Saturday, May 18, 2013

Tu or Vous?

Vous - show respect!

How do you think of God - with the intimate "tu" or the formal “vous”?  Think about that as I explain a little about the different forms of “you.” 
In English we have “you” to indicate the second person singular and plural for all relationships, but that doesn’t mean we don’t look for ways to distinguish between them.  Think of yunz, y’all, yous, etc…

Kids - use tu
In French, Sango, Gbaya, and many other languages, the speakers use different forms for the singular (tu, mo, mɛ…) and plural (vous, ala, ɛnɛ…).  It is, however more complicated than just the question of number.  The “tu” form shows a closer, more personal, relationship and is also used for older people speaking to those younger than them, especially children.  “Vous” is a mark of respect as well as being the plural form.  Different languages define these relationships in different ways.  All languages that I know use “vous” for elders as a sign of respect.  (Of course, I am told that the young in France always use “tu” – a sign of the times?? I don’t have evidence to back this up, so we will leave it alone!)  The transition to becoming friends (more than acquaintances) may be marked by switching from “vous” to “tu.”  I sometimes have trouble knowing when to use which form, so I often error on the side of respect, using the “vous” form. 

My musings on this subject began because of Gbaya classes.  (Yes, I am still studying it and making progress with reading and some writing, but havinf GREAT difficulty understanding people when they speak and forming sentences quickly enough to actually talk to people.  That will come – hopefully sooner rather than later!) 

Family - lots of vous; some tu
I have been told that respect is very important within Gbaya culture.  Therefore, children always address their parents using the “vous” form as a mark of respect.  Wives use “vous” with their husbands although husbands address wives with “tu.”  As an extension of this respectful attitude, in the Bible and at church, God is addressed with the “vous” form.  It is respectful; but it also creates some distance as the “vous” form always does. 

In the French liturgy and Bible, the “tu” forms are used.  I think it is to emphasize the closeness of our relationship with God.  Does this cause problems for the Gbaya who read/hear the Bible in French?  Does it change the way they see relationship?  What do you think?

Then there is the question of titles!  In English, we use title and last name (Dr. Smith); title and first name (Dr. Susan or Ms. Susan), first name (Susan), or nickname (Sue, Suzie, Smitty, Shortie, or any variety of forms of the name or some characteristic of the person).  Think about when you might use these various forms.  I am sure that you also modify your language as you speak to people using different forms of address – we just don’t pay as much attention to it in English since we can “always” use “you.”  In sociolinguistics studying forms of address helps people understand power (or perceived/desired power) within the relationships.  Think of some of the new Pope Francis’ moves and what he is signaling about his view of “power.”

Currently, in Eastern Cameroonian and Central African culture (after being colonized by and interacting with the French for generations), titles are very important, more so than in the US.  They use the same forms of address: title and last name, title and first name, first name, but also sometimes use last name only.  And, often titles are used without the name.  For example, in the classroom students here say “teacher” while in the US students use the title and last name of the teacher. 

There are other ways to show respect, too.  Let’s take the example of the installation of the new Sous-Prefet that I attended Tuesday. 

Note:  The governments in CAR and Cameroon are different than in the US.  The country of Cameroon is divided into 10 regions that are subdivided into 58 governmental regions called Préfectures headed by a Préfet.  Each of these is divided into smaller governmental regions lead by a sous-préfet with a total of about 350 in the country.  Then there are mayors of towns, etc.  (I don’t understand it all…)  The former sous-préfet of Garoua Boulai died last October.  President Biya named an interim; recently he named a new sous-préfet – these are not elected positions. 

So, during the new sous-préfet’s installation, people are to arrive according to their importance.  Here’s a translation of what part of the invitation says:

10h30  Arrival and seating of invited guests: Traditional Chiefs, Municipal Counselors, leaders of local political parties, delegates and heads of public offices, clergy, economic leaders
11h00  Arrival of Mr. the Deputy, Vice-President of the National Assembly
11h15  Arrival of Madame the Mayor of the community of Garoua Boulai (yes!  It’s a woman!)
11h30  Arrival of Mr. the entering Sous-préfet
11h45  Arrival of Mr. the Préfet of the department of Lom and Djerem

I went to the installation with the Director of the Bible School.  (You notice I use his name out of respect…  I must say just using titles is easier in that you don’t have to remember people’s names, but, then, it makes it much harder to learn people’s names!)  We arrived at 10:30.  We knew we would be “early” but wanted to be sure to get a seat.  It was probably close to 12:30 when the mayor arrived…  Lateness doesn’t seem to have to do with respect (or lack thereof) but that might be the topic of some other blog entry.

I encourage you to pay attention to forms of address and ways of showing respect around you.  (Of course, there are tone of voice, use of eye contact, dress, and lots of other factors not mentioned here as well.)  But let’s go back to the original question and a couple others.

How would you address your parents – tu or vous?  How do you think of your relationship with God – tu or vous?  Would using one or the other change the way you interact with God?  And, since Jesus says, “the first shall be last, and the last first,” what does that mean about our forms of address and actions?  Would (or should) you be the last to arrive at a function like the installation???  What do we teach others through our actions?

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