Tu, você ou senhor? I’m talking about YOU!

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Article written by Lucy Pepper, published at Observador.pt


For anyone whose mother tongue is English, most other European languages have two huge stumbling blocks that we really have to get our heads around.

Firstly, the gender thing. Much of my energy every day is taken up trying to remember what gender a word is. Of course, many words are obvious and easy to remember, ending with o’s and a’s, and it is useful that adjectives usually come after that noun, so it gives me time to remember to get it to agree with the noun it describes.

Inside my head, I congratulate myself on getting the gender of words, like dia, sistema, problema, planeta, mapa every time I say them right. This takes up a lot of mental energy.

I wonder why someone decided that words would have genders, and didn’t think that it might complicate things later. To the English-born brain, there is no sense whatsoever in a table being feminine and a plate being masculine, but I soldier on every day, pretending that what comes out of my mouth is natural and that I don’t have several machines inside my had trying to remember to agree article and adjective with noun.

The other big stumbling block is YOU. Since I began to learn French and German as a small child, the various forms of YOU have mystified me, adding another layer of stuff to remember apart from vocabulary, grammar and gender… who is a tu/du and who is a vous/Sie? As I never lived in those countries, though, I wasn’t sent into the paroxysms of anxiety that tu/você/o senhor/o seu nome send me.

Not only do I have to work out on the spot if you’re male or female (we have all been there… is this a man or a woman?), but I have to make a split-second decision about whether you’re a you/tu or a you/você or a you/o senhor.

If there was an absolute concrete rule, it would be a bit simpler, I suppose. If it were the rule to call everyone who looked more or less one’s own age or younger tu, and anyone significantly older o senhor, it would be slightly easier. If it were the rule that absolutely everyone who is related to each other, close family friends, colleagues with whom you share an office called each other tu, and saving o senhor merely for people you are unlikely to meet again ever in your life, that would start to make a modicum of sense.

But no. In Portugal, the rules are too fluid and we have to suffer that terrible anxiety-ridden indignity of working out who calls who what, every day. Worse than fluid, the “you” thing ends up being divisive.

There’s a horrible subservience about calling your boss você, especially if he or she calls you tu. There’s an annoying itch about meeting a new acquaintance, calling them você and then wondering when, in the following weeks, months or years will be the right moment to say “please, for heaven’s sake, call me tu!” once you realise that you will be friends. There are close friends who still call each other você after thirty years, and I wonder if they never got round to “having the talk”.

There aren’t even set rules within families. There are the families who call everyone within tu, without fail. Then there are those for whom blood is the only excuse for tu, and any in-law gets the você treatment forever.

There are families who insist that close family friends are called você by the children, in the form of aunty/uncle, which, to British ears, is hilarious and oh so “Abigail’s Party”. There are parents who call their children tu, but insist upon being called você by those children. There are parents who call their children você. If there were ever a way to distance yourself from a child, apart from denying it cuddles, it’s that. How do you call a baby “você”? The creepiest and weirdest of them all are the couples who call each other você when they aren’t even Brazilian (note to non-Portuguese/Brazilians, “você” in Brazil is far more widespread and intimate than você in Portugal).

So much of the tu/você difference between families smacks of social divisiveness and snobbery, those awful things you are always accusing we Brits of.

It’s all very well claiming that you are showing a person respect by using a formal address, but so often that respect is scant… you can hear it in the tone of voice and the rest of the words being used, not in the “o senhor”.

I’m lucky. I can play my “stupid foreigner” card when I’m not in the mood for trying to make the tu/você/o senhor decision and just call anyone “tu”, but you, the Portuguese, don’t have that card to play, and I wonder, really, why you insist upon continuing to complicate things for yourselves.

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