Unlike most European languages, in which there is a formal and an informal mode of addressing someone else, the English word “you” lacks this distinction and the tremendous psychological barrier that accompanies it, and was thus crucial to promoting political democracy and social democracy.
There are many, many things that strongly affect a person or a nation unnoticed, things that we take so much for granted that we may not even be conscious of them. For example, the overwhelming type of pet that people prefer is mammals, yet we never stop to wonder exactly why it is that we prefer mammals over non-mammals. Another example is the color of lipstick and blush that women use for makeup. Why are they both, invariably, varying shades of red, as opposed to, say, green? Or, even though we observe a musical or theatrical performance that we judged to be unsatisfactory, at the end why do we join in the extended, unmerited clapping?
Words are another example.
I recently reread Swift’s satirical essay A Modest Proposal. Written in 1729, it mentions the inhabitants of the colonies as Americans. Not Englishmen. Not Virginians. Not New Yorkers. But Americans. As early as 1729 the colonists were seen (and saw themselves) as apart from England. And all the colonies as a group. That identifying label alone may have been a spark toward the consideration for detachment from Britain. In 1777, when Fort Ticonderoga fell to British forces, King George III clapped his hands and exclaimed, “I have beat them! Beat all the Americans!”
There is another, equally momentous example as elaborated by Wootton in his superb The Invention of Science. Prior to 1492, European intellectual consensus was that everything that could possibly be known had already been stated by the ancient Greeks and Romans, so the only real job for intellectuals was to study and interpret them, particularly Aristotle. Asia, Japan, India, and China were known. With the discovery of a new, antipodal continent by Columbus, along with totally new peoples, foods, and animals, came the sudden realization that knowledge could be increased, that it was not finite. Brand new words were created, particularly by the Portuguese, to succinctly describe these activities: “exploration” and “discovery.” Other important words came into being: “science,” “scientists,” “scientific.” An intellectual chain reaction occurred was the result.
In almost all other European languages that I am aware of, inanimate objects are referred to as being either male or female (English is the exception, with the neuter “it” and “the”). Try as you might, I assure you that there is no rhyme or reason why any one of the countless inanimate objects is referred to as male or female. In Italian, life is female (la vita), and the weather is male (il tempo); in Spanish, the road is male (el camino) and an orange is female (la naranja); the woman’s purse is la cartera, yet the mailman’s bag is el cartero, and the man’s wallet is la billetera, etc. No doubt, feminists will find some bizarre rationale, spin some psychotic delusion, and dub it patriarchal oppression. Now, the really interesting thing is that such artificial gendering subtly influences peoples’ psychology. For instance, a study was performed between Spaniards, who refer to a bridge (el puente) as male, and to Germans, who refer to it as female (die Brücke). In describing the qualities of the former, masculine terms were often used (“sturdy” and “strong”) while the latter more frequently used female terms (“beautiful” and “elegant”). I strongly suspect that this gendering of inanimate objects originated with the first Indo-European ur-language, from which all European language subsequently evolved, with English being an aberration.
Along these lines, the effects of one word in the English language, I am positive, had strong repercussions in the social and political fabric of Britain, Ireland, Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, Bahamas, Jamaica, and others. That word is the word “you.”
English-speaking readers will be puzzled by my claim, in as much as there is no perspective. But to one who is multilingual, but much more importantly is steeped—not just experienced, but steeped—in another culture-language, that word is remarkable. Unfortunately, foreigners learning English do not see past all the many other linguistic peculiarities that one becomes aware of anytime upon learning another language.
My assertion is that the word “you” was crucial to promoting political democracy and social democracy (and by the latter, I mean that there existed a relaxation of social interaction between persons).
In all European languages that I am aware of—Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, Russian, Danish, Serbian, Spanish, German—there is a formal and an informal mode of addressing someone else, in German being Sie and du, Spanish Usted and tú, Italian Lei and tu, Serbian sdrabo and cho, Dutch U and je, Danish De and du, etc. Nor is this distinction restricted to just European cultures: in Indonesian, Bapak (for males) and Ibu (for females) are formal, and kamu is informal. Greek has the curious aspect that one addresses a person with respect by using the plural; the singular is used for family and close friends, or for insulting.
But let me return to European languages. From personal experience I can testify that this Sie/du, Ud./tú, sdrabo/cho, U/je, De/du distinction forms a tremendous barrier between persons. It is not just the words Lei and tu; there is a tremendous psychological barrier present; one is expected to behave differently when using the different words (and note how the formal pronoun is almost always capitalized). One word keeps another person at a distance—a far, far distance—whereas the other one brings them together. Particularly in Spanish (unlike, say, Italian), this barrier is more elaborate because it is not just the words tú and Usted; other words, particularly verbs, become affected and have to re-orient themselves accordingly so that, in a manner of speaking, an ever-so-slightly different language is being spoken to someone in authority. For years, my parents were friends with a couple of other families, yet the men were always addressed in the formal Usted mode by the women. In Spain, this effect reached its apotheosis. Every time that I have had a conversation with a Spaniard, male or female, and no matter how friendly (or even intimate!), I always have had the impression of rigidity and aloofness even when using the familiar form of address. This is why much of the humor in Don Quixote is lost when translated into English: The interchange between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is often based on this rigid social/linguistic class distance between the two (Don Quixote addresses Sancho with tú and Sancho addresses Don Quixote with Usted).[*]
Yet, with English, social interactions are easier, more relaxed—and, yes, this was true even in Britain even though British leftists rant and rave ad nauseam in their irritatingly infantile whining and snarling against their former aristocracy and Privilege. Nevertheless, one could always address a Prime Minister, or Prince, as “you;” by comparison, the emotional groveling that accompanies the Ud./tú, Sie/du, Sdrabo/cho is just not there.
To be sure, there were other elements—political, historical, geographic, religious—that helped the spread of democracy in the Anglo-Saxon world. Of course. They are far from inconsequential. Just to name one is the geographical distance between the colonies and the mother country. In the United States, the complete absence of an aristocracy (in spite of New York journalists’ insistence that the Kennedy clan is American royalty, an assertion that the rest of the country laughs at), the open frontier, and the War of Independence helped tremendously (and to a large extent the same is true for Australia, New Zealand, and Canada). One of the advantages of not having an aristocracy is that people were not dependent on them for a living and so became individualistic and self-sustaining. There was also the fact that, despite the class distinction in England, there was a long tradition of democracy in that culture (whereas in Portugal and Spain there was a strong tradition of rigid authoritarianism which was often suffused by stupidity). In fact, there is more of an egalitarian air in all of these ex-colonial countries as compared to the mother countries. Nevertheless, I maintain that the grease in the democratic machinery in the Anglo-Saxon world was the word “you.”
Yes, in South America, there was also geographical distance from Portugal and Spain, there was also a frontier and there were also wars of independence (unfortunately, without the guidance of a democratically elected vanguard, as was the case in the northern 13 colonies). The South Americans, though retaining the inherent linguistic barriers, are more relaxed and friendly than the Spaniards both in speech, facial expression, and body language. And yet, South Americans have for over a century had trouble in maintaining a perennial democracy. I suspect that one important factor in this arrested development is “you.”
There is one additional curious element to this. The Spanish language was not always like this. At one time, circa 1600, as can be read from any of the excellent (ignored by Americans and British) stage plays of that era, there was the equivalent of “you;” it was “vos.” Unfortunately, somehow, for some reason, “vos” went out of favor, and the Ud./tú distinction eventually became rigidly established, along with the re-arrangement of verbs. I cannot help but speculate how the history of Iberia and of an entire (South America) continent would have turned out, had “vos” remained uniformly in use.
I believe it would have led to a more tranquil history.
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* As late as the mid-20th century in Spain the town barber cutting the hair of the “señorito,” the young male of the aristocracy, was not allowed to even speak to him.
The featured image is “The Discussion” (c. 1900) by Harry Willson Watrous (1857–1940) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.