I'm not kidding. Only ten years ago three socio-linguists wrote a lengthy monograph entitled Nyelvi illemtan (Linguistic etiquette). I haven't read it and if today I would like to take a look at it, I would have to order it from Libri, an online bookstore that would try to find a copy for me. It seems that this linguistic etiquette book filled a gap. I'm not surprised. The intricacies of when to use the familiar and when to use the formal in Hungarian can try the soul.
I am always amused when I hear radio or TV interviews. "Linguistic etiquette" demands the use of the formal between the reporter and the person being interviewed. But there are exceptions. If both are journalists, then with a huge sigh of relief they can use the informal "te." If not, even if they know each other outside the studio (and most of them do) they have to force themselves to use the formal. Of course, it often happens that they forget that Pista is not really Pista and "te" but "professzor úr," and in the middle of the conversation they inadvertently make a mistake. I talked to some of my journalist friends about this problem and I was told that they hate it too but, you know, there is "the linguistic etiquette" which I'm sure is forced upon them by the stations.
The whole topic cropped up again about a week ago. György Bolgár is on vacation and he asked several well known personalities to host the show. On the very first day two singers with a great sense of humor and self-deprecation replaced him. Oh, they said, this is going to be terrible; we have to use the formal here. We don't know how we are going to survive two hours. Well, what the heck, just please call us "ti" and we too will use the informal if you don't mind! They didn't mind but not all went smoothly. The more timid callers had some difficulty getting into the swing of things.
Kati Marton, the American author who was only about eight years old when she left Hungary, once told a reporter that since she learned Hungarian from her parents she doesn't even know how to use the formal–which is, by the way, not easy. In fact, it is horribly awkward, most likely because the use of the formal is a relatively late development in the Hungarian language. In the fifteenth century everybody called everybody "te" and in the seventeenth century all the nobles used the informal with each other. And there were a lot of nobles in Hungary. Almost ten percent of the population.
The fact is that the informal has been steady spreading for at least the last hundred and fifty years. It was in the 1950s that it became practically compulsory to use the informal with all colleagues, whether you knew the person or not. That meant, for example, all college students; even twenty-five years later if they met on the street they called each other informally. The same was true about all people working in the same factory. However, at that time it wasn't customary to go to a store or a restaurant and call the salesperson "te" and vice versa. Today it can easily happen. Some linguists bemoan this development because they consider it an impoverishment of the language. This may be, but it would certainly simplify the lives of children or teenagers. The poor things haven't gotten a clue whom to call what. Children and even young adults are supposed to use the formal with their parents' friends coupled with "I kiss your hand" and adding "néni" or "bácsi," that is aunt and uncle. By the time I first returned to Hungary some of my friends already had small children and I made it clear that there was no "néni" and no formal. One should have seen the relief on the faces of these children. An encounter with a little boy was especially funny. He said to his parents that he wanted to speak with me in private. Parents left the room. He told me that he would like to call his father Feri and his mother Ica! Hmm, I said, did you try to discuss this with them? The answer was no, but he would be awfully grateful if I did!
I heard from a friend that in Sweden the formal pronoun ni (you) has now been replaced by the informal du in everyday conversation. Not just among colleagues. This is the trend in Hungarian too, which in an artificial way through the media the "authorities" (whoever they may be) are trying to stop. I'm not quite sure why. One argument might be that it is more difficult to be vulgar using the formal address. However, somehow I can't believe that the ever spreading vulgarity in Hungarian society has much to do with the wider use of the informal. The artificiality of the present situation borders on the ludicrous.