Who me?

This post has been prompted by watching the first programme in a series of four Italian crime dramas on BBC4 on Saturday nights. The drama is called Inspector De Luca and is set in Riccione in 1938.

It struck me that languages have very different ways in dealing with the concept {you}. These range from the simple you of most varieties of English to much more complex systems which differentiate singular and plural, some even throwing in dual for good measure, and polite/formal versus familiar.

French is fairly straightforward, using tu for singular familiar and vous for plural and/or polite. French uses second person verb forms with these pronouns.

Next up is German. We have du + 2nd person singular verb form for singular familiar, ihr + 2nd person plural verb for plural familiar and Sie + 3rd person plural verb for both singular and plural polite.

Much more complicated and confusing for the poor old Brit. learner is the situation in Italian and Spanish, the more so because the pronoun is not even used most of the time! Italian is probably the hardest so here goes…2nd person singular verb, possibly accompanied by tu for familiar singular, 3rd person singular verb, possibly accompanied by lei (which also means “she”), for polite singular, 2nd person plural, possibly with voi for familiar plural, and finally 3rd person plural, possibly with loro (which also means “they”) for polite plural.

What was odd, to me anyway, about the language in the De Luca programme was the fact that the 3rd person forms and the use of lei and loro to mean “you” was absent. The characters used just tu and voi, the second of these being used, à la française, for singular polite, plural polite and plural familiar. Was this a feature of Italian generally during the Mussolini era? I’d love to know.

13 thoughts on “Who me?

  1. I am a native German speaker from Cologne, Germany, and my use of polite, nay formal*, Sie (+3rd pl.) definitely doesn’t follow the pattern described, as Sie is only used when addressing a single person. For groups there is no special form for formal occasions; ihr (+2nd pl.) is used universally in contemporary Standard German.
    *On addressing individuals, not groups: It is not at all impolite to use du when talking to one’s friends and family. On the contrary, Sie would be completely out of place and might make them feel I’m pulling their leg. — In most cases du is also used indiscriminately on the Internet (for example, in blogs like this one), and younger and more “progressive” speakers feel using Sie is inappropriately „distant“ — almost offensive — when addressing their peers. The situation is complex, but there is a strong trend away from Sie.

  2. I’m afraid I have to disagree. For a group, most people will use “Sie” with the verb in the third person of the plural if they’d use it for a single person, too. In a neutral situation, “ihr” can be a serious faux pas.

  3. @Phillip:

    Yes, this was accepted and required usage when I was a child, but I switched to universal ihr for groups some fifteen years ago. I cannot image a situation where ihr would be considered a faux pas nowadays, even in the most formal contexts. Plural Sie has come to sound extremely stilted.

    However I am less sure about usage in other parts of Germany and abroad. Austrians and, to a somewhat lesser degree, East Germans have a reputation of being more conservative in matters of courtesy titles and form of address.

  4. I, in turn, can’t vouch for Cologne, but outside of skat clubs, I’d be careful with “ihr” as a plural of “Sie” in Germany. The general tendency to give up the T/V distinction, especially on the internet and in “younger” companies is a different matter, of course.

  5. “Was this a feature of Italian generally during the Mussolini era?”

    Very much so. My friend Roberta d’Alessandro, Professor and chair of Italian Language and Culture at Universiteit Leiden, confirms that this is now a regional form: in the south of Italy ‘voi’ is used while the rest of the country uses ‘lei’.

  6. @Phillip:

    The fact that ihr is used here as the formal plural pronoun might be due to interference with the Colognian (Kölsch) language. In Colognian ehr is used for both 2nd person plural (formal and informal) and 2nd person singular formal. Incidentally, this is exactly the paradigm of French and southern Italian, just with a different word. And Standard German used to follow this paradigm as well; Duden gives the sample phrase “Ich bin ein Vornehmer des Kaisers wie Ihr, Herzog” which is labelled “veraltet” (obsolete).

  7. I agree of course (there are other dialects, eg some High and Highest Alemannic, that still use the 2nd person of the plural for the V form), just wasn’t aware that this had entered Standard German in Cologne.

  8. Hindi is also complex, having gone through 2 rounds of T-Ving.

    तू (tū), the original 2nd person singular pronoun, is now restricted to extremely informal or intimate contexts (small children or lovers).

    तुम (tum), originally a plural, is now used as the general informal 2nd person **singular** (and, occasionally, plural).

    आप (āp), originally a **3rd** person plural, is now used everywhere else (formal 2nd person singular, 2nd person plural)

  9. Alex, Martin,

    Thanks very much for that. It confirms my guess. I think the makers of the programme are to be congratulated for getting it right.

  10. dw,

    Interesting. Thank you. Do you know what happens in other langs of the sub-continent?

  11. Charlie, Phillip,

    Thanks for the interesting discussion. I had no idea things were complicated in German too.

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