The English personal pronoun ‘you’ is an incredibly versatile little word: one could use it to indicate second person singular or plural, and it allows you to hedge your bets with regard to formality, thereby not offending anyone.
In Afrikaans, second forms of address could be a thorny issue, however. Instead of having an option such as the jovial all-rounder ‘you’, one has to either stick with u (the formal pronoun) or opt for jy and jou (the informal incarnation of ‘you’ and ‘your’). Understandably, the topic sparks divergent opinions. The Language Centre regularly receives requests for guidance from translators – along with the odd call from upset recipients of University communication – regarding this choice.
What are the criteria for weighing up these two forms of address? The main considerations are as follows:
- The level of formality in the communication
- The degree of intimacy or familiarity between the parties
- The level of politeness – the kind of social interaction between the parties as well as differences in age and in status or authority
- The immediate context of the situation
Opinions diverge not only on how these criteria are to be applied in Afrikaans, but also depend on the author’s disposition. Some would be far more likely to conclude that u is indicated in a specific case; others, again, avoid u as far as possible for being out-dated, hyperformal or an obsolete indicator of inequality. The latter group would also prefer, in most circumstances, not to be addressed as u.
An interesting shift has occurred in the university context. Lecturers rarely address students as u anymore, neither in groups nor as individuals (although u still crops up in course material and examination papers). In fact, students reportedly suspect irony when lecturers do address them as u, and students themselves rarely use u when addressing lecturers.
Some broad guidelines:
- Rather start off sounding too formal than overly familiar. It is impossible to please every member of your target audience, but this would be the safest option for staff at public institutions and businesses, as well as people who do liaising or pursue a professional occupation.
- Take your cue from your conversational partner: if a person concludes an e-mail (or a subsequent e-mail) with only their first name, and addresses you by your first name in the salutation, usually that indicates a kind of invitation to switch to jy and jou.
- Use the informal form for target audiences that are addressed as a group. This approach has become far more acceptable and is used far more frequently than before. Nonetheless, do not lose sight of other relevant factors. The larger the social distance and the weaker the intimacy between the author and the average member of the target audience, the less harm will be done by erring on the formal side. Even in instances where the social distance is small and intimacy is strong, the specific situation may require a more formal approach; for example, in meetings at a certain level or due to the culture at the specific workplace.
As always, common sense and emotional intelligence are your most trustworthy tools.
The information in this article was drawn from personal experience and much of this is echoed (whether fortunately or unfortunately) in a LitNet article from which the odd formulation and one example were borrowed. The full article, ‘“Do not call me ‘jy’ and ‘jou’”. The use of u as an Afrikaans form of address in the 21st century. Results of a pilot study’ by Nerina Bosman (Department of Afrikaans, University of Pretoria) and Annél Otto (Department of Language and Literature, NMMU), was published in LitNet Academic Research [Online] 12(3). Available: http://www.litnet.co.za/ moenie-my-jy-en-jou-nie-die-gebruik-van-u-in-die-21ste-eeu-resultate-van-n-loodsondersoek/ [2017, 1 March].