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Let’s talk less formally

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The BBC has recently been broadcasting the Italian police dramas Il Commissario Montalbano and Il Commissario De Luca. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Montalbano, though this post isn’t about him. Instead, I’d like to focus on a part of speech that sometimes crops up in these shows, and indeed many others. Even now and then, the protagonist will find himself talking to a new acquaintance (yes, usually a woman) and she will say to him the enigmatic phrase “Diamoci del tu.” Literally, this means “Let’s give each other ‘you’.” The English subtitles translate this phrase as the slightly bland “Let’s talk less formally.”

Is this translation correct and what does it actually mean?

In Italian, there are four ways of saying ‘you’, which can be difficult to grasp for English speakers who only have the concept of one form. There is ‘tu‘, which can be thought of as the ‘standard’ form of ‘you’. However, it is only used with people with whom you are on familiar or intimate terms, such as members of your family, friends, or close colleagues. It can also be used by an adult to address a child.

The other form is ‘Lei‘ (with a capital letter). The usual meaning of ‘lei’ (small letter) is ‘she’, or the third person singular feminine pronoun, to use the grammatical jargon. This form is used when addressing a person, whether male or female, whom you are not familiar with, or when speaking to someone who is older than you, or superior in rank or authority.

If you stop someone on the street to ask them a question, you would address them using ‘Lei’ and the corresponding verbal conjugations. You would talk to the shopkeeper using ‘Lei’. Same goes with the assistant at the railway station, the police officer, and indeed anyone you are likely to exchange words with during the day whilst out on your business.

At work, you would also typically use ‘Lei’ with colleagues who are in a position of authority with respect to you, though you might use ‘tu’ with people of the same rank. For example, in the Montalbano films, the inspector always addresses his team using ‘tu’, but they in turn address him back using ‘Lei’.

There are exceptions, however, but mainly if you are in your teens or twenties. It’s probably OK to talk to another young person you have just met using the ‘tu’ form. However, if you stop an older lady or gentlemen and address them using ‘tu’, it may well cause offence and a cold shoulder.

The third type of ‘you’ is ‘voi‘, which is the plural of ‘tu’ and used when addressing a group of people with whom you are on familiar terms. The fourth type is ‘Loro‘, which is the plural of ‘Lei’–however, note that this form is now regarded as extremely formal and generally old-fashioned. In most everyday situations, it will be acceptable to use ‘voi’ when addressing any group of people. I’ve certainly never heard ‘Loro’ being used.

Speaking of ‘voi’, it’s also possible to hear some Italians, mainly of an older generation, use the word as a substitute for ‘Lei’. In other words, it can be used to formally speak to someone in the same way as ‘Lei’. For example, “Siete italiano?” (“Are you Italian?”) instead of “È italiano?”. Again, this usage isn’t very common, so it’s best to stick with ‘Lei’ for most purposes.

Now, if you have just met someone socially, it can be a bit tricky to know whether to use ‘tu’ or ‘Lei’. It all depends on your age, the context, and the person themselves. For example, if you are in your twenties and a friend introduces you to his cousin, who is also the same age, it is probably best to use ‘tu’. In fact, using ‘Lei’ would make you come across as a bit stand-offish. However, if the cousin is much older, it may be best to tentatively start with ‘Lei’ and see how the person responds. Quite often, they will say the magic words, “Diamoci del tu” or “Dammi del tu”, meaning that you should, literally, give them the ‘tu’ form. In other words, talk less formally. I had a lot of difficulty knowing which form to use when first meeting Italians. I would stick to ‘Lei’ and often have people literally beg me to use ‘tu’, since the ‘Lei’ form made them feel too old!

When should you say “Possiamo darci del tu”? Only when it is clear that you and the other person are on friendly terms and at ease in each other’s company. There’s no way of explaining it–it depends entirely on the relationship in question. Generally, you do not refuse the request to “darci del tu”. However, it is usually first offered by the ‘superior’ in the situation, e.g. the older person, or the person in authority. It is probably best not to say “Diamoci del tu” to the senior executive you have just met at a business conference.

Coming back to the translation “Let’s talk less formally,” it’s indeed the case that using ‘tu’ instead of ‘Lei’ changes the tone of the conversation and makes it much more informal. Think about the standard meaning of ‘lei’ with the small letter–it’s a third-person pronoun, implying a distance between you and the person you are addressing. By changing to use ‘tu’, you are both acknowledging a reduction in social distance between the two of you and an acceptance that you are now ‘talking less formally.’

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