12 September, 2009

The formal versus informal second person singular

In many languages, a speaker addresses another person in different ways depending on intimacy and formality. For example,

  • In Spanish, one uses tu with an informal relation, and usted with a formal relation.
  • Likewise, Italian uses tu with an informal relation, and lei with a formal relation. I have read that this offended the Fascist Party, since lei is also the third person singular pronoun for a woman ("she" or "her") and they thought this was feminizing Italy, so they pushed to replace lei with voi (the second person plural, "y'all" in Southern and "youse" in Northern).
  • In Russian, ты (ti) is used for the informal, and вы (vi) for the formal.
Apparently, this practice is falling into disuse in Italy and Spain, as Corriere della Sera reports in an article titled, The sunset of "lei" towards superiors and professors. The paper reports that an Italian company has reminded its employees that lei is required when addressing superiors; likewise, a Spanish official has stated that addressing professors with tu shows a lack of respect.

The article suggests that popular television shows are prompting the change, since everyone on the shows addresses everyone else by the informal rather than the formal. Wikipedia reports that part of this is also because advertisements and correspondence use tu to imply a close relationship between the client and the company. This suggests to me that in the past, people may have wanted respect from the people who did business with them; today they want intimacy.

Strange, but does it correspond to patterns of business and worship in this country as well? There's a memorable line in the film Falling Down (a dark comedy) where Michael Douglas' character asks a fast food worker and manager,
Why am I calling you by your first names? I don't even know you. I still call my boss "Mister", and I've been working for him for seven years, but all of a sudden I walk in here and I'm calling you Rick and Sheila like we're in some kind of AA meeting... I don't want to be your buddy, Rick. I just want some breakfast.
I've also heard that teachers used to address their students as "Mr." or "Miss" so-and-so; is that so? Now students often want to address their teachers by their first names, and many teachers prefer that as well!

Whatever the case, I have also heard that the Fascists' obsession with void was merely an attempt to resurrect a more ancient practice that had fallen into disuse. The article and Wikipedia seem to confirm this by referring to ancient southern Italian practices of addressing people formally as Vossia or Vossignoria ("your Lordship"). I have heard some southern Italians use voi when addressing each other; whether from ancient usage—as the article suggests—or from having learned it in Fascist times, I don't know, but Wikipedia implies the former.

My Nonno's neighbors used to refer to him respectfully as Don Felice or Dottor Leboffe (he had a doctorate in economics from the University of Naples). Even old acquaintances would refer to him this way (or perhaps by Don Felì)) then subsequently pass into tu. In the States, we associate Don with the Mafia (Don Gotti, Don Corleone) but it remains a term of respect in southern Italy. For example, in Gaeta, people address the parish priest not as Padre Giacomo or Padre Paolo but as Don Giacomo or Don Paolo. I reckon Don comes from the Latin Domine for Lord,and I'd wager that they also had such ways of showing respect in formal situations.


P. David Streit, SVD - Roma said...

In Italian, 'Padre' is the common form of address for a priest belonging to a religious congregation. 'Don' is the usual form of address for diocesan priests, and they themselves often write it with the 'd minusculo' unless it begins a sentence: i.e. don Paolo, don Rossi.

jack perry said...


jack perry said...

In fact that reminds me of Padre Pio. I should have mentioned that (Wikipedia alludes to it).

Anonymous said...

This was a surprise to me. Un'altro nome per i preti e' anche Monsignor...Per quato riguarda nonno, il Don era dato soprattutto per rispetto da amici che lo conoscevano da piccolo. Signor Leboffe veniva dato a lui da coloro che forlmamente lo chiamavano...in banca, per esempio. Il pronome "voi" era usato molto nel Sud per rispetto tra suocera e nuora o operaio e padrone dell'azienda.