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Phil, We Hardly Knew Ye — Or Should We Say Vous?

Zev Shanken writes from Teaneck, New Jersey:

“Your comments on profanity in your November 7 column reminded me of a discussion I once had with a native French speaker who asked if there is an English equivalent to the French distinction between tu, the familiar form of ‘you’ in the second-person singular, and vous, the more respectful form. After lamenting the decline of ‘thou,’ I suggested that English speakers mark this difference by using profanity in familiar interactions and refraining from it in others. My question is: How does Hebrew compensate for the lack of a second-person familiar form? Not through profanity, I should hope!”

Philologos leaves Forward after 24 years

Although Hebrew, it is true, has, like English, only one second-person singular pronoun, which is ata when addressing a male and at when addressing a female, it would be more accurate to say that what it lacks is the pronoun’s respectful form, not its familiar one. This is because in European languages, the respectful form is usually the second-person plural form used for addressing a single individual, as is the case with French vous, German Sie, Russian vy, etc. (This was also, as Mr. Shanken points out, once the usage in English, but the familiar “thou” began to disappear some 500 years ago, ultimately leaving only the respectful “you” for familiar situations as well.) In Hebrew, on the other hand, the second-person plural form, atem or aten, never came to be used in the singular at all.

There are reasons, of course, why some languages do and some languages don’t have both familiar and respectful second-person singular pronouns, and these generally have to do with the degree of social stratification and formality found among the language’s speakers. In much of Europe today, the familiar pronoun is used far more extensively than it was in the past because old class distinctions have weakened or vanished and social relations have become more informal.

In France, for example, it was once the practice to use tu only with family members and close friends, and vous with everyone else. Today tu is commonly used with more casual acquaintances, too, as well as in the workplace and in many social situations; among younger Frenchmen, indeed, it has replaced vous almost completely, so that two people under the age of 25 or 30 will tend to address one another as tu with no vous stage preceding it at all. And yet in other situations, vous is still mandatory. No French speaker would dream of walking into an unfamiliar store and saying tu to a salesperson. It just isn’t done.

Mr. Shanken is right, of course, that all of us whose world is divided into those we know well, those we know less well, and those we do not know at all have a need to indicate these different kinds of relationships in one verbal form or another, even if we do not have pronouns to do the work for us. A freer use of profanity with some people is certainly one way of accomplishing this in English, although I would by no means say it is the main way. (There are, after all, many English speakers who prefer to use little or no profanity even with friends.) A more universally accepted indicator is the use of first names; whether I call you “Henry” or “Mr. Jones” tells both of us immediately if our relationship is a formal one or not. And since calling you “Henry” doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re buddies, there is the additional option of nicknames. Your good friends may call you “Hank,” but if I’m not one of them, I would think twice about addressing you that way and you might bristle if I did.

In fact, although I’ve never made a study of it, I suspect that languages that lack the tu/vous distinction tend to resort to nicknames much more than languages that have it. French, certainly, has nothing like the pairings of William/Bill, Robert/Bob, Richard/Dick, John/Jack, Albert/Al, Daniel/Dan, and so forth that are systematic in English. And Israeli Hebrew, in this respect, is very much like English. There is hardly a name in it that does not have one or more possible nicknames, many of them formed by suffixed endearments that generally come from Yiddish. For Yosef, there is Yosi or Yoske; for Avraham, Avi or Avrum; for Moshe, Moishele, Moshke or Moishik; for Ya’akov, Kobi or Yankele; for Sarah, Sarke or Sarale; for Miriam, Miri or Mirele; for Rakhel, Rokhi or Rokhele, etc. And there are additional suffixes like the Slavic –ushke or the Ladino –iko that can be appended to many other names.

Profanity, though it exists, is not as widespread in Hebrew as in English, while ordinary first names are used so ubiquitously — it is perfectly normal for a private in the Israeli army to call a major Avraham or Moshe — that they are not much help in making the social distinctions in question. Nicknames are more useful. If I knew Mr. Shanken well, I would probably call him Zevik and in all likelihood he would call me Phil.

After more than 24 years filing his weekly column, Philologos has decided to retire from the Forward. This will be his last column.

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