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 pluralismajestatis 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 italiana - Part 2Play 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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