In our work we interact with exceedingly capable speakers of non-native English all the time, from the translators and copywriters who are our colleagues to many of the clients who give us work in the first place. I am regularly blown away by the sheer competence displayed – the breadth of vocabulary, the grasp of idiom, the appreciation of (let’s face it, difficult) British humour – but, and it’s a big but, I can’t help wonder WHY such a strange, hybrid language should have become so popular. Is it the spelling? Definitely not! Is it the simple, easy-to-learn grammar? Again, I think not. Is it the way we leap lightly from one register (e.g. informal) to another (e.g. very formal) and back again? Non, je ne le crois pas !
Actually, I think the reason is a deceptively simple one. It’s because, unlike almost every other language in Europe (and indeed, elsewhere), we’ve done away with the distinction between the formal and informal second-person modes of address. We no longer have to struggle with the horrors of "tu" versus "vous", of "du" versus "Sie" (let alone "Ihr" and some of the other complex possessives you’ll find in the Slavic languages). No, not for us that automatic association of individual’s name with appropriate form of address which has become so second-nature to French, Italian or Spanish speakers. We simply say "you". All the time. To anybody. What a relief.
But hold on, Bill, I hear you cry: that’s the point, isn’t it? To these other folk, making this distinction is completely automatic! It’s like falling off a log! Surely you’re making too much of it? Not if my own experience – backed up by an entertaining tale I recently heard from a colleague – is to be credited. In French particularly, I find that the delicate moment of agreeing to se tutoyer (address each other as "tu" rather than "vous") is fraught with complex social horrors. There’s the difference in (perceived) rank. There’s the issue of age. There’s the awkwardness of the...
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