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“I don’t like to say вы to servants…”

August 28, 2015

I’ve occasionally posted about how the informal pronoun ты and the formal вы were used in nineteenth-century literature. Within the nobility, Dostoevskii characters talk about Tolstoi characters talking about how hard it can be to switch from вы to ты, while Pisemskii characters express feigned or serious displeasure by switching from ты back to вы with (what seems to me) comparative freedom. An ex–house slave in Turgenev is offended when a still enslaved man calls him ты, and answers sarcastically with вы-с. For most of the century nobles addressed slaves as ты as a matter of course, but after February 19th, 1861, some nobles started using вы with newly freed peasants and servants on egalitarian grounds, and others didn’t. In an 1867 Nekrasov poem, a man can be driven to suicide not by material hardship, but by the petty disrespect of never being addressed formally, while in an 1864 Tolstoi play, freed serfs themselves see the new use of вы to address them as improper, ridiculous, offensive, bemusing.

One more for my collection: long after 1861, a woman hires a servant named Fedora, but doesn’t like her name and insists that she answer to Katia:

I say to her, “My dear, I don’t like your [informal] name” — I don’t like to say “you [formal]” to servants — “I’m going to call you Katia.”

Я говорю ей:

— Моя милая, мне твое имя не нравится (я не люблю говорить людям вы), я буду звать тебя Катею. (chapter 3)

She goes on to complain that although the servant answers to Katia, she stubbornly says “Fedora” when someone asks what her name is, because she refuses to lie for religious reasons. This the employer finds impudent, and she quotes her brother as saying “even though it’s not pleasant, still, ever since our blessed Nineteenth of February it’s been inevitable”; the woman she is telling all this to remarks, “Yes, ever since that February they’ve had us where they wanted us.”* I haven’t finished the story, but I gather both women are awful human beings and paid police informers.

This is from Leskov’s “A Winter’s Day” (Зимний день, 1894). Leskov is full of retrospective abolitionist fervor. The anti-egalitarian woman in the 1894 story is also anti-Tolstoyan, which may or may not strike you as ironic given Tolstoi’s attitude on the narrow question of ты and вы in 1864.

See also this post on Boris Bukhshtab’s article about “A Winter’s Day” and the atypically large amount of dialogue in it. I’ve gotten to the first mysterious allusion to the Shah of Persia, but I haven’t figured it out.

* The story was translated by William Edgerton in 1969 and David McDuff in 1987. Quotations above are from Edgerton’s translation, p. 367, except the first one, which I glossed, since for understandable reasons, neither Edgerton nor McDuff directly translates the parenthetical remark about pronouns. For the Russian see here.

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