T-V Mysteries

(Un)familiar territory …

There are a lot of tricky things in learning another language as an adult. Some of it is tedious, like learning the right grammatical gender of the nouns, or remembering all the verb forms in the different tenses plus the subjunctive. English is pretty limited in those regards, not that we appreciate that. However, the trickiest part of learning a language, for me at least, is knowing how to use the language.

As I was reading the BarLume mystery, Il telefono senza fili (=Telephone) I came across a very surprising example of language usage, in one of the hardest areas for English speakers to understand: informal vs. formal pronouns. Italian, like lots of other Western European languages has two sets of pronouns to refer to the addressee (you). In linguistics these are typically called the T (informal) and V (formal) forms since in French the subject forms are tu and vous. (Why French gets to set the name is a different mystery.) However in Italian, the subject forms are tu (informal) and Lei (formal). English used to have T (thou) and (you) forms, but ditched them shortly after Shakespeare’s time, in part because it was too complicated!

The basic idea is that if you know someone well then you will use the T forms  with each other, otherwise you’ll use the V forms. But that’s waaaaaay too basic. Other factors come into play, such as respect (use V forms with people you owe respect to) and solidarity (use T forms to people to show social solidarity, even if you don’t know them). If you don’t speak a language with T-V forms, it’s hard to understand the complexities. It’s so hard that some languages have special words or expressions to describe using the  or V forms. Those words come in handy as you negotiate which forms to use. At some point, one of the people will say, can we just use the T forms. (Italian: Possiamo darci del tu? = Can we give each other the tu. German: Können wir uns duzen? = Can we du (T form) each other?)

As an English speaker, it is frankly a nightmare to figure out which forms to use, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. My general strategy is to keep to the formal forms and let the other person suggest the informal (though I have occasionally made the first move). However, when you’re first learning or out of practice, it’s easy to slip up, especially in unclear situations. Interacting with other older couples where we know one of the spouses but not the other has been tricky. In Italy, Lee knew our neighbor well and so used the T forms with her, but when they had us over for lunch or dinner with wonderful food and conversation, we both used the V forms with her husband (although Lee would occasionally forget). In Germany, when we first met the partner of a friend, I mistakenly used the T form with him, for which I was chided by our friend. However, both then and when Lee would forget to use the  forms with our Italian neighbor, we were always forgiven. I find that foreigners usually get cut a lot of slack, especially when they are trying their best.

It turns out that even first language speakers of these languages with T and V forms have problems occasionally. A German friend and colleague who moved to Bolzano told me that when she first arrived in Bolzano (or Bozen in German), she would duzen (=use the informal forms with) the assistants in the stores, as a sign of solidarity — she was young, they were young — since that’s what she did in Germany. However, in Bozen, those assistants did not duzen her back — they just kept their social distance and used the formal forms. She was shocked. As Lee put it, that just shows that the use of T and V forms is a cultural matter, not a purely linguistic one.

Getting back to the BarLume mystery, it has a usage of T-V forms that I understood immediately, but which was a complete surprise. The two relevant characters are Massimo the bar-owner protagonist and Alice the police commissioner. The series evolves over time, so that by the time of this book, Massimo and Alice are on good terms, and they use the informal T forms. At one point, about 2/3 of the way through the book, Alice is questioning a suspect in her office, when Massimo enters. There is a brief exchange between the two of the them, during which they use the formal V forms! Of course it makes sense: they can’t let on to the suspect that they are on friendly terms, since Massimo is supposedly there at the request of the police. They switch to the formal V forms to hide the fact that they are in fact on friendly terms. Later when the suspect is no longer around, they use the informal T forms again.

I have to say that I would not have predicted that this switching back and forth would be possible. My mental model was that interpersonal relationships are the fundamental basis for the choice of T vs. V, but in this case, the situation overrides the interpersonal relationship. Again, it makes sense, and it underscores the attention to language detail of the author Marco Malvadi. However, I also doubt whether I would be able to do that kind of switching spontaneously. I’d be standing there wondering what was going on and inadvertently let the cat of the bag. Good thing I’m not a detective in a mystery novel.