Learning a new language has never been easy, especially when it comes to address other people. Referring to other people in the proper manners can be tough and sometimes it can even lead to awkward situations.
Imagine to be in a crowded bus and to see an elderly man standing because there are no empty seats: if you want to offer your seat, what would you say to him? “Vuoi (tu) sederti qui?” (Would you like to seat here?), despite being meant to be polite, it would be a mark of disrespect, because the Italian second person pronoun tu (you) can’t be used to refer to a stranger who is older than the person who is speaking.
In other words, while in English there is no difference between any second-person address, in Italian it is important to distinguish between formal and informal situations, in order to have a successful communication. The level of formality is given by the combination of several factors, ranging from the age of the addressee to the relationship existing between the interlocutors.
There are 4 different ways of saying you in Italian: tu, voi, Lei and Loro.
- tu, for one person, and voi, if the interlocutors are two or more people, are the most informal ways of referring to family members, close friends, children and coetaneous.
- when the communication takes place in a more formal context, the pronouns used are Lei (for one person) and Loro (for two or more), which are always capitalized to distinguish them from lei (she) and loro (they). The latter is extremely rare, only used in highly formal situations like in the Italian parliament. The former is broadly used in every other formal context, for example when meeting someone for the first time or addressing strangers, older people or people in authority.
Quite interestingly, in the past, it was common for Italian people to use the plural pronoun “Voi” as a formal way of addressing someone showing respect. Children would even use it to address their parents and their grandparents!
Nowadays this form is rare, but it is still used in some dialects in the Southern regions of Italy.