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  • March 21, 2012 - 5:46 PM

Each language class starts with one basic principle: conjugation. Verbs are the building blocks of a sentence, and in order to make any sense at all you must know how to conjugate them. I started taking Spanish in third grade and to this day I still have those six boxes that make up the basic conjugation table burned on my brain. You take notes, you learn, you memorize but then something happens in the third box down: the formal you. I’m sorry, the formal what? What is this nonsense?

The idea of formality in language is something I have been faced with more than once during my travels as I have struggled to switch through plenty of dialects including Dutch, Spanish, and Italian. Now, thinking of being polite is not a new concept to me being that I come from the very state that is known for its kindness, and have a Grandmother from Alabama who has ingrained manners in me since I was little. But then I encountered two separate situations that got me thinking.

Within the first month of living in Italy I had an awesome talk with the housing coordinator of my program about the differences between Italy and the United States, and she was quick to open discussion about formality. She mentioned how using the formal “tu” in Italian creates a space between you and the person you are talking to, which consequently makes it much more difficult for conflict to arise. Usually this form is used in the office or when a person is talking to an elder or professor. It all started as a way of maintaining a sense of social separation but it is now just considered poor manners if you pass an older woman by saying “scusa”(informal “excuse me”) instead of “scusi”(formal). I sat opposite from my housing director trying to think of an equivalent separation in English but could only come up with “sir” and “ma’am” which are rarely used in the mid-west. It was an interesting concept to me—can we establish this verbal separation in English? Or are we losing our formality?

A few weeks later I had the amazing privilege of staying with my friend at her aunt and uncle’s home in Utrecht, Holland. Our ultimate destination for the weekend was Amsterdam, but I gained so much in Utrecht just through simple dinner conversations with her family. The second night of our stay we got into a discussion on the formal you in Dutch—“u”. Once again I was faced with another exchange where my conversation partner was confused with how we convey politeness in English without a formal form. Having a bit more experience under my belt (and wine in my system) at this point I launched into a sermon about how my generation is losing its formality because of the internet. Now why am I openly admitting this on that very medium? Because my trip to Holland was a month ago and, as niave as it sounds, I have changed a lot since then.

So here I am again, pondering how we establish formality in English, and it clicked: it is through the structure of our sentences and the way in which we carry them out. Now stay with me, because though that sounds like a concept that is going to take me a while to explain, it is something we are all aware of. When you run into your friend after class you say: “oh hey girl, what’s up? That psych lecture was cray, am I right?” as you simultaneously stare down at your smartphone trying to think up a word loaded with points for your Words With Friends game (my apologies for assuming all of you are as annoying as I am). But this scene plays out much differently when you walk into your professor. You yank your headphones out of your ears, maintain eye-contact to the point of a staring contest, and formulate a sentence fit for a presentation: “Professor Smith, what a fascinating lecture on attachment and how integrated it is in family systems theory. I definitely want to read up more on Mary Ainsworth’s work—do you happen to have any of her books?”. Communication is 20% words, 80% body language and it is the combination of the two that separate the way in which you talk to all your bros that go by their last names from the astounding educators that populate college campuses like my own. But I have to admit, it is going to be hard to go back and address a professor after lecture without conjugating up as many formal verbs in my head as I can beforehand: "Professoressa--scusi, I mean scusa, I mean excuse me."

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