A few weeks ago, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said, “Whenever some key issue comes up President Medvedev and I, of course, have to have a coordinated position. And as before, I see no problem in calling him and say, ‘Listen, let’s reach an agreement, let’s discuss this.’ We develop a coordinated position and make it even more stable and solid… Mr Medvedev does the same. Sometimes he just calls and says: ‘You know, we need to talk. Let’s think about this. There’s this problem, I would like to hear your opinion’… And believe me, Mr Medvedev and I cooperate very productively.”
As an opening paragraph, that’s what we in the blog trade call a “snoozer.” Then how come the Russian press called in the bomb squad when this French interview hit Moscow?
“Putin spoke in Russian, perfectly aware that his answers would be translated into French, which, like Russian, carries a distinction between the familiar ‘tu’ and the polite ‘vous.’ And this meant that the point of one of his answers was missed entirely in English translation,” as reported in Language Johnson, a blog by Economist correspondents about the verbal use and abuse in politics, society and culture globally.
“In Russian (and French), when Mr Putin reproduced his own direct speech to Mr Medvedev he used the ‘tu’ forms of the verbs, while when quoting Mr Medvedev’s speech to him, he used the ‘vous’ forms. And lest there be any doubt, he used three or four examples of each.
“The point of Mr Putin’s answer… was to hammer home that while he says ‘tu’ to Mr Medvedev, Mr Medvedev is obliged to use ‘vous’ back. It was a not very subtle reminder of who is in charge of Russia.”
I had just read this story when I saw the photo of Medvedev and President Obama hanging out after school in a spontaneous photo opportunity showing two heads of state grabbing burgers before the big game.
Similar issues with Spanish ‘tu’. Is it appropriate to use the familiar with a president? As in all these matters, it must have something to do with who is doing the talking. Ahmed Liman commented that “King Juan Carlos uses the familiar ‘tu’ when speaking to his prime ministers who respectfully reply back with ‘usted.’ I also noticed that he does the same thing to Latin American presidents. I was surprised that after he used the ‘tu’ to ask Hugo Chavez to shut up (‘por qué no te callas?’) at a now famous Ibero-American summit, the Venezuelan president, amid a big diplomatic row, still referred to him as ‘Don Juan Carlos’ and used ‘usted.'”
Since the days of “thee” and “thou” are long past, English speakers are tone deaf to these social niceties, and verbally putting an upstart in their place has become rather tedious and difficult, although I’ve noticed plenty in this neighborhood of the United Nations who manage to put people in their place using just plain old “you” faster than you can say “fagedaboutit.”
I wonder why these levels of speech were abandoned in English so early on. Spanish and French familiar form usage is evolving rapidly, and correct usage is far from settled.