Tu and Twitter: Is it the end for 'vous' in French?

Facebook Wall Even in French, the web employs a "cyber-utopian California-style libertarian discourse"

The informal version of "you" in the French language - "tu" - seems to be taking over on social media, at the expense of the formal "vous". 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?

Anthony Besson calls most people "vous". As a young man, it is a sign of respect to those older than him, and he's often meeting new people through his work in PR in Paris.

Yet this all changes on social media. "I always use 'tu' on Twitter," Besson says. "And not just because it takes up fewer of the 140 characters!"

Lots of other French people do exactly the same.

"Tu" is normally for family and friends, but when you're communicating through @ symbols, joining networks and tweeting under a pseudonym, a formal "vous" can seem out of place, even to someone you've never met.

Antonio Casilli, professor of Digital Humanities at Telecom ParisTech engineering school, says the web has been used as a tool for breaking down social barriers from its very beginning, resulting in a distinctively "egalitarian political discourse".

Start Quote

Anthony Bresson

In the philosophy of the internet, we are among peers, equal, without social distinction, whatever your age, gender, income or status in real life”

End Quote Anthony Besson

The pervasive pattern of speech on the web in the 1990s, he says, was "cyber-utopian California-style libertarian discourse, inherited from 1960s counter-culture".

And the egalitarian spirit remained when the "participatory web" came of age in the mid-2000s, he suggests.

Social networking sites such as Twitter take this one step further, adopting codes "characterised by a heightened sense of emotional proximity", such as friending on Facebook, he says.

Twitter, meanwhile, follows on from a long line of internet forums where users could be anonymous.

"In the philosophy of the internet, we are among peers, equal, without social distinction, whatever your age, gender, income or status in real life," Besson says.

Addressing someone as "vous" - or expecting to be addressed as "vous" - on the other hand, implies hierarchy.

It is, as Casilli puts it, "a major break in the code of communication… an attempt to reaffirm asymmetric social roles… a manifestation of distance that compromises social cohesion".

Forget this at your peril.


Last year, Laurent Joffrin, director of left-leaning news magazine Nouvel Observateur, turned on a follower, asking who authorised him to use "tu" - "Qui vous autorise a me tutoyer?" (Joffrin, of course, used "vous".)

A storm erupted. Joffrin the accuser was himself accused of being rude and condescending.

Start Quote

Laurent Joffrin

People on Twitter would never dare to go up to someone in the street and call them 'tu' because it's a form of violence”

End Quote Laurent Joffrin

"The fact that he was a public figure who was part of an elite probably didn't help as he expected some respect and viewed 'tu' as an insult," Besson says.

He likens knowledge of the online social codes to a form of cultural capital - you either have it or you don't. And while younger people may be more likely to have it, there is no guarantee.

"Just because you're young doesn't mean you're better at using the internet than your grandmother," Besson says.

A year later, Joffrin has stopped using Twitter - his last tweet was in October - though he says this is nothing to do with the "tu" drama.

"It was unpleasant," he says of that episode. "There's a group of people who think they are superior because they know a way of talking [on Twitter] that others don't. I don't like the hierarchy. They want to impose their codes.

"It doesn't bring people together, it heightens tensions. It's an appalling culture. People on Twitter would never dare to go up to someone in the street and call them 'tu' because it's a form of violence - you see drivers insulting each other using 'tu'.

In other languages

Francois Hollande
  • In German there's a tendency to use the informal "du" rather than the formal "Sie" on social media
  • In Russian the formal "vy" remains standard between strangers online
  • Language is liable to be even more formal than in face-to-face contact on the Japanese social networking site, Mixi
  • The informal "to" is more common than the formal "shoma" on social networks in Persian
  • The formal "nin" is rarely used in Chinese anyway but online language is often very informal and has generated a new lexicon of web slang
  • In the UK emails are now far more likely to begin with "Hi" than letters were in the era of snail mail

"In big cities especially, you need respect and courtesy. And on Twitter, there isn't respect."

In Spain, the same thing is happening to modes of address online. The familiar "tu" dominates, with the formal "usted" a rarity.

As in France, the normal style of writing on Twitter in Spanish is "informal, direct and very personal", says Prof Jose Luis Orihuela of Navarra University, author of a book called Mundo Twitter (Twitter World).

Melchor Miralles Sangro, host of the Cada manana morning programme on ABC Punto Radio in Spain, who has more than 50,000 followers on Twitter says he usually uses "tu" online but is quite relaxed about forms of address. "I don't mind which form of 'you' people use to address me," he says. "I have no problem with either."

In Italian, meanwhile, the move towards "tu" was under way long before the arrival of the internet and social media. They merely reinforce an existing trend.

"In Italian, even among strangers or among people belonging to different generations, the informal 'tu' is much more frequent than the formal 'lei'," Casilli says.

"The shift in the use of informal language online is… less dramatic than in French."

Start Quote

If people's first contact is on social media and they start using 'tu', it would be awkward to use 'vous' in a different context”

End Quote Prof Bert Peeters Macquarie University, Australia

It's too early to say whether Twitter will change how French people talk in everyday life.

Historically, the biggest shifts towards "tu" occurred at the time of the French Revolution and during the social upheavals of May 1968.

"People who played an active role in May '68 pleaded in favour of getting rid of the distance created by 'vous' and doing away with hierarchy," says Prof Bert Peeters, of the French and Francophone Studies department at Macquarie University in Australia, co-editor, of Tu ou vous: l'embarras du choix - Tu or vous: an awkward choice.

"However, as they grew up and became mature adults, they realised that having just 'tu' in French was not adequate, or not part of being French, and 'vous' started coming back."

Although "tu" is more common than it was pre-68, strict rules still govern its use.

"You would offend a lot of people if you used 'tu' and they didn't know you. It is difficult to say whether social media will change this," Peeters says.

"However, if people's first contact is on social media and they start using 'tu', it would be awkward to use 'vous' in a different context. Once you start with 'tu', it is very hard and very rare to abandon it."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    In France, the switch from "tu" to "vous" got a temporary boost after the 1968 "cultural revolution", and the (still noticeable) switch from Vd. to "tu" in Spain can be tracked to the post-Franco euphoria (now somewhat muted) while, in much of Latin America, the ancient "vos" has found a middle ground between "tu" and "Vd"

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    Totally agree with how the service sector should behave; but having worked in retail for many years I grew to dislike the customers who feel that they are better than the store's staff and deliberately seek out your name to call you by it. At least abroad there is a level of respect from both parties involved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    My attitude when communicating with strangers in French or German would always be to use the formal form as it is always recommended as more polite/respectful. However, here at home I actually prefer informal address from just about everyone - I would appreciate "hi" over "dear" as it sounds friendlier, and far prefer being referred to by my first name than by "Mr " plus my surname.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    It may be that English has overcome the problem of proper address with the all-purpose "you" -which, as some have noted, actually corresponds to the more formal pronoun (whereas "thou" has been fossilized in the King James/Shakespearean usage), but other languages have confronted that problem in other ways.

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    55 years ago, our French master used to say, "Use 'tu' for family, friends, dogs and small boys!" We always laughed when he said it, but it meant we never forgot the rule. Anyone else, or for the plural, was 'vous'. Personally, I think it's sad that, in our own language, we don't use 'thou' any more. Sometimes the familiar, more affectionate form feels more appropriate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    It's also interesting how English has evolved online. Those of us online in the 80s & early 90s used first names & last names. Amazon does the same. 15+ years later e-commerce takes hold & the formal English world goes online & demands that we MUST use courtesy titles whether we want to or not because of legacy systems even though most people don't bother when they are optional. No "Mr" please!

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    194. Michelle - yes, you've hit the nail on the head. I see e-mails as electronic letters and still address them in a formal style to people I don't know. 'Kind regards' is a particular bugbear of mine!

  • Comment number 198.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    Last I checked, there was a huge universe of Communication outside Twitter... Some of it even involving spelling, addressing a person by name (instead of "broadcasting": 'on the can' for all to know)... oh, and also using proper punctuation!

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    Yesterday "vous", today "tu", tomorrow "you".

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    Chris, 180: No, the English equivalent of the Formal Singular Pronoun is, in fact, "You." You is the equivalent of Vous, Vos, Usted, Sie, the Russian "Vy." The informal, intimate English pronoun is actually "Thou." That is what the people using "Tu" in French (or Spanish) are actually using. The reason we use "You" & have dropped "Thou" is because the English understood early the value of Respect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    The internet has a similar effect in English, even though our speech patterns are a little harder to define. I can't imagine writing a cover letter for a job application that ended any less formally than "Yours sincerely"... if it was on paper. Yet by email the overwhelmingly used "Kind regards" seems to be the chosen signoff - just another subtle erosion of formality online.

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    I think this is reflective of situations such as receiving "cold calls" and someone whom you have never spoken to before in your life saying "Hi, this is Mike - am I speaking to xxx? [using your first name] . The same thing happens in email. Whoever the hell thought it was OK to talk to you using your first name as if they know who you are and that you are well acquainted?

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    Politesse is a concept that exists far beyond Europe. Speaking 5 Asian and European languages (and now learning another) I think that 'tu/vous will survive and is not a bad thing.Any environment- it is alive. And Twitter is a nothing where I live now and in 1/2 the world. Few users. Boring. Silly self promo. Let us not predict the future on a temporary ephemera.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    We have a tu like form in the Welsh Language also with " ti " in it's various forms. There are also familiar second person singular forms of verbs and possesives again in the same way as French. I suppose English may have had this sort of thing once with thy and thou?

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    Many years ago - before social media - I was at a party in Paris. The guests were mostly Deaf colleagues of my friend. Deaf people - of whatever nationality - tend to be very informal. I was mightily amused as an English Deaf person, to whom it didn't matter, to be respectfully asked by someone I'd just met whether it was OK to call me "tu". That mixture epitomised French Deaf culture for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    It so happens that in a lot of cultures, one uses the informal, intimate "Thou" to address God.The reason for this informality is the presumption that God is The One you can trust not to ever hurt or fail or cheat you!The reason the formal 2nd person sing. pronoun exists (or the patronymic) is because experience proves the other party may become unreliable.You do realise "you"in English is Formal?

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    Hi everyone, excuse me for my poor english.
    I'm french, i'm 17.
    In France, "vous" is a respect sign. You have to say it to older person or higher person in hierarchy. In general, adults says it to each other.
    But something i see everyday is that young people like 15-25 are losing this habit. They always say "tu" even if they don't know the person. They lose their notion of respect. Worrying. Bye.

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    The Swedish language went through a similar change during the 1960s and 70s. The informal "du" rapidly increased, and the formal "ni" declined. Unlike in France, the change stuck. People even started wearing buttons stating "I have joined the "du" reform. A few traditionalists may now complain when someone addresses the king as "du", but essentially the use of "ni" has died out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    Oh I wish the French, and everyone else (by the sounds of it) would get a grip... JJ :) Just joking. As long as people treat each other with respect and compassion, if a few words become redundant, it's no great loss. They'll still be around, just used less. There's nothing unnatural about this. It's just the web makes phenomena like this more trackable and more detailed.


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