In sociolinguistics, a T-V distinction describes the situation wherein a language, unlike current English, has pronouns that distinguish varying levels of politeness, social distance, courtesy, familiarity, or insult toward the addressee. The name T-V distinction derives from the common initial letters of several of these pronouns in Romance languages (e.g., the French tu and vous, Portuguese tu and voce / vós (the latter not usually spoken, just written), etc.), and also in some Slavic languages.
In many languages, the formal singular pronoun derives from a plural form (or, sometimes, from a third person pronoun). Many Romance languages have familiar forms derived from the Latin singular tu and formal forms derived from Latin plural vos, sometimes via a circuitous route. Compare pluralis majestatis.
Examples of T-V distinctions
Here are some examples of second-person pronouns in languages with T-V distinctions:
||second-person singular informal
||second-person singular formal
||second-person plural informal
||second-person plural formal |
||anta (when addressing a man), anti (when adressing a woman)
||anta / anti; in spoken varieties of Arabic, terms such as h?ad?retak (your grace) or sayyidtak (your lordship) are used
||antum (when adressing men), antunna (when adressing women)
||antum / antunna; in spoken varieties of Arabic, terms such as h?ad?retkum or sayyidatkum are used |
||hi (very close or dialectal), zu
||zu, berorrek (very respectful)
vós (only to elder people)
Vós (to God)
U (when addressing God)
U (when addressing God)
||ci (poetical use only), normally vi
||Lei (archaic Ella, old voi)
||voi (rarely used Loro) |
|Kurdish (North), Kurmanji
||hun, hingo, tu
||hun, hingo |
|Kurdish (South), Sorani
||pani (to a woman)
pan (to a man)
||pañstwo (general) |
panie (to women)
panowie (to men)
||tu (usually voce in BP)
||voce/o senhor (formerly vós)
||voces (sometimes vós)
||voces/os senhores (sometimes vós) |
||dumneata / dumneavoastrã
||vidva (dual), vidve or vedve (dual - when addressing two women); vi (plural), ve (plural - when addressing only women)
||Vi (dual and plural) |
||wej (dual), wy (plural)
||usted (formerly vos, vuecencia, ussía)
|Spanish of the Americas
||tú or vos
||ni or Ni
||ni or Ni |
ka (postpositive only)
||chi or chwi
||chi or chwi
||chi or chwi |
Other languages may have different ways of distinction.
It can often be quite confusing for an English speaker learning a language with a T-V distinction to correctly assimilate the rules surrounding when to call someone with the formal or the informal pronoun. Students are often advised to err on the side of caution, the formal; however, in the wrong situation this risks sounding snobby or at least riotously funny. English speakers may be helped by reminding themselves that the difference is comparable to using first name vs. last name (or using vs. not using sir and ma'am) when speaking to someone; however the boundaries between formal and informal language differ from language to language, and most languages use formal speech more frequently, and/or in different circumstances, than English. And in some circumstances it is not unusual to call other people by first name and the respectful form or the reverse, e.g. German shop employees often use these constructs if a customer is present.
Even within languages, there are differences between groups (older people and people of higher status tending to both use and expect more formal language) and between various aspects of one language. For example, in Dutch, u is slowly coming into disuse in plural, and thus one could sometimes address a group as jullie when one would address each member individually as u. In Latin American Spanish, the opposite change has occurred having lost vosotros, Latin Americans address all groups as ustedes, even if the group is composed of friends whom they would call tú.
Catalan vs. Spanish
Catalan vós follows the same concordance rules as the French vous (verbs in second person plural, adjectives in singular), and voste follows the same concordance rules as the Spanish usted (verbs in 3rd person). Voste originated from vostra merce as a calque from Spanish, and replaced the original Catalan form vós. Now vós is used as a respectful form for elders and respected friends, and voste for foreigners and people whom one doesn't know well. Voste is more distant than vós. Sometimes people justify the use of voste saying, "I only speak of tu with my friends."
Close friends, of course, are tú and venerable old ladies are usted, but there is a wide grey area in the middle. Even that is not universally true: in the Spanish dialects of some parts of Latin America (for example, in Colombia and Guatemala), tú is almost never used, not even with close friends or relatives, which are usted, and tú is more common in Mexico and California (even advertisements in California use tú or its possessive tu, for example "En tu canal 73"/Lit. "On your channel 73"). In Argentina, where Rioplatense Spanish is the standard, there's no tú and the informal pronoun is vos which is used rather indiscriminately.
In Denmark, the use of the formal forms of address has diminished significantly over the last twenty years. Although the De form is still used in certain contexts, it is much more common now for people to address virtually all people with the familiar du.
Anglo-Saxon (a.k.a. Old English) had no distinction between formal and informal "you". In Middle English, in the 13th Century, the term "ye" was used as a formal version of "thou" (to superiors or non-intimates) however, this use was often contextually-dependent (i.e. changing dynamically according to shifting nuances in the relationship between two people), rather than static. By the 17th century, "thou" increasingly acquired connotations of contemptful address, or of addressing one's social inferiors (so the prosecutor in Sir Walter Raleigh's 1603 trial famously declaimed "I thou thee, thou traitor!"). Therefore the frequency of use of "thou" started to decline, and it was effectively extinct in everyday speech by the early 18th century. Its use is now entirely archaic (except in certain regional dialects, usually as "tha"), and Modern English today makes no T-V distinction
Originally "ye" and "thou" were subject forms, while "you" and "thee" were object forms, but by the 15th Century, "you" started being used as a subject pronoun, and only "thee" survived into Quaker "Plain Speech".
The constructed language Esperanto was originally a T-V-distingushing language, with ci being the singular informal pronoun and vi being the singular formal and generic plural pronoun. Ci quickly fell out of common usage, however, and is now felt as archaic and used (capitalized: Ci) to address God in a few works, leaving vi as a catch-all second-person pronoun identical to Modern English you. The history of ci and vi thus closely parallels that of thou and you in English.
French, Spanish, Italian and German
The pronouns in the table above may affect verb conjugation. In French, the respectful vous takes plural verbs (but not adjectives), and in Spanish and Italian, the respectful form requires verbs to be conjugated in the third person singular; in the case of Spanish, this is because the form usted evolved from the title vuestra merced (your grace) which naturally took the third person. In German, the respectful form takes the same verb declensions as the third person plural.
In Italian, Lei means "her" (as accusative form of she). Since in Italian egli ("he"), essi ("they") and especially ella ("she") have fallen out of common use, being replaced by lui ("him"), loro ("them") and lei ("her"), it is also possible to use Ella as a very polite alternative, but this is very rarely used if ever, and is perceived as very archaic or bureaucratic. During Fascism, attempts were made to convert the polite form to voi ("ye"), with some success. Voi might still be used by some, sometimes (but not necessarily) because of political affiliation with the far right. The polite plural form Loro ("them") is used rarely, as voi is often perceived already as polite enough, because it was previously used as polite form. Lei is generally concorded, when necessary, with the gender of the addressee, not therefore necessarily female. It might actually not be present in sentences as Italian is not subject-compulsory, and is then understood by the verb being conjugated in the third person.
- "Have you been in Rome?"
- "E stato a Roma?" (-o: to a male)
- "E stata a Roma?" (-a: to a female)
The origin of Lei is probably due to expressions as Your majesty/eminence/holiness/..., where all of these substantives were female in gender ("Maesta/Eminenza/Santita/Signoria/..."). Lei is normally used in formal settings, with strangers, older or otherwise respected people. Currently, people address strangers of their own age using the informal tu until about 30.
Similarly to Danish, in Québec, where Québec French permits and expects a far broader usage of the familiar tu than in Standard French. While it is still appropriate and expected to say vous under some circumstances, it is generally expected to use tu in a broad range of circumstances and using vous may sound stilted or snobbish. By no means is tu restricted to intimates or social inferiors.
Nowadays the use of the informal singular form of address is widespread in all social circles, even among strangers and in business situations. A counter-trend has been reported in recent years, whereby some people are choosing to use the formal plural more often, but in practice it is very unusual to use this form unless addressing the elderly.
The number is expressed in pronouns (sinä or sä for singular, or te for plural), verb inflections, and possessive suffixes. For example, imperatives are expressed in the plural, e.g. menkää "go(pl.)!". Likewise, the -nne "your" suffix is used instead of the singular -s(i) suffix. There is number agreement in Finnish, thus you say sinä olet "you(sg.) are", but te olette "you(pl.) are". However, this does not extend to words describing the addressee, which are in the singular. For example, oletteko te lääkäri? "are(pl.) you(pl.) doctor(sg.)?"
German and Russian
In Germany, an old but by no means extinct custom (called Brüderschaft trinken, "drinking brotherhood") involves two male friends formally splitting a bottle of wine to celebrate their deciding (mostly proposed by the elder or socially higher-standing of the two) to call one another du rather than Sie. Note this custom is also adapted among the Swiss-French of the Jura. Duzen and siezen can be used as the verbs of du and Sie.
In most parts of Germany there is no clear custom on how to address a group the individual members of which the speaker would address in part as du, in part as Sie. As both plural pronouns, the informal ihr and the formal Sie, can offend improperly addressed members of the group, circumlocutions that avoid the use of pronouns are often employed in such cases.
In Russia, a custom similar to Brüderschaft trinken involves two men drinking a shot of vodka with their right arms crossed, saying their given names, and then kissing each other on the cheek. Similar custom exists in some other Eastern European countries, usually involving typical local alcoholic beverages. In Slovakia, borovièka or slivovica are used for this purpose.
In Japanese, as in Vietnamese, kinship terms, titles, or names are commonly used instead of first-, second- or third-person pronouns. As in Korean, there are several levels of politeness regarding to social hierarchy, and polite language encompasses not only pronouns, but verb endings and vocabulary as well. (See the articles Japanese pronouns and Japanese honorifics for more information.)
Korean has complex gradations. Korean uses honorifics and no less than 7 speech levels, making for a cartesian product of 14 basic verb stems, though some are rarely used. For everyday purposes, one can nevertheless simplify this into the basic distinction between plain and polite conjugations of verbs and adjectives. In general, the plain form is used when speaking to family, close friends, and social inferiors, and the polite form otherwise. When two Korean-speaking strangers meet where none is the obvious social superior, both use the polite form; when it is determined that one or both can switch to the plain form, one often asks for permission for this switch. The phrase used to describe this is mareul nota (literally, to release language). In Korean, polite form is called jondaenmal and plain form is called yesanmal or banmal. In contrast to the neutral term yesanmal, banmal often has a rather negative connotation, referring for instance to the plain form that one may deliberately use to provoke someone who should be addressed in the polite form.
In Norwegian, the use of the polite form De is today all but extinct. Norwegians use exclusively du in their daily life, and it is said that De is reserved for the king of Norway, who at the first use would comment "Please, let's use du", thereby limiting the use of De to once in a lifetime. In practice, De can be found in written works, translations where an impression of formality must be retained, and theatrical plays.
The traditional tu/voce distinction is undergoing a change in the speech of many communities of Brazilian Portuguese speakers. Among these communities, the familiar tu is falling into general disuse, and the previously formal voce is increasingly used in informal address. A more formal pronominal construction is o senhor/a senhora (literally "the gentleman"/"the lady"), which may be pluralized as os senhores/as senhoras. Both voce and o senhor, as subjects, always require a third person verb, regardless of whether voce is used in a formal or informal context.
English speakers may find the o senhor construction akin to the parliamentary convention of referring to fellow legislators in the third person (as "my colleague", "the gentleman", "the member", etc.), although the level of formality conveyed by o senhor is not as great.
In Swedish there has been a marked difference between usage in Finland-Swedish compared to in Sweden. While the form Ni (noted as formal above) has remained the common respectful address in Finland-Swedish, it was until the 1960s considered somewhat careless, bullying or rude in Sweden, where addressing in 3rd person with repetition of name and title was considered proper and respectful. After that the usage swiftly changed in Sweden, and the 2nd person du (noted as informal above) came to dominate totally, until recently when in the late 1990s a usage resembling that in German, Finnish or Finland-Swedish has become popular among the youngest adults. It is also now common to see Du capitalized in places where the formal Ni would have been used before, such as in printed instructions or on signs.
In Vietnamese, the words for uncle, aunt, elder brother, elder sister, etc. are used as pronouns.