On God, Politeness, and the T-V Distinction

Sep 22, 2015 by

This is another post inspired by a question from (and discussion with) David Benkof, who asks about the following “intriguing conundrum for the High Holidays”, when (religious) Jews are thinking “about what our relationship with God really is”: on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as on the Ten Days of Repentance between the two holidays, Jews recite the prayer “Avinu Malkeinu”, thus addressing God alternatively as Avinu ‘our father’ and Malkeinu ‘our king’. As David also notes,

“we also say “Im K’vanim” – if you see us as children, have paternal compassion; and “Im Ka’avadim,” – if you see us as slaves, we’re looking up to you for grace.

English and Hebrew machzorim [Jewish prayer books] can allow that tension to exist, but machzorim in those other languages [that make a distinction between informal and formal forms of address] actually have to resolve it, and my French machzor did it by choosing the informal. It uses only “tu” to refer to God, thus coming down squarely on the side of “Avinu” in the Avinu/Malkenu face-off.”

So what forms of address are used for God? And what does it mean for the speakers’ relationship with the divine?

I have written about this so-called T-V distinction—so named by Brown and Gilman (1960) with reference to the initial letters of informal and formal 2nd person pronouns in Latin, tu and vos—(see here and here), but a quick overview may be helpful. English no longer makes the distinction, although historically it distinguished the formal you and the (no longer productively used) informal thou. However, in this respect English appears to be peculiar among its Indo-European brethren, most of which make this distinction in one way or another, the notable exceptions of Irish, Albanian, and some forms of Kurdish (see WALS on “Politeness Distinctions in Pronouns”). Yet, the majority of the world’s languages in the WALS sample actually side with English in this respect by not making the politeness distinction (specifically with respect to 2nd person pronouns; some languages make politeness distinctions in 1st or 3rd person pronouns, but this is a separate issue to be set aside here). The lack of politeness distinction is found in many languages in Africa, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and the Americas. Yet, in all those areas (with the exception of Australia perhaps)—as well as in Eurasia—we also find languages that make the politeness distinction. The majority of such languages (49 out of 64, in the WALS sample) make this a binary distinction, a situation familiar from French, Spanish, Italian, German, or Russian. A smaller set of languages (e.g. Hungarian, Hindi, and Malayalam) make a multi-way politeness distinction and some other languages (e.g. Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese) avoid pronouns altogether to express politeness. For the remainder of this post, I will focus on languages that make a binary distinction or do not make one at all.

In the latter class of languages, we find Hebrew, both Biblical and Modern. (The Hebrew prayers that David Benkof refers to were composed in the former.) In both forms of Hebrew, there is no distinction between “tu” and “vous”, but unlike English, which uses the formerly plural you for everyone, Hebrew sticks with the singular forms to address one person (and the plural forms to address multiple addressees). I say “forms” because Hebrew makes a gender distinction in the 2nd person, both in the singular and the plural: ata (masculine singular second person), at (feminine singular second person), atem (masculine plural second person) and aten (feminine plural second person). One does not use atem or aten as polite forms of address to one person, nor any other form for that matter. Presidents, prime ministers, rabbis, professors, doctors, judges, and movie stars are all addressed as ata or at, depending on gender.

Languages that draw the politeness distinction in 2nd person may choose from a number of different candidates to do the job of the “formal” singular pronoun. Plural pronoun is one obvious choice, employed in both French (vous) and Russian (vy). (Curiously, in writing Russian distinguishes between the un-capitalized vy for formal and informal plural and capitalized Vy for formal singular; obviously, this is not reflected in the spoken form.) German and Italian use the 3rd person feminine singular pronoun for the 2nd person formal one: Sie and Lei respectively (note the capitalization in both languages!). In Spanish, the situation is further complicated by differences among regional varieties: depending on where they come from, Spanish speakers may have as many as five choices for ‘you’, depending on number, gender, and formality: (singular, informal), usted (singular, formal), ustedes (plural, formal), vosotros (plural, masculine, informal), and vosotras (plural, feminine, informal).

Two things are worth noting with respect to the forms listed above. First of all, the choice of the pronoun to do the job of the polite singular is grammaticalized and does not reflect speakers’ views on the addressee. For example, Germans and Italians do not think of their politely addressed interlocutors as feminine—and yes, in both languages they address the invariably male Pope as ‘she’. This point will be important to our discussion of what, if anything, the form of addressing God means, to which I return below. The second and related point is that pronouns are not the only elements expressing the politeness distinction: since it is a grammatical feature, it is subject to agreement on other elements, such as attributive adjectives (e.g. ‘the hungry you’), predicative adjectives (e.g. ‘you are hungry’), and of course verbs (e.g., ‘You left’). To make matters even more complicated, different rules of agreement may apply to these categories within the same language: for example, in Russian attributive adjectives reflect the semantic gender of the (singular) ‘you’, verbs appear in the 2nd person plural, and the form of a predicative adjective depends on whether it is “short” or “long” (itself a tricky distinction; cf. Pereltsvaig 2001). And yes, in Italian the verb agrees with a polite singular Lei in 3rd person singular.

So what does the T-V distinction really express? Above, I used terms “formal” and “informal”, but they are just shortcuts for a multitude of social meanings, often very subtle ones. The exact circumstances where the T-form or the V‑form is to be used differ from language to language (and the improper use of these forms may be the first give-away of someone’s “foreignness”). For the rest of this post, as an example of how complicated and subtle the T-V distinction can be, I will examine the Russian contrast between ty and vy and what it expresses. These forms are typically described as “singular informal” and “plural and/or formal” (or “polite”), respectively, but the formality of the situation or politeness are not the only meanings encoded by the choice between the two forms. To choose the appropriate form, a Russian speaker must consider many factors, including the age, sex, and social standing of both the speaker and the addressee, as well as the nature of the situation and the level of intimacy—not necessarily erotic!—between the two parties. For example, when addressing a friend, a child, or a spouse as ty, one is not necessarily being impolite. Instead, the choice of the T-form expresses a certain level of familiarity between the speaker and the addressee. One may also address a friend, a child, or a spouse as vy, but this usage has a unmistakably facetious, tongue-in-cheek flavor. Ty may also be used to address someone barely known to the speaker, if the speaker wants to emphasize their psychological closeness, the “we are family” sort of feeling. For instance, Russian WWII memoirs and novels are full of examples of high-ranking army officers addressing officers of equal rank or subordinates as ty to create a bonding effect. But although ty is not excluded in formal situations, it may be the wrong choice in revealing a level of familiarity inappropriate for the situation. For example, I might address the same colleague as ty when speaking one-on-one, but as vy in a more public setting.

mesto-vstrechi-3And yet impoliteness, informality, familiarity, bonding, and equal social standing are not the only meanings associated with the choice of the T-form. Thus, one can also choose ty to express contempt, disdain, or a sense of superiority. A great example can be seen in the popular TV film Mesto vstrechi izmenit’ nel’zja (“The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed”), in the interrogation scene around 6 minutes into episode 2. The film is set in post-WWII Moscow and recounts the story of an elite detective team led by the tough Captain Gleb Zheglov (played by Vladimir Vysotsky) and specializing in especially heinous murders and armed robberies. In this brief but well-written and well-acted scene, Zheglov grills the soft-spoken middle-aged doctor Gruzdev (starring Sergei Yursky), who is arrested on suspicion of murder of his estranged wife Larisa. In just a few minutes, Zheglov switches from vy to ty and back to vy, masterfully playing with the forms of address to express a gamut of attitudes towards the suspect. He starts with Vy ne žulik, vy čeloveka ubili ‘You’re not a swindler, you murdered someone!’, where the V‑form is chosen due to the formality of the situation, as well as because the two men barely know each other yet are at least formally of the same social status and similar age. (Note also that Gruzdev consistently responds to Zheglov throughout the entire interrogation with vy, stressing the formality of the context, the similarity in social status, and the psychological distance between them. Curiously, another interrogated criminal in a different scene, pickpocket Kostya Saprykin, addresses Zheglov as ty, as in: Ty mne, načal’niček, delo ne šej! ‘Don’t you, chief, forge a file on me!’) But already 10 seconds after the opening accusation using vy, Zheglov addresses Gruzdev as ty: Ty dolgo gotovilsja… nu-nu, utixomir’sja, bud’ mužčinoj, raz popalsja imej mužestvo soznat’sja ‘you were preparing for a long time… now-now, calm down, be a man, if you got caught, have the courage to admit your guilt’. The choice of the “informal” pronoun here is not to signify a change in formality of the situation and is only partially to be rude (in Zheglov’s opinion, there is no need to be polite towards a criminal). Nor does ty here express some newly found closeness between them—quite the opposite is true, as Zheglov purposefully distances himself from the suspect, treating him more as a boy than a man, hence ‘Be a man’. (This haughty attitude—albeit with a note of paternal protection rather than disdain—is also heard in Zheglov addressing his younger, less experienced colleagues Kolya Taraskin and Volodya Sharapov as ty.) A few seconds after calling Gruzdev ty, Zheglov switches back to vy: Vot protokol obyska u vas v Losinke ‘Here’s the report on the search at your place in Losinka’. By returning to the “formal” pronoun, Zheglov stresses the impersonal nature of his relationship with Gruzdev: he is now just a cop doing his job. It also emphasizes Gruzdev’s guilt, undeniable in Zheglov’s eyes. Thus, the switches in the use of T- and V‑forms depict Zheglov not only as a skillful interrogator able to use linguistic subtlety to manipulate a suspect, but also as a man who does not bother with such “niceties” as presumption of innocence: right from the start, Zheglov treats his suspect as “proven guilty”. (To close the subject of conversational switches between ty and vy and back, I will note that I have seen numerous examples of equally skillful mastery in this device among many online discussants who switch the form of address to express disdain for their interlocutor, whom they typically do not know personally.)

Since the choice of ty vs. vy in Russian is rather subtle, as we have seen above, it is not surprising that it is often negotiated explicitly. After some time, a new Russian friend may offer you perejdem na ty ‘let’s switch to ty’, or you may remain na vy ‘using vy’ for a long time. A faux-pas of using the form of address that seems inappropriate to the addressee is referred to as tykat’ ‘to say ty inappropriately’ or vykat’ ‘to say vy inappropriately’. Note also that the use of ty and vy need not be symmetrical: for example, a teacher may refer to a student (especially, a school student) as ty, but will invariably be addressed as vy. This also explains why the phrase Ty mne ne tykaj ‘Don’t you [ty] call me ty’ is perfectly normal in Russian.

To make matters even more complicated, these rules of “linguistic etiquette” are also subject to historical change. For example, even a hundred years ago I would probably address my husband, my parents, and my closest friends as vy, while today ty is normally called for in such circumstances. In his famous poem, Alexander Pushkin uses the V-form to address his (former) beloved: Ja vas ljubil… (The exact translation of this seemingly simple line is a matter of contention among translators: ‘I loved you’? ‘I used to love you’? ‘I have loved you’?). Today, most declarations of romantic love would include the T‑form: ja tebja ljublju or ja ljublju tebja, as in the poem by Vika from Kiev on this amateur poetry site.

We are now ready to get back to the original question of how God is addressed in Russian, as ty or vy. (Before reading further, what would be your guess?)

As it turns out, Russians address God invariably as ty, both in the Christian and Jewish tradition. (I do not know how Russian-speaking Muslims address God, but I suspect that they use ty as well; if any of the readers happen to know, please comment in the Disqus section below.) For example, consider the Russian version of the “Pater Noster” prayer in the Christian tradition (the T-forms are boldfaced):

Otče naš, suščij na nebesax! da svjatitsja imja tvoe, da priidet tsarstvie tvoe, da budet volja tvoja i na zemle, kak na nebe…

Similarly, the opening stanza of the Russian version of the Jewish “Avinu Malkeinu” prayer, which started this post, also contains T‑forms and corresponding 2nd person singular verbs (also boldfaced):

Otets naš nebesnyj, uslyš’ ètot golos, otets naš nebesnyj, grešny my pred toboju, otets naš nebesnyj, k tebe my s mol’boju — spasi i pomiluj detej našix i nas.

So does this mean that Russian speakers of different faiths treat their relationship with God as informal and/or not needing politeness? The answer is no. As mentioned above, Italians addressing the Pope, sex symbol movie stars like Marcello Mastroianni, or (male) soccer players as Lei do not imply any femininity on their part. Similarly, Russians addressing God as ty do not imply familiarity or informality. It is simply a convention. Does this choice of the T-form mean that Russian speakers “com[e] down squarely on the side of “Avinu” in the Avinu/Malkenu face-off”, in David Benkof’s words? Not really. Note that Russians also have a tradition of addressing the Tsar as ty, as in the opening lines of A. K. Tolstoy’s poem “Gosudar’ ty nash batyushka”:

Gosudar’ ty naš batjuška,

Gosudar’ Petr Alekseevich,

čto ty izvoliš’ v kotle varit’?


Sovereign you our father

Sovereign Peter Alekseevich,

What do you boil in the pot?

Also notable here the traditional address to the Tsar as “our father”; for the Russians, the tension between “father” and “ruler” applies not only to God but to secular rulers as well. But if you ever manage to time travel to the days of Imperial Russia and happen to find yourself at a court reception, don’t dare address the Tsar as ty, only vy! In fact, if I were writing a film script about, say, Nicholas II, I would have his wife, children, courtiers, and ministers—all those addressing the “tsar as a person” in face-to-face situations, including close family members!—use vy, but peasants or workers pleading with the “tsar as a abstract entity” at a distance use ty. (The fact that “at a distance” pleading involves ty, which is normally reserved for “closeness”, make seem contradictory, but that just underscores how subtle this choice of address is in Russian.) In fact, whenever addressing personified abstract entities rather than actual physical persons, Russian speakers consistently use ty rather than vy:


Russia, as in this song, performed by Galina Nenasheva: Ja ljublju tebja, Rossija… ‘I love you, Russia’America, as in this song by Nautilus Pompilius: Gud baj, Amerika… nas tak dolgo ušili ljubit’ tvoi zapretnye plody ‘Goodbye, America… we were taught for so long to love your forbidden fruit’


Leningrad, as in this song: Slušaj, Leningrad, ja tebe spoju zaduševnuju pesnju svoju ‘Hear, Leningrad, I will sing you my soulful song’


Arbat Street, as in this song (lyrics, music and performance by Bulat Okudžava): Ax, Arbat, moj Arbat, ty — moë prizvanie. Ty i radost’ moja, i moja beda. ‘Oh Arbat, my Arbat, you are my vocation. You are my joy and my trouble.’


Cruiser Aurora (symbol of the Bolshevik Revolution), as in this song: Čto tebe snitsja, Krejser Avrora, v čas, kogda utro vstajet nad Nevoj? ‘What do you dream about, Cruiser Aurora, in the hour when the morning rises above the Neva River?’


Lady Luck, as in this song: Vaše blagorodie, Gospoža udača, dlja kogo ty dobraja, a komu inače ‘Your honor, Lady Luck, for some you are kind, and for others not’


Life, as in this song: Ja ljublju tebja, žizn’ ‘I love you, life’


Future (“Beautiful faraway”), as witnessed by the 2nd person singular imperative form in this song: Prekrasnoe dalëko, ne bud’ ko mne žestoko ‘The beautiful faraway, don’t be harsh to me’


Lucky Star, again as witnessed by the 2nd person singular imperative form in this romance: Gori, gori, moja zvezda! ‘Shine, shine, my lucky star’


Old piano, as in this song from the film We Are from Jazz: I mne tebja nemnogo žal’, staryj rojal’ ‘And I pity you a little, old piano’


Steppe, as in this song: Ax, ty step’ širokaja ‘Oh you a broad steppe’


(If you have additional examples, please share in the Disqus section below.)

I think that addressing God as ty fits in with the broader convention of using the T-form for abstract entities.



Pereltsvaig, Asya (2001) Syntactic Categories Are Neither Primitive nor Universal: Evidence from Short and Long Adjectives in Russian. In: Steven Franks, Tracy Holloway King, and Michael Yadroff (eds.) Annual Workshop on Formal Approaches to Slavic Linguistics. The Bloomington Meeting 2000. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Slavic Publications. Pp. 209-227.

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