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The “thou” of contempt, the “you” of estrangement

January 30, 2013

Russian use of the familiar pronoun ты and the formal/plural вы is a little different today than, say, French tu and vous. It’s more common in Russian to have asymmetrical relationships where the older (or in some other respect more senior) person says ты to the younger one, who answers with вы. Modern Western European languages favor the same pronoun in both directions, basing the choice on “solidarity” rather than asymmetrical “power” in the terms of Roger Brown and Albert Gilman’s famous and amazingly interesting article “The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity.” But I thought the use of the pronouns, whether symmetrical or asymmetrical, was stable in Russian: you say вы to your superiors or your “not solidary” equals, and once increased status or greater intimacy leads you to switch to ты, you stay with ты forever. The rare exceptions draw attention, like the self-conscious switching from ты to вы after a divorce at the beginning of Karen Shakhnazarov’s movie The Courier (Курьер, 1986).

For the subjective, psychological difficulty of using the “wrong” pronoun in nineteenth-century Russia, see Dostoevskii in The Insulted and the Injured (alluding to Tolstoi’s Childhood; see N. F. Budanova’s commentary):

— Будем на ты.

— Слава богу! Ведь мне это сто раз в голову приходило. Да я всё как-то не смел вам сказать. Вот и теперь вы говорю. А ведь это очень трудно ты говорить. Это, кажется, где-то у Толстого хорошо выведено: двое дали друг другу слово говорить тыда и никак не могут и всё избегают такие фразы, в которых местоимения. Ах, Наташа! Перечтем когда-нибудь «Детство и отрочество»; ведь как хорошо!

“Let’s say ты to each other.”

“Thank God! I mean, I’ve thought that a hundred times. But somehow I kept not daring to tell you [вы]. Even now I’m saying вы. But it’s very hard to say ты, isn’t it? It’s well put somewhere in Tolstoi: two people have given each other their word to say ты, but they can’t do it and keep avoiding sentences that have pronouns. Oh, Natasha! Let’s reread Childhood and Boyhood someday; it’s so good, you know!”

But in Pisemskii, Aleksandr Baklanov keeps switching between ты and вы when talking to women with whom he has ambiguous relationships, in order to register momentary shifts in his attitude toward the person he’s talking to:

Бакланов при этом заметил, что Евпраксия усмехнулась.

—Тебе смешно только! – проговорил он с досадой.

—Да как же не смешно! Вдруг я Марина Мнишек, а он Самозванец! Тут и в чувствах даже ничего нет общего.

“Она чорт знает как умна!” – подумал Бакланов; но вслух однако проговорил:

—Очень уж вы, Евпраксия Арсентьевна, рассудительны.

—Не рассудительна, а только слов пустых не люблю, – отвечала она, по обыкновению своему, спокойно. (part 3, chapter 24)

[As he declaimed part of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov] Baklanov noticed that Evpraksiia snickered.

“You [ты] only find it funny!” he said in frustration.

“How could one not find it funny? Suddenly I’m Marina Mnishek, and he’s the Usurper! Even in feelings there isn’t a single thing we have in common.”

“She’s blasted clever!” thought Baklanov; however, aloud he said:

“You [вы] are very unsentimental, Evpraksiia Arsent’evna.”

“It’s not that I’m unsentimental, I just don’t like idle talk,” she replied with her habitual calm.

Earlier, in 3.10, Baklanov switched from ты to вы with Sophie to express his anger over a rumor that she is the lover of, God forbid, a Jew. That case might be similar to divorce: Baklanov wanted her to think his attitude toward her had changed permanently and radically. But in the conversation with Evpraksiia, the two are engaged, and he is not breaking it off; indeed, he’s back to ты the next time he opens his mouth. At the same time, it doesn’t seem like Baklanov just misspoke when he said вы, like the mirror image of the woman in the Pushkin poem who misspoke and said ты.

Are these expressive pronoun shifts common, and has my tin Anglophone ear missed them elsewhere? Brown and Gilman have a section on using the pronouns for “expressions of transient attitudes,” in which they argue that such uses are rare in modern Western European languages and were quite infrequent in neo-classical French drama (“Racine reserved the expressive pronoun as some composers save the cymbals”), but fairly frequent in Shakespeare and Marlowe. To generalize from hardly any examples, it’s as if Pushkin, Dostoevskii, and Tolstoi are working in the Racine framework, and Pisemskii is playing by the Elizabethan rules.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2013 11:03 pm

    In the second example the sudden shift to “you” is not estrangement, it’s teasing. In English one might say “So unsentimental, Your High Wisdomness!”

    • January 31, 2013 10:08 pm

      My post title was poorly chosen – “thou of contempt” and “you of estrangement” are phrases from Brown and Gilman’s article that don’t have much to do with Pisemskii. What’s interesting is that the kind of teasing you describe (and thank you very much for the helpful comment!) can be accomplished by the pronoun shift. You can imagine another language where the pronoun would have to stay the same and the teasing would be expressed by a fancy noun or a bookish syntactic construction.

      • February 13, 2013 4:47 pm

        Using a deliberately incorrect address is a staple in Russian, but not a widely acknowledged one. A variation on this theme is the word “starik” as applied to females by stereotypical shestidesjatniki. “старик, ты кормила ребёнка грудью?” (Aksenov?) and the current vogue for female bloggers to use male pronouns in referring to themselves.

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