June 15, 2010 | Greek

Pimsleur Productivity, and Some Thoughts on Respect

There are too many ways to say "you" in this world.

I am doing at least a couple of hours of stretching daily, accompanied by Pimsleur to make it more palatable. All the stretching is helping my Greek skills, but I am not sure I am getting any more flexible, which is unfortunate, since I have been told that flexibility is the key to recovering from my plantar fasciitis (which I find to be a very creepy term) and getting back to running. 

Stretching Devices: I Am Really Sick of These Things

Stretching Devices: I Am Really Sick of These Things

Nonetheless, I will keep trying.

In the meantime, I haven’t done Rosetta Stone since Saturday because my second headset in two weeks broke, and I am awaiting a replacement. I am apparently too violent for their hardware.

I got to have fragments of my first Greek conversation today, with a Greek singer who lives in the building! It was so exciting. She is the perfect person to practice Greek with. What makes her the perfect person is that she has a sense of humor, is patient, is not in the slightest bit self-conscious (and therefore makes me not in the slightest bit self-conscious), and is perfectly happy to tell me what I am doing wrong.

It was great. I ran some of the phrases I had learned by her, and she either responded in Greek or corrected me if I made a mistake.

To my surprise, one of the doormen I am friendly with, who was standing there for this exchange, also happens to know some Greek. He told me he used to work in a Greek office. My Greek neighbor is funny. She said in Greek that he (the doorman) was a bad boy and then added to that the Greek equivalent of, “He needs to be spanked.” She cracks me up.

I have been going slightly crazy from not being able to run. Biking and swimming and yoga can only take you so far. At around 5:30 p.m., I considered my feet. I considered my options. I considered that I should maybe go for a walk, even though said feet were hurting. I instantly cheered up.

I packed my iPod Shuffle, filled with dozens of Pimsleur lessons, and headed out for Central Park. It was a beautiful night, and I confess, all those runners out there made me jealous, but I repressed my envy and focused on Greek. I stopped by a set of metal bars at a playground and hung upside down for a while. I contemplated doing a cherry drop (swing from knees, release, land on feet), but decided that would be a terrible idea under the circumstances.

Near Delacorte Theater

Near Delacorte Theater

Lots of Traffic Around the Reservoir!

Lots of Traffic Around the Reservoir!

After congratulating myself on my sound judgment, I kept walking. I had a couple of different types of foot wraps/braces that I had to keep adjusting depending on how my right foot was feeling. This plantar fasciitis stuff is weird, because it can seem to be fading and then slam you unexpectedly.

I kept doing Pimsleur through everything except the upside-down part. I had started the day in the middle of lesson 14, but by the time I left the park and went home I was partway through lesson 20. The miracle of multitasking!

Central Park West

Central Park West

Now, I am pretty sure the people at Pimsleur would not approve of my methodology—they say do just one half-hour lesson a day—but I would like to point out that I have been doing a lot of language cross-training, so I have already learned through other sources quite a bit of what comes up as I go through these lessons. The fact that Pimsleur is not the only thing I am doing to learn Greek makes a big difference, I feel.

Off the subject of Pimsleur now: I have been meaning to comment on the issue of formal versus informal versions of the word “you.” As is explained in the Teach Yourself Greek book I am reading, by Aristarhos Matsukas:

You use είσαι when talking to one person that you know well, or when he or she is younger than you; this is the “informal form”…However, when you use είσαστε or είστε to one person, it is probably out of respect (with an older person, higher social status and so on)…

This kind of thing drives me nuts. I hate making pronoun choices based on my perception of age and social status. I feel as though no matter what I do, I will commit a social blunder.

On the Way Home, Sunset Approaching

On the Way Home, Sunset Approaching

For one thing, I can only make an educated guess about how old someone is. Today’s bizarre and disturbing plastic-surgery addiction makes it that much more difficult to know how old people really are. What if a woman is 55 but looks 35, perhaps because of surgery, or Botox, or both, or perhaps simply because she has habits and genes that tend to prolong her physical youth? What if a man is 30 but because of 10 years of video games and Pringles looks 50?

If I use the formal form with that guy, would it imply that I think he is older than I am when he is not? And if so, wouldn’t that be offensive? How am I, the poor overwhelmed language learner, supposed to assess age, plus social status, plus whatever else I’m supposed to consider, in fractions of a second and then capture all that information with lightning speed in a humble little second-person pronoun?

I’m not blaming Greek here. It is certainly not the only language like this. There is du versus Sie in German, tu versus vous in French, versus usted in Spanish. And so on. In fact, the overwhelming majority of languages I have studied (or maybe all, but I would have to stop and think this through) have the same thing going on. I choose wrong all the time, with the usual result being that I sound stupidly formal. I am terrified of being disrespectful. The whole process is very anxiety-ridden and distracts me from more exciting things—say, verbs.

Also, don’t native speakers ever have trouble with stuff like this? Are articles constantly being written in other languages about “you” and perceived breaches of etiquette, sensitive workplace situations, generation gaps in usage, etc.?

My impression, which may or may not be accurate, is that the trend in at least some languages is towards more frequent informality. I like that trend. In fact, I would like to vote right now for a single form for “you.” Actually, wait. I am fine with plural versus singular forms; it’s just the more respect versus less respect thing that gets me.

In the end, a single “you” is very democratic. And while you’re busy being democratic, you also get to be grammatically simpler, which has much to recommend it.

Comments (6)

Ken • Posted on Wed, June 16, 2010 - 12:01 pm EST

Another interesting case of formal vs. informal is in the SE Asian languages, at least Thai.  This is where we see their messing up ‘l’ and ‘r’ when speaking English.  It’s the same letter, essentially, in Thai.  The informal ‘l’ is used in lazy speech, when speaking to peers or ones younger than yourself.  The ‘r’ is used when speaking formally or to someone of respect, etc.

Katherine • Posted on Mon, June 21, 2010 - 3:17 pm EST

In Russian, it’s always best to use the formal first, no matter who you are speaking with.  If you feel like you are on good terms with the person and could switch to informal, you ask them “Можно на ты?” , can we use ты? People will always yes say.  This is not only the polite this to do as a foreigner, but it is basically common practice.  I agree with you and sometimes I feel uncomfortable being too formal, so I don’t address the person at all, and end up not using any verbs!

Michelle • Posted on Sat, November 26, 2011 - 4:00 pm EST

This is one reason why I love learning Swedish… They have 90% left the formal you behind; which I love! :o)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, November 30, 2011 - 7:15 pm EST

That is very interesting, Michelle. I would love to read more about the global trend towards informality in language. I would guess it is happening worldwide in many languages, to varying degrees. That has in any case been my experience in some other languages since I wrote the entry above (a year and a half ago now).

It doesn’t seem likely that any languages would be heading towards GREATER formality!

Alex • Posted on Thu, April 18, 2013 - 1:58 am EST

English actually used to be this way, believe it or not. English used to have more than one “you”, so to speak - remember the “thees” and “thous”? This actually appears to be a case where the formal “you” became more prevalent, outmoding the informal (from what I can tell, but then again I don’t profess to be an expert on Middle English). But yes, English used to be exactly like this. It hasn’t been for centuries, although some very tiny pockets of people along the British Isles still use variations on those kinds of words in their local dialects.

Sort of an old post, I know, but I like your blog. And I couldn’t resist commenting. :D

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, April 18, 2013 - 7:59 am EST

Alex, I love when people comment on old posts. (They are still very much alive to me.) As for your point about English, all I can say is, I’m grateful for the change. I enjoy the simplicity, both grammatically and philosophically.

In a similar vein, I am also very happy about the elimination of gender in English. Not having to figure out whether a radish is masculine, feminine, or neuter—now that just feels to me like the grammatical equivalent of the invention of the wheel!

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