Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tu or Lei?

Italian has two different forms for ‘you’, the informal ‘tu’ and the formal ‘Lei’, and recently I’ve been observing the use of these two forms in spoken Italian in Milan. As a Welsh speaker I’ve always been used to having both a formal and informal ‘you’ in a language; and when speaking the language I’d never have to think about which form was the appropriate one to use in a particular situation - I just knew, I’d been brought up to know when to use which form. Italian, however, and especially in Milan, is not so clear cut!

To me, spoken language in Milan is surprisingly informal. Of course, in certain situations, for example when speaking to strangers in work environments, or older people when you first meet them, the Lei form will always be used. But I’ve been surprised at how much the ‘tu’ form is used on the street; for example, one woman in her 30s accidentally bumps into another woman of around the same age, and apologises by saying ‘scusa’, the informal ‘sorry’. And in some situations where I’d expect the ‘Lei’ form to be used, it isn’t. Today I had a washing machine delivered, and after an initial ‘Salve’ (a useful greeting, at least in Milan its’ formality lies somewhere between ‘Buongiorno’ and ‘Ciao’.) the two men instantly used the ‘tu’ form with me. I still find it difficult to judge when to use which form, it isn’t necessarily an indicator of how well you know someone, but from my experience I’ve found that the ‘tu’ form can be used to introduce a sense of equality and openness. Maybe being this young changes things too, I don’t look 24, and I think a lot of people use the ‘tu’ form because of my age. It’s something I’ll continue observing, and hopefully I’ll eventually crack the secret!


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Here too, a lot of people use the "Tu" form to everybody. I think it's becoming more common all over Italy.

Nerys said...

Hi Welshcakes! For some reason I would've thought the South would've been more formal! It's certainly more common than I expected it to be when I first moved out here.

Anonymous said...

If you want an additional complication, in southern Italy it is still quite common to use "voi" instead of "lei".

As concerns myself, I would abolish by law "lei" form to use only "tu", since I don't like formality.