She becomes You (formal)

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages, and Linguistics (EHL)' started by merquiades, Nov 9, 2012.

  1. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    USA Northeast
    In Italian and German the subject pronoun corresponding to "she" (lei, sie) has become the formal way to say "you".

    As for Italian, a alternate system similar to French exists where a formal you (voi) corresponds to the plural you (voi). It has the same verbal structure with the (-ate, -ite, -ete) endings. It may be legend but I was told it fell out of use after the second world war because it was the preferred formal you of the fascist regime.
    The other system is with Lei (singular third person verb forms) that coincides completely with lei (she) and logically takes the feminine object pronouns La/Le. La vedo ogni giorno (I see her / you formal daily). Le scrivo una lettera. (I write her/ you formal a letter).

    German also uses "sie" as a subject pronoun but with a plural verb form. Sie spricht (she speaks) but Sie sprechen (You speak). It may be important that Sie is also They. So Sie sprechen can also be (they speak). :cross:I think the object pronouns also correspond to "she". Ich sehe sie (I see her/you formal). Ich gebe ihr ein geschenk (I give her/ you a present). Edit: Wrong assumption here. It's actually plural with Ihnen.

    I was wondering what is the history of taking the feminine (she) for the formal you and why "lui" and "er" weren't similarly taken for symmetry. This may or may not be a simple question, but it's intriguing.
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2012
  2. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    In German, sie means both "she" and "they". As you state correctly later in this post, in the meaning "you (polite)" Sie takes a verb in the 3rd person plural. So it is the "they" word, not the "she" word. The dative case of the "you" and "they" word is "Ihnen/ihnen", while that of the "she" word is "ihr". So you should see that the situation in German is totally different from that in Italian.
  3. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    USA Northeast
    Thanks. Yes, it's obvious now. First German course, Wie geht es Ihnen?:eek: So, it's a plural of sorts like in French. It's still puzzling that sie (she), sie (they) and Sie (you all) have the same subject pronoun. I thought sie as she would be the origin because of its etymological link with English (she,sie)
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2012
  4. djmc Senior Member

    English - United Kingdom
    I assumed that it was a contraction of something like "is your honour wanting to see me" being the same as "Do you want to see me". The title is dropped but the conjugation of the verb remains. I sometimes address my cay in this way "Does your pussiness want some more nibbles".
  5. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    USA Northeast
    That would work for Spanish, DJMC: your majesty (vuestra merced) contracted to (usted) + third person. English had "My Lady". Will My Lady be taking her tea on the veranda today? Will she have cream and two lumps of sugar? but "My Lord" also existed. Would you say to your tomcat "Would She like some more nibbles?"
  6. djmc Senior Member

    English - United Kingdom
    But for a language in which nouns have a gender and gender of the noun is feminine even if what is omitted is something like ferocity then it would be she rather than he. In French altesse is feminine but one would say votre altesse to both men and women and any agreement would be feminine.
  7. Youngfun

    Youngfun Senior Member

    Bắc Kinh
    Wu Chinese & Italian
    Hi merquiades!

    It would seem strange, but actually Italian Lei / Spanish Usted / Português você all have the same origin.
    In the Middle Ages, throughout the Romance speaking lands it was a custom to address formally with the plural you: vous in France, voi in Italy, vós in Spain and Portugal.
    In Italy, together with voi, there were some even more formal addressing pronouns: Vostra Eccellenza and Vostra Signoria, while in Spain they used the equivalent Vuestra Merced and in Portugal the equivalent Vossa Mercede.
    In Italy, because Eccellenza and Signoria are feminine words, at a certain point people started to abbreviate them using the feminine pronoun Lei.
    Meanwhile Spanish Vuestra Merced became abbreviated in usted and Portuguese Vossa Mercede became Vossemecê (or Vosmicê according to someone) first, which then got abbreviated again becoming você.

    In Italy, there was a period when voi and lei were equally used. Then lei started to prevail.
    During the Fascist period, Mussolini encouraged using voi, forbidding the use of lei, because lei was perceived as bourgeois and considered erroneosly as a Hispanism, while voi was considered erroneosly as "ancient Roman".
    If I remember well, I've read that ancient Romans didn't distinguish formal and informal you. Somebody that knows classical Latin can confirm?

    In Italy voi is still used in some places in Southern Italy, and in some very formal nobiliar environments or very important titles, like Vostro Onore, Vostra Santità (pope), Vostra Eminenza (cardinals), Vostra Maestà (Your Majesty), etc. -- which have the same structure as the etymology of "lei". In this title Suo/a is for 3rd person, as in "His Majesty".

    In some very formal situations, but very rare today, the plural formal pronoun "loro" can still be used.

    Hi, djmc!
    In Italian no, the agreement with adjective follows the person's gender.
    If you are talking/writing formally to a man, you say/write:
    -Lei ne sarà onorato
    -Lei è molto simpatico.
    -Le scrivo per tenerla informato.
  8. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    USA Northeast
    Thanks for the information, Youngsun. It's definitely the subject pronoun representing "vostra eccelenza" and "vostra signoria". I thing you've cleared up the mystery once and for all. Using a masculine adjective with Lei proves that Italians don't even acquaint it with the lei (she).
    Can you ever say... Gli scrivo per tenerlo informato?

    So if someone said today "Signore, voi parlate bene il francese" would it sound pompous or fascist?
  9. olaszinho Senior Member

    Central Italian

    In my opinion, it would sound pompous, regional or a bit old-fashioned. By the way, in all ancient costume dramas or fairy tales "
    Voi" is still used.
    You should say: Le scrivo per tenerla informata (both to a man and a woman)
    I would like to add my two cents to Youngfun's post: in some very formal situations, we can also use Ella as a formal pronoun: "Ella Signor presidente della Repubblica."
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2012
  10. Youngfun

    Youngfun Senior Member

    Bắc Kinh
    Wu Chinese & Italian
    Thank you, olaszinho, for the two cents.

    For that sentence, I wouldn't think it sounds fascist... and agree with olaszinho.
    I've heard that in some places in Southern Italy, "voi" is perceived less distant than "lei".
    In other places it's the other way around: "voi" is even more formal than "lei".
    In other places, "lei" is used in cities, "voi" in the countryside.
    In the past (the previous generation), in some families "voi" was used to address parents and grandparents.

    For lei/voi, see more in this thread in the Italian forum.

    For the accordance between Lei and the past participle, I have doubts now.
    See here and here.

    I've found this talking about the history of the formal pronouns.
    I've said some inaccuracies in my previous post...
    Ancient Romans had only one kind of pronoun, then after the I century AC, Emperors preferred to be addressed with the plural you, and referred to themselves as plural "we".
    This might be the origin of the usage of the plural in all Romance lands.
    And in the XVI century, the prevailance of "lei" was due to the influence of the Spanish Inquisition.
  11. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Not entirely wrong. In accusative they are the same:
    Ich sehe Sie (I see you),
    Ich sehe sie (I see her).
    But fdb is still right: There are enough morphological differences to prevent a confusion.

    The German 3rd pl. honorific originated as a merger of two honorific forms: 3rd. sg. (Er or Sie, depending on whether a man or a woman is addressed) and 2nd pl. (Ihr). The former was originally used to address high ranking commoners and the second was used among members of the nobility (commoners always addressed members of the nobility by title or and never by a pronoun). Usage of these forms started to shift in the 17th century and the "egalitarian" Sie (plural) became customary in second half of the 18th century although the other forms survived until about the mid of the 20th century but with changed meanings. Some regional varieties (notably Berndeutsch where Ihr is the standard) retained Ihr.
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2012
  12. Youngfun

    Youngfun Senior Member

    Bắc Kinh
    Wu Chinese & Italian
    Hi Bernd!
    That's very interesting! Finally I've got an explication about the origin of Sie.
    Someone told me that in German they used 3rd person + plural, "they", in order to increase even more the formality, compared to plain plural you or to singular 3rd person.
    But your explciation of egalitarianism makes more sense.

    As far as I know, in Switzerland they use Standard German in formal communication. Do they use Ihr or Sie in formal letters or formal speeches?
  13. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    It depends. In Zurich Sie, in Bern I could image Ihr also in a formal letter (probably depending who is the addressee).
  14. Youngfun

    Youngfun Senior Member

    Bắc Kinh
    Wu Chinese & Italian
    Thanks bernd.

    Sorry, I forgot to reply to this question.

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