How do I say ‘you’?

While English has long left it’s thee, thou and ye forms behind in Shakespeare and prayer books, in favour of a universal ‘you‘, Italian like many other European languages still retains an informal and formal, singular and plural code when addressing someone. This means that there are three (some say four) ways of asking someone, ‘How are you?’ for example.

  • Tu” is the informal word to be used with family, friends, people you know well, children, animals etc.
  • Lei”: When addressing someone you don’t know who someone who requires respect – superior, elderly, bank managers – always use ‘Lei’ (pron. lay) which corresponds to the third person in the verb table (he/she/it) and also means ‘she’ (sometimes confusingly).
  • Voi:”If there’s more than one person whether formal or informal use ‘Voi‘ (pron. voy) (second person plural). You may come across this form in a historic context used with a single person, but it remains in the past (it was also encouraged during Mussolini’s regime as ‘neutral’ term).As always there are ‘grey areas’ but use the above as a basic guide.Since each pronoun – tu, Lei, voi, – has a different verb form, then what happens is that they are inevitably dropped, which means ‘how are you?’ will be either:

    informal: “Come stai?” (abbreviated from “come stai tu?)
    formal: “Come sta?” (from “come sta Lei?”)
    plural: “Come state?” (abbrev. “Come state Voi?“)

    Consequently personal pronouns are almost always dropped in the reply so the answer would usually be “Sto bene grazie” (I’m well, thankyou) or “Stiamo bene” (We’re well). They may however be included for emphasis or contrast so a possible answer might be: “Io sto bene, e tu?“. (I’m fine, how about you?)

    A fourth form of address “Loro“, a formal “third person plural” pronoun, is still sometimes used although fairly uncommon in everyday language.

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    One Response to How do I say ‘you’?

    1. Pingback: Mi scusi! : making your apologies « Italy for beginners

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