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I am a beginner French learner, yet my native language has tu/vous distinction, loaned from French, so I thought I would have no problems with it. Alas. I was watching The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and noticed that pretty much everyone uses vous to talk to each other (I even drew the chart below).

I find this unexpected. I would expect Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, and Gimli (all close friends) all use tu among each other. I would definitely expect Gollum being addressed with tu - no-one has much respect for him. And I find it odd Gandalf addresses Saruman and Balrog with vous ("Vous ne passerez pas !") when they are in the middle of a fight.

As far as I can tell from searching on the Internet, French people don't speak that way outside the Middle-Earth (do they?). So where else would I expect to find people using vous so extensively? Is this some kind of archaism that is supposed to give me medieval courtesy vibes?

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Edit: the arrow between two uruks had to be pink for tu.

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    Do the films follow the books here, or is there a difference?
    – gerrit
    Aug 25, 2022 at 7:47
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    I am far from a good French-speaker so this is a comment based on my knowledge of LotR not an answer. The Balrog is a Maia (essentially a minor angel, involved in the creation of the world), like Gandalf, so whilst they have been on the opposite sides of multiple wars, they're in some sense still people of the same (high) social rank. The only one that seems odd here is Sam vous-ing Gollum. Frodo generally shows him pity and empathises (seeing him as his possible future) so vous makes sense, but Sam has nothing but contempt for him
    – Tristan
    Aug 25, 2022 at 10:02
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    also which colour is the uruk -> uruk arrow supposed to be?
    – Tristan
    Aug 25, 2022 at 10:10
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    @Tristan Sam vous-ing Gollum is explained by Sylvain in his answer, though I think he does switch to "tu" after a scene where he bursts with anger against the creature. Aug 25, 2022 at 10:53
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    By the way, Tolkien said somewhere – I think in the Appendices – that Hobbits tutoy among themselves and Pippin unexpectedly tutoyed Denethor, leading witnesses to think he must be some kind of prince among Halflings. Aug 27, 2022 at 3:28

5 Answers 5

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(French native here) You probably have been taught, as a simplifed rule, that 'vous' should be used for plural or to emphasize politeness, and 'tu' for singular/close relationship.

As already answered by others, 'vous' may also be used to emphasize a hierarchical relationship : work authority, social hierarchy, nobility assessment (dated), respect for older/more experienced people.

More generally, 'vous' may be used to stress that the interlocutor belongs to a different group/category/class: cultural, political, racial (especially in LOTR!), that the speaker can't (or don't want to) belong to (distancing).

Subtle variation: when speaking to an individual, it could mean you want in fact address the whole group or category/class behind (implicit plural). For example Gandalf saying "Vous ne passerez pas !" can also be understood as 'You shall not pass [all of you evil creatures]!'

Finally, if 'vous' is used whereas there is no apparent distinction to be made, that means the speaker wants to purposely put some distance with the other person (i.e., don't want to be friends). Note that if you use 'tu' with someone and they answer with 'vous', that means you crossed the line and you are expected to switch back to 'vous'.

Hobbits talking to Gollum is a typical example of this distancing (no longer a hobbit + don't want to be friend).

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    +1, although for the last one I think I remember from the books that Frodo was saying "vous" to Gollum out of respect/smooth-talking, while Sam was using a scornful "tu" in moments of anger. Might be wrong though. Aug 25, 2022 at 10:47
  • More, in past times the "vous" was used more frequently. From child to parents, for exemple. It was also seen as less rude than "tu", wich is maybe why Gimli and Legolas use differents pronouns for each other. Elvens are nobles and dwarves are depicted as some kind of comic relief (at least in the films)
    – Saphirel
    Aug 25, 2022 at 14:54
  • Being a native French speaker, does it seem weird to you that Gollum is addressed with vous? Or does it seem just fine? I do understand the deliberate distancing with using vous instead of tu (I do this to my neighbour), but I somehow can't imagine saying vous to Gollum. Wonder if that's chauvinism 🤔
    – iry
    Aug 25, 2022 at 21:24
  • @iry Dynamic question. It's not unlike stranger danger distance. Do you intend the original meaning of chauvinism?
    – livresque
    Aug 27, 2022 at 1:15
  • "Note that if you use 'tu' with someone and he answers with 'vous', that means you crossed the line and you are expected to switch back to 'vous' " -- unless you are an adult and he is a young child outside your family, right? In that case, no line is crossed and both are speaking properly, right?
    – nanoman
    Aug 27, 2022 at 5:07
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One possible reason is that the film is translated from English, which does not make distinction between tu and vous. This is however not very likely (at least, if we are dealing with the official translation, which is expected to be high quality, although I have seen vous to crop in in other films.)

A more likely reason is that the usage of vous is adopted from that typical for French nobility, where pretty much every nobleman/noblewoman would refer as vous to their peers and those higher in the social hierarchy, but as tu to those lower in rank, especially non-nobles. E.g., I believe this is how the heros of the Dumas' novels refer to each other, even when speaking within their family.

While I think that this is plausible, I am not sure whether the tu/vous distinction was used as a mark of politeness in France in medieval times, which would be more representative of the kind of story we find in the "Lord of the Rings".

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    re: lack of distinction, I'm reminded of a scene where Sam says "What it needs is some good taters." Gollum: "Taters? What's taters, precious?" Sam: "Po! ta! toes!" In French: « Ce qu'il faudrait, c'est de bonnes patates. — C'est quoi des patates, mon précieux ? Qu'est-ce que c'est ?? — Pommes ! de ! terre ! idiot ! » So they did get those nuances :)
    – Luke Sawczak
    Aug 24, 2022 at 17:28
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    But I agree that it's more about the time period. And it doesn't even have to be medieval. Even in books from the 19th century I see people address each other as vous, including lifelong friends, and mostly just tu for family members, especially young ones.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Aug 24, 2022 at 17:29
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    I don't know the habits in Canada @LukeSawczak but as far as I am concerned I still have parents or parents of friends that, in their young age would refer to their own parents as "vous" and not as "tu". "Vous" was not only for nobles, as you pointed, it was also used, not so long ago, to address someone who was older or in a wealthier class/rank than yours. Aug 24, 2022 at 19:33
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    @β.εηοιτ.βε You can also nicely see the "class / rank" thing in the diagram. Frodo uses "tu" for Sam, but inversely Sam uses "vous". They are definitely friends, but they are also of a different social class. SImilar for Theoden and Eowyn (junior/senior in the family).
    – xLeitix
    Aug 25, 2022 at 8:25
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    @RogerVadim Looking at the diagram I am sure that all of these arrows are highly intentional, especially those that look weird on first glance. Theoden has a lot of respect for Grima, Eowyn ... not so much ;)
    – xLeitix
    Aug 25, 2022 at 8:30
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As a short answer and addition to the other answers:

Is this some kind of archaism that is supposed to give me medieval courtesy vibes?

Yes, mostly. It would feel weird, too casual and anachronistic to use "tu" all the time.

But it also related to the general tone of The Lord of the Rings. It can be described as poetic, noble, pure.

Game of Thrones for example aims for a completely different tone, filthy, crude and unromanticized. While I haven't seen or read the French adaptation, I would assume there's a more prevalent usage of "tu".

Having almost every character use "vous" is faithful to the romantic tone and consistent with the fact that the characters speak in a literary, poetic manner. Frequent inversions, usage of "ne", vocabulary rarely used in modern speech, etc.

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The movie is mistranslated. This is proven by the interactions involving the hobbits.

In the English book version of The Return of the King, Appendix F, section II, paragraph 3, Tolkien states that Hobbitish had lost the vous form. This resulted in Pippin using the tu form when deferentially speaking to the Steward of Gondor.

The Westron tongue made in the pronouns of the second person (and often also in those of the third) a distinction, independent of number, between 'familiar' and 'deferential' forms. It was, however, one of the peculiarities of Shire-usage that the deferential forms had gone out of colloquial use. They lingered only among the villagers, especially of the Westfarthing, who used them as endearments. This was one of the things referred to when people of Gondor spoke of the strangeness of Hobbit-speech. Peregrin Took, for instance, in his first few days in Minas Tirith used the familiar forms to people of all ranks, including the Lord Denethor himself. This may have amused the aged Steward, but it must have astonished his servants. No doubt this free use of the familiar forms helped to spread the popular rumour that Peregrin was a person of very high rank in his own country.

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  • That is an interesting note indeed, even if only a partial answer. Welcome to French SE!
    – Luke Sawczak
    Aug 27, 2022 at 20:57
  • I think someone in comments brought up that appendix too, it's an interesting point I've completely forgotten about! But, even if we imagine the translators actually translating the book from Westron that has T-V distinction, still it wouldn't be wrong of them to adapt pronoun usage to French cultural peculiarities. And those are what's interesting to me here :)
    – iry
    Aug 28, 2022 at 11:59
  • @iry — Yes, the translators were adapting "pronoun usage to French" culture. And they did it wrong. The incongruity of Pippin using tu deferentially was both amusing and astonishing, and the translators completely omitted that aspect of the story.
    – Jasper
    Aug 28, 2022 at 22:48
  • In-universe, The Red Book of the Westmarch was written/transcribed/translated from other languages by hobbits. I have no idea how enough T-V distinction would have been recorded in it for Tolkien to have noticed that non-Hobbitish Westron had the distinction. Perhaps Pippin, Frodo, or Elanor (Pippin's daughter-in-law's sister) left a note explaining the joke.
    – Jasper
    Aug 28, 2022 at 23:05
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The Appendix F, section II, paragraph 3 of The Return of the King has already been mentioned by others.

There's an interesting note from Daniel Lauzon, the translator of the most recent French edition of the Lord of the Rings. It explains why vous or tu have been used, depending on the relationships between characters:

En quelques endroits, on a voulu marquer ces distinctions par l'emploi non systématique du pronom thou. Peu fréquent de nos jours et indéniablement archaïque, ce pronom indique le plus souvent un style cérémonieux; mais un changement de pronoms, de you à thou (ou thee), entend parfois montrer, à défaut d'autre moyen, une modification significative des termes d'adresse : l'abandon de la forme respectueuse (soit, entre adultes, la forme attendue) au profit de la forme familière.

[La traduction française respecte ces principes (thou devient systématiquement tu). Toutefois, la distinction entre tutoiement et voussoiement (absente en anglais moderne) étant encore bien vivante en français, il a fallu, de manière plus générale, choisir entre les deux formes afin d'exprimer différents rapports (familiarité, autorité, égalité, connivence, etc.). (Note du traducteur)]

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