“Vous” Vs. “Tu” and Other Little Lessons

A funny thing happened to me through my journey to becoming a Montréalais. My spoken French has changed. I’m even more polite than I was before.

So no, I haven’t taken the Montréal accent and, truth be told, I’m glad I didn’t not only because I’m not terribly fond of it but also because it can be a little coarse and impolite. But I haven’t taken much of a Québecois accent, either — whatever that is, for there are audible differences in each part of Québec. And my accent is certainly not more Acadian — not that it ever was as deliciously Acadian as one of my sister-in-law’s or some of my nieces’ — although now whenever I hear it around Montréal, my heart swells …just as it did last week when I overheared at Soupe et Wok in the Village a lady originally from Bouctouche who hadn’t lost her accent despite years of living here. I even thanked her as she was leaving, upon which her Greek friend she was with said, “Yeah, she can never be in the closet about her roots, that one!”

Anyway, I think there are two main changes to the manner in which I speak. First, being aware of different accents, I try to choose a more neutral “international” vocabulary. And second, because of my work, I have come to totally embrace the pronoun vous, which represents the second person plural OR the second person singular when speaking formally.

Part of the charm and warmth of Acadians is how they interact easily with others and always invariably use the pronoun tu for the second person singular except in very extreme cases where they feel the need to be more formal or respectful. Even there, though, I suspect there’s a generational gap where the youngest generation of adults rarely think of using vous. Generally, Acadians would never use vous when addressing a store clerk or even a stranger on the sidewalk to ask for directions. They might (as they might not) use vous when addressing a senior. But the thing about Acadians is that it’s not meant as disrespectful nor does it come across as that.

However, in Québec today, the norm in business or even on the street among strangers is to address them with the pronoun vous. Few would be offended if addressed as tu instead of vous and, among colleagues, vous would sound just plain wrong. But while it may not be a cause for outright offense, the use of tu instead of vous does get noticed — a least among those who pay attention to their written and spoken language.

Acadians would find it odd to refer to someone by their first name and use vous in the same sentence, as in, “Comment allez-vous, Maurice?” However, in France and increasingly in Québec, such an address is normal. On the other hand, when speaking English in business in North America, calling someone by their first name rather than Mister This or Miz That is the norm, with the latter coming across as way too stuffy.

I surprised myself recently when I got a bit offended when a store clerk addressed himself to me by using the regular second singular — tu, ton… rather than vous, votre…. When speaking with clients at work, I simply cannot bring myself to say tu and ton. And I definitely pick up on clients who address me as tu despite the fact I use vous to address them and we didn’t agree to switch: “On se tutoie?” (“We can use tu?”). However, it would be impolite to ask them to use vous so I let it slide and, sometimes, they pick up on their own upon hearing me continuing to use vous.

Anglicisms and Canadianisms
I find it very amusing to witness how many Québécois prefer to dismiss other French speakers as “pretending not to understand them” than consider the fact that THEY are the ones using non-standard words or expressions, if not downright anglicisms or canadianisms. There are two syllables and two expressions that drive me particularly insane.

  • To swim = nager: The standard pronunciation is “na-” (as in the Spanish “nada”) “” (as in “Faber“). But in Québec, particularly in Montréal, people pronounce the A as if there was a circumflex on it: for anglos, it would be like “NAW-gé“.
  • Whale = baleine & Breath = haleine: For the first, the standard pronunciation is “ba-” (as in the Spanish “baja”) “lène” (as the short version of the name Leonard, namely “Len“). For the second, the standard pronunciation is “a-” (as in the Spanish “amigo”) “lène” (again as the English “Len“). But here the “Len” sounds a bit but not quite like the English word “lane.” I even hear that weird pronounciation by otherwise well-spoken TV personalities and it drives me nuts each time I hear it!
  • You’re welcome: In French, it’s correct to say, “Bienvenue dans ma maison” (Welcome to my home). However, if someone gives me something and I say “Thank you” (“Merci”), then it’s incorrect to reply with ““Bienvenue”. In that case, one should say “De rien” (as in the Spanish “de nada“) or, more formerly, “Je vous en prie,” which roughly translates to “I beg of you” but implies “Please don’t mention it.” Here in Montréal, though, I get “bienvenue” much more often than “de rien” and I cringe every single time.
  • It’s too bad / It’s unfortunate: In Canadian French, a very common way of saying “It’s too bad that…” or “It’s unfortunate that…” would be “C’est de valeur que…” However, for a non-Canadian French speaker, de valeur only means “of value,” as in “an object that is worth a great deal.” I remember having dinner with someone from France and a friend from Québec, and the latter said that some situation or another was de valeur. My friend repeated his sentence a few times but for the French guy, who wasn’t trying to play dumb or “I’m-the-superior-Parisian,” it just didn’t compute in his mind. I stepped in and said, “C’est dommage que…” and repeated the rest of the sentence as my friend has spoken it. The French guy immediately got it.

That’s just it: Not specificially with my friend but generally in Québec, when stuff like that happens, the people from Québec are more likely to assume that the listener from outside Québec is putting on an act of “I understand what you’re saying but I’m pretending I’m not so that you can correct yourself gracefully.” One time this summer, I witnessed at a bar one Québécois turn very belligerent toward a French guy of Maghrebi descent who lived most of his life in Paris. I don’t remember now what the Québécois was saying but I remember understanding why there was no way the Maghrebi French guy would ever be able to figure it out without an interpretor.

The Importance of Speaking the Language of the Land
You know, no matter where I am in Québec, even in a Metro supermarket in the heart of tony and anglo Westmount, I speak French. I make a point of it. I won’t play dumb, though, and I won’t fly off the handle if someone doesn’t understand my French on the first go.

At first, if a clerk responds in English, I’ll respond back in French …because we’re in Québec and I strongly believe that anyone working in a client/customer-facing position in Québec MUST speak French. It doesn’t have to be perfect and it can be heavily accented, but French must be to Québec what Spanish is to Mexico or Portuguese to Brazil. If there’s an ounce of hope I can get my point across to the clerk in French by simplifying a few words and speaking more slowly, I’ll stick to it before switching to English. However, I will express my disappointment if I do have to switch to English because there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s very disrespectful on the part of that clerk to force English whilst we’re in Québec. However, if you’re an anglophone visitor to Québec, that’s a totally different matter: while you shouldn’t expect to receive service in Québec’s minority language all of the time (and don’t bore me with the argument that “This is Canada, it’s supposed to be bilingual and Québec is part of Canada last time you checked”), you do have a right to be pissed off if you know that the clerk speaks some English but refuses to use it with you. That’s just as rude.

All that being said, it’s the effort that counts most. Spanish didn’t come easily to me and, unfortunately, in the last two years I’ve lost a lot of what I learned. Certainly my perfectionist streak didn’t help but I also felt a lot of pressure from NowEx who had a talent at making me feel stupid. However, I’ll never forget that time in Puerto Vallarta when, just seconds after finding out that the attendant at the hotel desk in fact could speak English, I still completed a whole transaction in Spanish. I did so because I was in Mexico and Spanish is that country’s language. She smiled through the whole transaction — not condescendingly or because I may have murdered a few words but because I went through with it despite knowing she spoke English and, dare I say it, because she was pleased I made the effort.

Not Everyone Is Selfish
On a totally different register…

I’m very fortunate to have a parking spot inside the garage of the building where I live. I was assigned a new spot a few months ago, namely one where another car can park to my right. To my left, however, there’s a concrete post and I have to edge in slowly in order not to rip off my side mirror. However, once past that post, I veer to the left in order to put considerable distance between my car and the car to my right.

The other day I had to run a quick errand in the middle of the afternoon. When I came back, another car was ahead of me entering the garage: it turned out it was my “neighbour.” He parked in his usual spot and I in mine after him, and we emerged from our cars at the same time.

He was an old gentleman who introduced himself as Claude and then said, in French: “I’m so glad to finally meet you because I’ve long wanted to thank you for how you park your car. You’re very considerate and it helps me so much coming in and out of my spot.”

I can’t tell you how much I appreciated his comment. As I’ve written before, I have grown to feel slighted because I know I pay attention to little things like that out of respect for my neighbours but feel that I’m often not the recipient of such simple acts of consideration. So to have someone notice and take the time to thank me for it: that was a truly priceless moment.

It’s interesting it came from an elderly man. What does that say about the state of civility today? And does it say that I was born in the wrong generation?

{1} Thought on ““Vous” Vs. “Tu” and Other Little Lessons

  1. Spending a week in Japan was a very rewarding experience, in part due to the insight I gathered on humans communicate. In the common situation where the clerk or whomever did not speak any English and I spoke only a few basic words of Japanese, I found that communication was possible and much easier than expected.

    It was also the norm for the Japanese-speaker to conduct the entire transaction in Japanese even though I assumed they knew I did not understand the words. I found that when you cannot use the words to communicate, the contextual clues become far more apparent.

    For example, when the clerk would reach for a bag in which to place my purchases, I would say, “I don’t need a bag,” wave my hand back and forth in the direction of the bag and say “arigato.” This was sufficient for comprehension.

    For something more complex, however, this would probably just frustrate both parties. I had my friend help with the purchase of my train tickets from Tokyo to Hiroshima because we needed the first train there and the last train back. With transfers and the general complexity of their train system, I was glad to have a Japanese speaker convey what I needed without the use of hand signals.

    I am also one to pay attention to the little things and appreciate as you did when someone else does in fact notice. As you have found, it is extremely rare.

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