How Twitter is Changing French

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We all know that technology is changing the English language, adding new words and bringing shorthand like LOL and WTF even into spoken conversations.

However, English isn’t the only language that’s being affected by the rise of new forms of communication like Twitter and Facebook.

If you’ve studied Spanish, French or a related language, you’ll remember having to learn two forms “you,” one used to address friends and family and another used to address strangers, older adults and people otherwise ranked higher than you in the social hierarchy.

As the BBC recently covered, however, on Twitter, the formal “you” is hardly ever used. After all, it’s somewhat difficult to determine social status based on an avatar.

As Anthony Besson, a young Frenchman and Twitter user interviewed for the article put it,

“In the philosophy of the internet, we are among peers, equal, without social distinction, whatever your age, gender, income or status in real life.”

Professor Antonio Casilli, who teaches Digital Humanities at Telecom ParisTech, told the BBC that using (or requiring someone else to use) “vous” on Twitter goes against this philosophy, making it “a major break in the code of communication… an attempt to reaffirm asymmetric social roles… a manifestation of distance that compromises social cohesion.”

But don’t consign “vous” to the trash heap of history just yet. At the moment, there’s a bit of a culture clash going on. Most people still see using “vous” as a way to show respect, and some see using “tu” uninvited as an insult.

For example, last year news magazine director Laurent Joffrin confronted a follower on Twitter for using “tu” without permission. While his follower probably didn’t mean to insult him with the informal address, Joffrin was showered with a flurry of deliberate online insults for his trouble.

Somewhat ironically, he accuses people who use “tu” on Twitter of trying to implement their own hierarchy. He told the BBC,

“It doesn’t bring people together, it heightens tensions. It’s an appalling culture. People on Twitter would never dare to go up to someone in the street and call them ‘tu’ because it’s a form of violence – you see drivers insulting each other using ‘tu’. In big cities especially, you need respect and courtesy. And on Twitter, there isn’t respect.”

As the online world and the offline world increasingly bleed into each other, it will be interesting to see how this trend shakes out.