By comparing Italian and English we can detect a difference in the use of pronouns. If English recurs to a neutral use of the pronoun ‘you’, which is chosen for both the second person singular and plural, Italian requires different pronouns, depending on the addressee.
The single word ‘you’ has two main translations in Italian: tu and voi. However, there is a third option used in a formal context to mark the distance between the speaker and the listener.
The use of tu, voi and lei in Italian
The pronoun tu is used in Italian when addressing a person that can be considered our peer. Here are some specific cases where its use is required:
– when there is not a sharp difference in the age of the people taking part in the conversation. That is, when people interacting have similar age.
– when people speaking have an informal relationship or they are friends.
– when we are in an informal situation and we do not wish to mark any type of distance.
The pronoun voi is used as the plural of tu; thus, it is the plural form of the second person. It is used when we wish to address more than one person.
The lei is often defined in Italian as a formula di cortesia, or polite form, and has to be applied in these specific situations:
– when the speakers have different social roles because of their age, for example if a child speaks to an adult.
– when there is a formal relationship between the addresser and the addressee.
An in-depth examination about the use of voi
Having already explained the use of voi, it is important to give some extra information based on regional and geographical factors.
In the past, the honorific lei did not exist and the form voi was used as a polite phrase. In some Southern regions of Italy you will still hear people using voi as a formula di cortesia instead of lei. According to modern Italian grammar, this use of the voi pronoun is no longer correct and depends on the influence of dialects and linguistic archaisms still very strong in some parts of the country.
Therefore, if you are in the South of Italy, do not be surprised if you are addressed with a voi even if you are alone!
Come stai ? ( tu ) – Cosa desideri ?
Come sta ? ( lei ) – Cosa desidera ?
Come state ? ( voi ) – Cosa Desiderate ?
PS ( by Paolo ) – I ride a motorcycle and it is amazing how everybody tends to use the second person singular when you are on a bike instead of addressing you more formally. In any case, it’s nice when a girl uses ‘tu’ instead of ‘lei’ when talking to me – It makes me feel younger!