English doesn’t make the distinction — as far as pronouns go — between familiar and polite forms, but many languages do.
In a recent documentary about how the Italian language was influenced by Italian fascism, we learn that Lei, the polite form of “you” (singular), was actually banned from the language by Mussolini, and that the form Voi was imposed. But what’s this all about?
Let’s clarify, right away, that voi with a lowercase “v” is the second person plural personal pronoun, that is, “you” plural. We use it all the time. What we’re discussing here, however, is the use of Voi — with a capital letter — as a second person singular, polite form. It uses the same conjugation as voi (you plural).
The story is a long, complicated, and fascinating one, but here are the basics.
In ancient Rome, people used only the familiar form, “tu” which later became the Italian tu (you, singular).
At a certain point, around the year 300, the Latin “Vos” ("you" plural used as a singular) began to be used with important figures such as emperors, much the same way as the pluralis majestatis was used.
“Vos” then became Voi in Italian, and was commonly used from the 1200’s to the 1400’s for addressing artists, nobility, etc. Dante used tu and Voi. Later, in the Renaissance, with the return to studying the Greek and Roman classics, there was a tendency to go back to the “Roman” tu.
Also in the Renaissance, Lei began to be used in offices and courts as a polite form of address. Lei corresponds to the third person feminine singular (she/her). The words used for prominent figures, like Eccellenza (Excellence) and Maestà (Majesty) are feminine nouns, and so, this led to a feminine pronoun: Lei. Lei was used alongside Voi for centuries as a deferential form of address, with tu as a familiar and intimate one. Many consider that the use of Lei came into use following the model of the Spanish, whose presence was felt in Italy during the 16th Century.
So, though not actually foreign (but believed to be, at least, partially), Lei was banned by Mussolini as being a non-Italian word:
Imposizione del Voi ...
The imposition of “Voi” ["you" singular, formal] ...
Parole straniere bandite e sostituite per legge.
Foreign words banned and replaced by law.
Captions 6-9, Me Ne Frego - Il Fascismo e la lingua italianaPlay Caption
Thus, Voi was revived and/or imposed all over Italy. After the fall of fascism, Voi fell into disuse in many parts of Italy, where it had not really had time to be assimilated.
In much of southern Italy, however, Voi, as a deferential form of address, had never gone out of fashion, as it had in the north. So, it simply remained, and to this day it’s still used as a sign of respect, especially in families: a nipotino (grandson) in speaking to his nonno (grandfather), for example.
If you are an adult and go on a trip to Naples, Sicily or other southern Italian destination, you may very well be addressed as Voi. This is a sign of respect.
Lei has entered Italian vocabulary and grammar books as the official personal pronoun for addressing someone formally. But since language is fluid and ever-changing — not by law and imposition, but by common use — this could change. There's a lesson about this!
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As we saw in a previous lesson, Italians are very conscious of formal and informal greetings, and will say hello in different ways depending on the situation. But there’s more. When speaking or writing to someone they must, or want, to treat with respect, they’ll use the polite form of “you”—Lei. This happens to be identical to the word for “she,” lei. To show respect, Lei gets capitalized, together with its possessive pronouns Sua, Sue, Suoi (your, yours) and its object pronouns La and Le (you). Although the capitalization of these pronouns is going out of style, it can be helpful for figuring out who is being talked about. Using the formal “you” is called dare del Lei (giving the formal “you”). The opposite is called dare del tu (giving the informal “you”).
In Ma che ci faccio qui! (But What Am I Doing Here?), Alessio finds himself in an embarrassing situation. (Yes, he’s about to fare brutta figura!) Things have gotten decidedly intimo, but Alessio da ancora del Lei (is still giving the formal “you”) to this woman, and she calls him out on it.
Ma che fai, mi dai ancora del Lei?
What are you doing, you still address me formally?
Caption 39, Ma che ci faccio qui! - Un film di Francesco AmatoPlay Caption
In an episode of Commissario Manara, Lara is trying to get some information from a woman in shock over the death of her employer. Lara uses Lei since she is addressing someone older than her, and whom she doesn’t know. Lara sees the woman is touchy on the subject at hand so she immediately apologizes, even though she’s done nothing wrong.
When the personal pronoun in question is an object, either direct or indirect, it can become part of the verb, as we’ve talked about in a previous lesson. In the example below, the polite “you” is a direct object of the verb offendere (to offend), and becomes part of it (with a respectful capital letter in this case).
Mi scusi, non volevo offenderLa.
I'm sorry, I didn't want to offend you.
Caption 57, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP4 - Le Lettere Di LeopardiPlay Caption
In another episode, Luca Manara is being polite to his boss, but only on the surface. In this case, the indirect object pronoun is part of the compound verb, riferire a (to report to).
Ma, come, purtroppo Lei mi ricorda,
But, since, unfortunately you remind me,
io devo riferirLe tutto, no?
I have to tell you everything, don't I?
-Si aspetta magari che le dica bravo?
-Maybe you're expecting me say, "Good work?"
Captions 25-26, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP2 - Vendemmia tardivaPlay Caption
In the concluding segment of “Vendemmia tardiva,” la zia, as usual, uses her powers of conversazione and intuizione femminile to help solve the crime:
Avevo capito che, in tutti questi anni, è stata innamorata di lui.
I'd figured out that, for all these years, she'd been in love with him.
E per trent'anni gli ha dato del Lei,
And for thirty years she addressed him formally,
ma ti rendi conto?
can you imagine that?
Captions 5-6, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP2 - Vendemmia tardivaPlay Caption
Dare del tu (to address informally) or dare del Lei (to address formally) is an important aspect to settle in a new relationship. A common question to ask is: ci possiamo dare del tu? (can we give each other the informal "you?") or, ci diamo del tu? (shall we give each other the informal “you?”). The answer is almost always: sì, certo!