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Hey you! Which ‘you’ should you use?

by Bernard O'Shea

In French and Portuguese you have to be careful which form of the second person subject pronoun (tu or vous in French, tu or você in Portuguese) you use, because there are social distinctions to consider. In English, this doesn’t apply because nowadays we use ‘you’ to cover every situation, the language having dropped “thou” some time ago, although it is still used in prayers, hymns etc.  (The ‘you’ forms of Spanish, Italian and Romanian I shall discuss elsewhere to save space.)

If you are learning Brazilian Portuguese, the guide books may mention that there is a tu form but will say it is never used in Brazil so you don’t have to bother learning it. Great, you might think, I won’t bother! It’s one less verb form to learn off by heart. But you may regret doing this, because when you go to Portugal you soon realise that tu is used widely, and then you have play catch-up with your learning.

In Brazil the situation is simple, você is used for the second person singular and vocês for the second person plural, regardless of social distinctions. Here, for example, is a Brazilian tutor on You Tube running through the verbs ser and estar…. note the total absence of tu. But also note that the verb is the same for both the second person (you) and third persons (he, she, they).

In Portugal, however, tu is used in informal social contexts (among one’s peers, friends, and lovers, and you will hear it a lot in love songs). Você might be used for more formal situations (addressing a stranger, or one’s elders or superiors, for example) but even here you have to be careful. Using você might be disrespectful – it could imply disdain or scorn. (As in “You! Winning a talent competition. I don’t think so!”) It is safer when approaching a man to use o senhor, or a senhora for a woman, and again here you would use the same verb ending as you would for the third person ele or ela.

In French, the situation is not as complicated as it is in Portuguese. Tu would be used in the same circumstances, while vous would be used more formally. The vous singular takes the same verb form as the vous plural, though, but if there are adjectives involved they will have to agree in number – vous êtes malade (you, singular, are sick), vous êtes malades (you, plural, are sick).

To give you a sample of a Portuguese accent, using the verb ser, here is a song Eu não sou ela (I am not her) by Rebeca. It’s quite dated, admittedly, but I quite like the tune. It’s about a love triangle, Rebeca seems to be the loser and thus stands on a roof or wanders around looking lost. Perhaps that’s what love triangles do to people. Note that sou is pronounced like the English words sew or sow and not like sue…. In Portuguese, the stress generally falls on the penultimate vowel, which is the o in sou.

The first part of the chorus goes like this: Porque eu não sou ela/eu sou eu, e não posso ser a mulher que eu não sou (Because I am not her, I am me, and cannot be the woman that I’m not.)

Here are the lyrics (letras in Portuguese)

Eu dei-te algum tempo para esquecer
A lembrança que até hoje te consome
Até te perdoei por te querer
Essas vezes que trocavas o meu nome
Mas hoje cansei-me de fingir
De usar roupas e perfumes que ela usava
Eu posso te amar mas vou sair, não te quero dividir
E não posso mais vencer esse fantasma

O REFRÃO (the chorus/refrain)
 Porque eu não sou ela (não sou ela)
Eu sou eu
E não posso ser a mulher que não sou
Porque eu não sou ela (não sou ela)
Digo adeus
Não posso vencer a força desse amor (x2)

Eu tentei lutar contra esse amor
E as recordações que tinhas do passado
Mas como ganhar contra quem foi
E é ainda quem tu vês em todo o lado
Agora acabei por desistir
E deixar-te com essa paixão perdida
Pois sei que não posso mais seguir
A saber e a sentir que nunca vou ser o amor da tua vida

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trishwhytock 21/12/2012 - 11:40 pm

getting very technical for little language impaired me!

bernardoshea 28/12/2012 - 6:38 pm

It is a little complicated for English speakers but just wait till we get into Portuguese irregular verbs! 🙂

Stelucia 24/12/2012 - 4:24 am

Same happens with Romanian and Italian languages.
In Romanian we have the informal Tu and the formal Dumneavoastră which is a short form of now disappeared Domnia Voastră (Your Excellency). In Romanian, Domn means Mister or gentleman but in the old language the meaning was Prince or Lord, the word originating from the Latin Dominus (Lord). Off topic, in Romanian, God is Dumnezeu from the Latin Dominus Deus.
Ditto for Italian where the informal Tu becomes the formal Lei, used with the verb of third person singular.

bernardoshea 28/12/2012 - 6:31 pm

Hi Stelucia, I hope you are well and that you had a good Christmas (if you celebrate it) and I wish you all the best for the coming new year. Thanks for passing on this information, it will help me when I do the Italian and Romanian posts on this topic in the next few days or so. I know Portuguese and French much better than I do the other three languages, so I would appreciate any guidance that you or anyone else has to offer. Iti multumesc! Regards, Bernard

nuborrelia 29/12/2012 - 2:18 am

Hi Bernardo, I have a lovely Christmas. I am a native speaker of Romanian who also speaks fluent French and Italian, some Spanish but no Portuguese (often I cheat 🙂 as the other Romance languages allow me to understand written Portuguese but not the talk).

We do celebrate Christmas in Romania as most of the population is Christian, 87% Eastern Orthodox Christians, the rest being R-Catholics (5%) and Protestant denominations.

Being Down Under is a good excuse for missing another Romance language that is an official language in Europe: Romansch. This is one of the official languages of Switzerland, but really a minority language, as is spoken only in Grison canton (canton means land) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romansh_language

And finally something you probably never head of: Vlach (Aromanian) language which is the Romanian dialect spoken south in the Balkans, mostly Greece and Albania, It is not mutually understandable by Romanians, so many linguists think is a different language altogether.

bernardoshea 30/12/2012 - 8:14 pm

Hello again, and thanks for your comments. I will try to help you with your Portuguese 🙂 I have not been to Romania but I have heard that parts of it are very beautiful and I hope to see it and other places in Eastern Europe sooner rather than later (I do some travel writing when I get the opportunity and will be doing a travel blog with some fellow journalists soon once we can get our act together). I will incorporate some of your comments and acknowledge your help when I do the first posting on being Romanian soon – I am looking forward to doing it. (You have confused me a bit because you are using a different name now, I have no idea what to call you.) I had not really heard of Romansch or Vlach – it just goes to show how the more you delve into it, the more interesting it gets. Another language that I would have liked to look at is Galician, as it seems to be a mix of Portuguese and Spanish. But I don’t think my brain would cope with another one! Cheers and all the best for 2013.

The haves and have nots in French, Italian and Romanian | My Five Romances 25/01/2013 - 11:58 pm

[…] informal forms of address in these languages, see my posting from December 21, 2012 – Hey you! Which ‘you’ should you use? and you can hear the pronunciation of the Romanian verbs a fi and  a avea on the YouTube link in […]


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