For English speakers, one of the main hazards in learning a language like French or German is the existence of informal and formal versions for the second person (you). This used to be part of English as well — “thou” was informal, though now it sounds extra formal and archaic to our ears. However, this was dropped along the course of linguistic evolution, perhaps as a result of waves of immigrants and invaders that tended to rub off some of the corners of the language.
When I started learning French many years ago, I had to get used to the “tu” and “vous” forms, and I thought that was bad enough. However, at least “vous” and its attendant verb conjugations remain the same for both formal and plural usages, and there is no different form for objects vs subjects. With German, an informal plural form is added, “ihr,” which to add insult to injury is the same as one version of the word for “her” and similar to a bunch of other pronouns. Also, this being German, there are also different forms for direct and indirect objects.
I have the hardest time keeping all this straight and so I tend to avoid talking to or about groups of people with whom I am in an informal relationship.
It’s those relationships that are the main issue, of course, not the just the grammatical rules. When and how does one move from using the formal (vous / Sie) to informal (tu / du/ihr)? It’s a matter of great cultural delicacy, and though things have loosened up lately, one can cause great offense and/or misunderstanding by using the wrong form. I find it all terribly awkward, not being accustomed to having to ask or to somehow sense whether a relationship with another adult is ready for “du.” As a rule of thumb in German-speaking Switzerland, if you’re on a first name basis you can say “du” – but unless the person introduces themselves by their first name, it’s a little hard to break that ice.
One can also make a social faux pas by being too formal, or by switching back to a formal form after being on a “tu/du” basis. Recently I had an altercation (in French) with a neighbor over the fact that I’d mistakenly taken her laundry out of the machine when it wasn’t done. We’ve never had a real conversation, but I imagine if we spoke we’d use first names and “tu”. However, in trying to explain my mistake, I used “vous” as a sign of respect — and she only seemed to become more enraged. Maybe I was actually being rude, when I was trying to be polite? I was left at a loss as to the remedy.
I ended up writing her an apology note that cleverly avoided the use of the second person altogether, and she seemed pleased. Hopefully the next time we meet, we can “tutoyer” with a good conscience.
If you speak a language with informal pronouns, do you have any tips? How can a clumsy foreigner navigate this social minefield?