of “you”, so I would probably try to strip out as many letters elsewhere before sacrificing the “vous”.
I am gradually gaining an understanding of how it works in German, where they have similar issues surrounding du and Sie. For instance, God is referred to using Du. But the character saving is only 1, rather than 2, and I gather that du/Sie is even more central to conversations than tu/vous. The transition from Sie to Du to du is certainly more subtle in my experience. But that’s a matter for another post.
Languages are constantly evolving, and that’s no bad thing. I could (and probably will) write loads about whether we should even try to stop phenomena like “Denglisch” and “Franglais”. But for now, suffice it to say that I think it takes more than even the mighty Twitter to change such a core part of a language.
Has the internet affected the way you use language? If so, how?
* London is “France’s sixth biggest city” with nearly half a million ex-pats. It’s closer to Paris by train than most of the rest of France.
** I love that “portmanteau” is a mis-spelling (of porte-manteau) and a misnomer!
*** Marrant is slang for “funny“, not to be confused with marron – “chestnut“ and a commonly used in the colourful sense.
**** Only 6 of the current 40 are women. The maximum age for a candidate seeking Immortal status is 75.
If you want to learn French through the medium of Twitter, you’re not alone!