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 225.

    I can't imagine the French being rude!
    I know that some English people often think the French are rude.I think that is largely cultural difference.Many English tend to be stiff upper lipped and not show their annoyance, the French are perhaps more likely to be up front about what they feel. French people will greet and shake hands with everyone when entering a room, English often dont.

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    @ 213: The informal English “thou” was used rarely and in a very restricted way already in Shakespeare's time. It was used e.g in prayers or when a lord spoke to an inferior or husbands talking to their spouses. Eventually “thou” and the respective verbforms “thou hast” or “thou lovest” (for the present tense) died out during the 17th and 18th centuries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    Perhaps what some languages need is a 'new' second-person pronoun - ust as English transitioned from "thou" and "thee" to the current indeterminate "you".

    Or maybe the whole world should speak, read and write only English - although I don't think that the Americans would agree to move from their current corrupted form...

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    #213 - most English speakers aren't even aware of 'thou', or how it was used.

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    @220: That used to annoy me as well, but even in recent times it was not unknown for husband and wife to say "vous" to each other. J-P Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are said to have done so. The phrase "voulez vous ... " dates from the early 20th century and alludes to the oldest profession (where the partners would indeed be strangers)

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    I think that the English overuse "vous" in France anyway - it really annoys me that the formal version is used in the song "voulez vous coucher avec moi" as surely you would use the informal sense if you were going to sleep with someone! As we get introduced more and more to new people by their first name, "vous" should only be reserved for M. Mlle or Mme.

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    @218: "Thou" disappeared from commmon English usage about 300–400 years ago. But in those days the use of the familiar forms was rather circumscribed in all European languages; "tu" nearly disappeared in French. The modern increased use of familiar "you" is a much more recent phenomenon; it is reasonable to suppose that had "thou" survived it would also be increasing in use.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    @209: yes, I'm aware that vos is a better approximation of vous in Portuguese (I wanted to comment on that, but there wasn't enough space); I just felt that it'd be a better approximation since they're both contemporary usage (not to mention o senhor, etc.) and Spanish here speakers mentioned usted, which (as far as I know) would be a better match for tu/voce. Sorry for any confusion/errors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    #39 exactly Phil....errr Mr Moisey. Small joke but I do agree with your point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    When my son recently spent two weeks with a French family in Brittany that was previously unknown to us, every time he said 'vous' he was, good naturedly, shouted down with 'tu' much to his confusion -school French had taught him 'tu' was only amongst good friends and close family and certainly not for elders - its been a key learning for us that 'tu' is much more widely used than we had believed

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    I can't imagine the French being rude!

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    It sure would have been a lot easier when I was studying French, German and Spanish in high school and college if I had to learn only one pronoun for "you".

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    So why has the English-speaking world gone in the exact opposite direction and got rid of "thou", and now uses the previously formal "you" even for a mother talking to her child?

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    Old article on a blog two years ago... BRILLIANT

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    @195: But British English-speakers tend to use first names more than do French-speakers from France. So maybe we once valued respect more, but the same is not true now. French "tu" nearly went the same way as English "thou", but was revived following the French Revolution. I suspect that if "thou" had survived in English it too would be howing increased use now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    Pretentious, moi?
    It just makes the anglo-saxon "you" look so much more suitable in all circumstances, unless one likes to use the term "one".
    No wonder Fench is a dying language.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    To answer nxdat below,
    In Portuguese we have 'tu' and 'vos', like in French. Not tu and voce. Is pronomes Sao: eu, tu, ele/ela, nos, vos e eles/elas. Actually exactly like in French. The only difference to English is that our 'tu' is the same in you. As in French they still,keep the informal and formal in the colloquial. We in Brazil evolved the language to a different perception regarding the vos

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    I do not see why online fora should be informal, especially given the greater propensity to converse with complete strangers. There is nothing snobbish in expecting to be treated with respect: when conversing with any adult — whether they be an academic, a manager, a bricklayer, a secretary, or a cleaner — through *any* medium, the formal mode of address should always be the *default setting*.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    The internet is a precursor to what will happen in the rest of the world.

    Vous/Sir/etc are all just stupid formalities that will have disappeared in a few decades time. Why even have more than one word for the same meaning?

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    In Sweden, meanwhile, the artificial "ni" was boosted as an alternative to the far more formal third person form of address ("Will Dr. Lundqvist have a cup of tea?") but -although that antiquated style still survives- "du" has clearly overtaken "nI" (as well it should!)

    Most African languages (e.g. Ikinyirwanda) have maintained wholly different forms of address re. age, gender, or social status.


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