There was a really fascinating article on the BBC website this week about how the French communicate on Twitter and other social media networks and whether or not those standards might be changing the language altogether. Apparently, French speakers are no longer using the pronoun vous online.
As in many other European languages, there are two ways to say “you” in French. If you’re talking to a close friend, family member, or a little kid, you’d use the informal tu. If you’re talking to a group of people, your boss, the president, a cop, your grandmother, or anyone else who deserves your respect, you’d use the formal vous. In French society, these people who deserve your respect include everyone you don’t know very well. Like strangers you’d talk to you on the internet. Most of your Twitter followers probably fit this bill.
Here’s the catch: maybe you don’t know all of your Twitter followers – you’re not hanging out with them on the weekends, they’re not sending you birthday cards – but you probably “know” more about them than you know about some of your closest friends. Think about your friends who aren’t on Twitter. Do you know what they had for lunch? Or what song they just listened to? Now think of all the celebrities and random people you follow. You probably know more about them than you need to!
The term “friend” gets thrown around pretty casually on the internet. It only makes sense that we’d address each other casually, like friends. Does that mean the language we use when we’re offline should change? No. Will it change? Maybe, but I can’t imagine a whole lot of people will suddenly tutoyer (use the tu form of “you”) cops, bosses, and presidents. Grandma, perhaps. I’ve always been iffy about that one, myself.
As a French-learner who has struggled for years to understand the complexities of tu and vous, I can’t say that I’d be upset if vous suddenly disappeared. It would certainly give me one less thing to worry about when I try to practice my French with strangers.
The smaller the world gets – largely thanks to the internet – the more and more English takes over. Other languages do have to struggle to keep themselves alive. Maybe this is what French has to do to stay relevant.