Forms of Address


Tu, Voi, Lei, or Loro?

There are four ways of saying you in Italian: tu, voi, Lei, and Loro. Tu (for one person) and voi (for two or more people) are the familiar forms, used only with family members, children, and close friends.

Lei (for one person, male or female) and its plural Loro are used in more formal situations to address strangers, acquaintances, older people, or people in authority. Lei and Loro are written with a capital L to distinguish them from lei (she) and loro (they). NOTE:
  1. The capitalization of Lei, when used as a courtesy address, is becoming less and less common, even in formal correspondence.
  2. In contemporary Italian speech it is extremely rare to make adjectives, past participles, etc., agree in gender with Lei if the subject is masculine: Lei è cattivo [not cattiva], generale. But the object pronouns are the same as they would be with a feminine subject—ArriverderLa, dottore!; Devo darLe una notizia importante—and therefore generally impose agreement when they precede the participle: Colonello, l'ho sempre amata.
See the Personal Pronouns.
 
 
Possiamo Darci Del Tu?

An Italian will often propose: «Possiamo darci del tu?» which figuratively means "May we switch to the tu form?" after a relationship progresses. Such a request is hardly ever refused; the difficulty is to keep track of whom one has passed onto tu terms with.

There are, of course, cases in which you can dare del tu immediately. Children are always addressed as tu, and young people would almost invariably use the tu form with each other right from the start: a university student who employs Lei with a fellow student would be considered a real stuffed shirt. Colleagues in certain professions, e.g. journalist, are expected to address each other as tu, or as compagni (i.e., fellow travelers, though as the former Communists of the Partito democratico della sinistra move further to the right this is becoming less of an automatic reflex).

Origin

As it was already mentioned, there are four ways of saying you in Italian: tu, voi, Lei, and Loro. Tu (for one person) and voi (for two or more people) are the familiar forms, used only with family members, children, and close friends. It wasn't always like this. There was no form of courteous address in early Latin: even the emperor was addressed as tu. The voi form (vos in imperial Latin) was the first to take hold as a way of addressing superiors: only in the Renaissance did lei make its debut, along with such florid courtesy forms as la signoria vostra or l'eccellenza vostra. As all such forms are feminine, lei was the obvious pronoun to accompany them, though ella and essa were occasionally used (and still are) when no-holds-barred formality was required.

Literary Precedence

By the 19th century all three forms - tu, voi, and lei - were in common use. In Alessandro Manzoni's novel I Promessi Sposi, for example, there are almost infinite social variations in the use of such allocutive pronouns. The tu form is generally used by adults addressing children, masters addressing servants, or between young friends of relatively humble social standing.

But Renzo and Lucia (the betrothed of the title) address each other as voi, even after they are married; and the children always address each other as voi or lei. By the early years of this century, lei had become the preferred courtesy form, especially in northern and central Italy. Mussolini considered it both unmanly and foreign (presumably modeled on the Spanish Usted, though there is little evidence for this), and tried to ban it in favor of voi. The result, however, was that tu, an extremely intimate form, became more popular as a form of address between friends.

Usage Today

Today voi is still in common use only in southern Italy, apart from certain formulaic phrases in business correspondence, where it is generally capitalized:

Tu is used to address God ("Padre nostro, che sei nei cieli...") and the common man ("Vota socialista!"); it is also used as the unique form of address in a number of central Italian dialects.

Gli date del lei, del tu, del voi?

Do you address him as lei, tu, or voi? Tu, or the tu form of the verb, is informal, and is used when talking with friend and relations, while the third-person lei form is used to address strangers, teachers, professional superiors, distant acquaintances, and anyone about whom you're unsure.
 


General Notions on the Verb

Descriptive Italian Grammar
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© Zdravko Batzarov