Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Once, a long long time ago, I was not a teacher, I was not an expatriate and I was not even thinking of going abroad. In those days, I was your regular university student, majoring in linguistics, studying hard for her exams and writing term papers. Today's post will only partly be written by yours truly, resident of Gabon. I would rather say it comes from the already-forgotten linguistics student, who is sometimes looking for a comeback. However, do not despair! If you're not interested in forms of address in the various languages I speak, don't give up on this entry. I will tell you a little something about Gabon, too.

You and its many translations
Yes, today I want to talk about forms of address, or, in other words, the familiar and polite ways of addressing other people. The most natural starting point is English, as it's the working language of this blog. However, there's not much to be said about English, because it uses the pronoun you for both formal and informal encounters. Therefore, it is not through the personal pronoun that you mark the difference between a conversation with, say, your future boss, and a chat with a friend. Whatever you say, you it is.

The other languages I speak on a daily basis - Polish, Galician and French - are different as far as forms of address are concerned. All three of them distinguish between the familiar (ty, ti and tu respectively) and the polite (pan/pani, vostede and vous). In theory, polite forms are used between adults who don't know each other or as an expression of respect. Thus, in a Polish cafe, when served by a person my age, I will still be addressed as pani, and I will always refer to my friends' parents as pan/pani, even if I know them very well. On the other hand, the familiar forms are reserved for people of (usually) similar age, with whom you are on the first-name basis, such as friends, colleagues, etc.

In practice, Galician, similarly to Spanish, tends to settle for the familiar ti in most situations. For example, it's not uncommon to use this pronoun when talking to your university professor, which, by the way, came as a great shock to me (consequently, I was the odd exchange student, who would address her teachers as vostede). Only French and Polish really retain the distinction between the formal and the intimate, which means - behold! - that I have actually found a rule in French which came completely naturally to me.

Vous and the Gabonese French
The French are very formal when speaking to people they don't know. The polite vous is omnipresent, and honorifics such as Madame and Monsieur are - even to my Polish ears - overused. So, nothing simpler than to adapt, I thought. Finally something I don't need to learn from scratch! Or is it?

Grasping the whole tu/vous issue in French as spoken by the Gabonese is, sadly, more difficult than it seems. While in theory the rules remain unchanged, most Gabonese address their fellow Africans as tu. This goes in line with the Central-African saying On est ensemble (we are together), which stresses that we are all brothers and sisters. Or, more specifically, that they are all African brothers and sisters, for white people will usually be addressed using the polite vous.

This leaves me in doubt as to how I should speak to the Gabonese: I want to adapt to the African rules, but a tu coming from me may be interpreted as racist, and not as an invitation to a less formal, African-style conversation. It is true that many white people address the Gabonese as tu, while the latter respond with the polite vous. And this, in my view, is indeed an expression of racism. On the other hand, it is sometimes difficult to convince an African (above all of lower social status) to give up vous while talking to you. It took me months of work to have the school's cleaning ladies call me tu, and the security guard still gets confused from time to time and greets me with Bonjour Madame, vous... tu... allez bien?

An equally interesting socio-linguistic phenomenon can be observed in the case of our cleaning lady. She always refers to Jandro as Monsieur Alexandre, as he is the man of the house and her boss. This respectful form is met with a vous-treatment from Jandro as well. However, from the very beginning, I have been addressed as Kasia and tu. Even though I also pay her and tell her what to do, she considers me of little consequence, which is automatically mirrored in her language. I consistently use vous when I talk to her, but the situation is not to be changed, we have been dubbed Monsieur Alexandre and Kasia for all eternity.

Finally, some African people (again, I'm not talking of the emerging middle class and the rich upper class) will employ tu all the time, even when addressing their superiors, but they will stress their respect by the use of a honorific (Madame/Monsieur). This leads to such charming grammatical inconsistencies as Madame, tu as grossi! (Madame, you've put on weight!). This is how I was once greeted by my tailor, and, unfortunately, he was absolutely right. Luckily, gaining a few kilograms is a positive thing in Africa, and my tailor still thinks I'm pretty.

Are you confused yet?
After reading this entry, do you begin to understand what a linguistic mayhem the inside of my head must be? Living in several foreign languages is a huge challenge. The changing cultural frameworks, terms of reference, words you're currently missing, words that you confuse, words, words, words... The two weeks in Poland will definitely do me good.

The picture comes from here.