Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Formal address, from Proust to K-Pop

Can you say "Proustian moment" in Korean? (Image from Wikipedia.)
Unlike many languages, English doesn't have a way of designating formal or polite address with grammar. Imagine what it would be like—a special pronoun, or maybe an entire class or verbs, reserved for your elders and betters? In French, when the situation requires respect or politeness, you use the (normally plural) second-person pronoun vous rather than the singular tu. (German and Italian do something similar with the special pronouns Sie and lei.) There are even verbs that mean "to address someone as vous" and "to address someone as tu": vouvoyer and tutoyer. It might be hard for an English speaker to imagine. There are some difficult-to-translate scenes in French literature involving the moment when one person receives permission to address the other as tu, like this moment in Proust's The Guermantes Way when the protagonist asks his friend Robert de Saint-Loup how they stand:
"Would it bother you (vous) if we used tu to address each other?" 
"How would it bother me? Come on! Joy! Tears of joy! Unknown happiness!
"I thank you (vous) so much... [I mean,] thank you (te) so much. As soon as you start! It'll bring me so much pleasure that you don't have to do anything about Madame de Guermantes if you want; the using tu (le tutoiement) is enough for me." 
"We'll both do it, then."
The wordplay is pretty hard to capture in English, the way the protagonist stumbles from "vous" to "tu." The sense of formality in French culture around pronouns has changed substantially over the past hundred years. In Maupassant and earlier, married couples address each other as vous; now, that would seem laughably cold. Likewise, if two young friends of the same age—like Proust and Saint-Loup—were still calling each other vous after having known each other for months, my impression is that in the present day, it would be hard to call them friends at all. 
More than one translator has had a hard time figuring out how to render the distinctions implicit in the use of vous in French, Sie in German, lei in Italian—to say nothing of the differences in a language like Japanese or Korean. Korean has, broadly speaking, two registers: an upper register called jondaetmal, used for anyone more than a year or two above you, and a casual register called banmal. But jondaetmal itself comprises six different speech levels, each with its own set of verb endings. 
Like French, Korean has grown somewhat more relaxed about use of its lower register—somewhat. Apparently, Korean talk shows will get angry letters from older people when they see a host or guest using banmal inappropriately. And, as far as I can tell, it would still be really impolite to speak to someone your own age using banmal right off the bat. But there would be a point, ostensibly, when a dating or flirting couple would switch to using banmal
This gives occasion to what I think of as a K-Pop update/spin on the moment from Proust above: the 2011 number-one hit "For First Time Lovers (Banmal Song)." The idea is that it's sung by a guy to the girl he likes—a girl who has a hard time speaking casually to others—and so he sings this song in order to tell her that it's all right to speak to him in banmal. The refrain starts, "Hopefully, we can speak banmal to each other, / Even though it's still awkward and unfamiliar." (It sounds nicer in the Korean video.) 
I'm left wondering: why doesn't English have a distinction between formal and informal register? Most other modern European languages do. Classical Latin did not, and ancient Greek did not. There's got to be some kind of interesting historical and comparative linguistic studies out there about how French and Italian developed their formal registers. Did Old English have one? (I don't know.) How did Korean's system of speech levels develop over time? Is the tendency to progress from greater to lesser differentiation, or the other way around? 


  1. Great post - I love the comparison between Proust and the K-Pop song! Yes, English had a formal register not that long ago: you/thou paralleling German Sie/du. The conjugations in Old English sound a lot closer to German, but even in Shakespeare we can note the contrast. I remember reading at some point that it was a controversial move for the translators of the KJV to use "thou" for addresses to God, which doesn't really parallel how formal/informal registers work in the Hebrew.

    1. Thanks! I'd forgotten all about you/thou—and didn't realize that grew out of Old English. Question resolved!