Saturday, 11 October 2008

You, you, you and you (1)

Following a comment by Poet in Residence (on the last Márai post), a note regarding Hungarian versions of 'you'.

In contemporary English there is, for all practical purposes, just the one word for the second person singular. In French there are two - vous and tu - and it is much the same in a number of other languages. In Hungarian, I know of four forms and some twenty or so years ago had some problems with them.

The difference between vous and tu is broadly defined here. Tu is defined in terms of familiarity, intimacy and closeness: vous, as a singular rather than as a plural, in the more problematic terms of formality, distance and respect. The advice is to use vous when speaking to:

* someone you don't know well
* an older person
* an authority figure
* anyone to whom you wish to show respect
* two or more people, animals, etc.

The writer adds the following catch:

Some people follow the guideline of using whatever the other person uses with them. This can be misleading: someone in authority may use tu with you, but that certainly doesn't mean that you can respond in kind.

So it's quite a delicate operation. In Hungarian, even more so.

The four ways of addressing another directly in Hungarin are te (the equivalent of tu), maga and ön (two variants of vous) and the courteous transferred third person manner using the word tetszik, as in Hogy tetszik lenni, X bácsi? crudely meaning 'How are you, uncle X?' but actually taking the form 'How is uncle X pleased to be?'

As to usage, the standard form followed, and generally still follows, French. In communication between men and women it was the woman who determined whether the intimate te form was welcome or not. Between men it was a compound of age, respect and authority, so two of equal rank would have to guess which was the older and then it was either up to the older man to suggest the more informal use, though I suppose, the younger man might enquire, as might a man of a woman.

Of the two vous forms, maga is considered more brusque, more official. A master might address a servant so, or a policeman a suspicious-looking member of the public (they are all suspicious-looking). On the other hand, two people on a bus might use the same form if one had trodden on the other's foot. Or maybe they'd just use it anyway. I am not sure myself sometimes. Hard to know. Should I address a taxi driver this way? What are the implications if I do? I could go for te and that would probably be fine nowadays.

If I am not sure it is because the other vous form, ön is distinctly courteous, a little ceremonial. The host on a TV or radio show addresses guests in this way as might two polite people meeting each other for the first time. It implies possibilities of respectful friendship.

As for the fourth, tetszik, manner, children would use this to their elders. Highly courteous old wolves might use it to attractive younger women before kissing their hands. Servants used it to their masters. A young man addressing a very prominent figure might well use it.

This is a sketch, not a detailed drawing, but it indicates something. I'll write a separate post on that next.

1 comment:

John Cowan said...

Of course, in some languages it's even worse: in Javanese there are six levels (plain style, plain style with low honorifics, plain style with high honorifics, middle style, aristocratic style, aristocratic style with high honorifics) to be used in various social circumstances, not necessarily reciprocally, and the choice of level affects not just one pronoun but almost every word in the language.