Whether you were taught it explicitly or not, you know there’s a difference between formal and informal language in English. You wouldn’t address your friends the same way you’d talk to a parent or teacher. In linguistics, this is known as “register” or “tone,” and English speakers can subtly adjust the way they’re speaking to convey respect for or familiarity with the person they’re addressing. But there are languages that take the extra step of having a specific grammatical structure to address “formality,” in particular by having a pair of pronouns specifically for this purpose. If you’ve ever learned French, Spanish, German or a number of other languages, you’ll have encountered the formal and informal “you.”
Which languages have an explicit pronoun difference between formal and informal language, and why did it develop? Also, why doesn’t English have one? We explore these questions and more.
Which Languages Have Formal And Informal Pronouns?
When a language has different second-person pronouns for formal and informal purposes, linguists call it the T–V distinction. It’s named after the Latin words for “you,” which are the informal tu and the formal vos (hence T and V). Having some sort of formal pronoun is common, especially in certain language families.
The Latin roots of the phenomenon mean that many of the Romance languages — the language family descended from Latin — have preserved the distinction. French has tu and vous, Italian has tu and Lei, Catalan has tu and vostè, European Portuguese has tu and você and Spanish has tú and usted. It should also be mentioned that often the formal “you” is the same as the plural “you.” We’ll get a little bit more into why this is the case later on.
The T–V distinction isn’t only in Latin-descended languages, though many of them gained the distinction by coming into contact with Romance languages. Some Germanic languages have it, including German (du and Sie) and Dutch (jij and u), though Dutch likely likely developed the distinction after contact with French. Among the Scandinavian languages, Danish sometimes distinguishes between the informal du and the formal De, but du is the default at this point in the language’s evolution. And in the Slavic languages, there’s Russian (informal ты and formal Вы), Serbo-Croatian (ti and vi), Bulgarian (ti and Vie) and others.
Sticking with the Slavic languages for a moment, Polish has an even more complicated pronoun system. It has the informal ty, the masculine formal pan, the feminine formal pani, the plural informal wy, the masculine plural formal panowie, the feminine plural formal panie and the general plural formal państwo. That means the “you” you’ll use will depend on the gender, number and familiarity of the entity you’re addressing.
So far, we’ve only looked at Indo-European languages, because most languages that have this distinction are part of that family. Other languages do also have ways of marking formality, but they tend to not follow the same pattern. Chinese, for example, has rules against speaking or writing the names of your ancestors as a sign of respect. In addition, a Chinese speaker might avoid using pronouns at all to refer to a respected person; the English comparison would be referring to a king as “his royal highness” instead of “he.” Because of China’s influence on nearby countries, Japanese and Vietnamese have similar traditions around pronouns.
While this isn’t an exhaustive list of every language that has formal and informal pronouns — and it can differ from dialect to dialect within a language — it gives you a decent idea of how widespread the distinction is.
Why Doesn’t English Have Formal Pronouns?
English is a Germanic language, meaning it evolved from the same language as German. And yet today, German has formal and informal pronouns, but English does not. That hasn’t always been the case, however.
Going all the way back to Old English, there were two second-person pronouns: þū for the singular “you” and ge for the plural “you.” Over time, these evolved into thou and ye, respectively. After the French-speaking Normans invaded in 1066, English changed in response. By the 13th century, thou became the informal “you” and ye became the formal “you,” making it similar to the French vous/tu distinction. The separation of the two “you”s remained until at least the 17th century. Notably, Shakespeare’s writings have this distinction, and his works are where you’re most likely to encounter thou today.
There are a few theories as to what happened to thou. One is that people started using thou only as a way to show contempt, and so ye — which by the 17th century had become you — was the more polite option in society. Another theory that thou became associated only with the lower classes, and so everyone started using “you” as a way to seem upper class. Yet another theory was that by the 17th century, people used thou and you interchangeably, so it was only a matter of time until one won out over the other. In any case, thou eventually became antiquated. English has never had either a formal “you” or a plural “you” (unless you count “y’all,” which is still not accepted in Standard English).
Where Does The Formal Pronoun Come From?
Arguably, there is no “need” for a language to have a separate formal second-person pronoun. Many languages get along just fine without it. And as mentioned in above examples, the T–V distinction can vanish from a language over time.
Like with many linguistic phenomena in the Western Hemisphere, the origin of the T–V distinction seems to be Latin (and, as already mentioned, the name of the distinction itself is based on Latin). Originally, vos in Latin was only used as the second-person plural. It wasn’t until the 4th century CE that vos became a sign of formality when referring to the Roman emperor.
It’s not entirely clear why vos was chosen as a way to show respect. The most likely reason is that there is a very old connection between plurality and power (think of the royal “we”). In any case, the T–V distinction didn’t catch on immediately, and it wouldn’t be until roughly the 12th century that it would be adopted by many languages.
The T–V distinction is an example of a characteristic that can be passed from language to language, and that’s why it has jumped from language family to language family as Latin and the rest of the Romance languages spread throughout Europe. Like Latin, many of the languages that adopted T–V distinction simply used the existing plural “you” for the formal “you,” sometimes capitalizing the formal version. For example, Russian contrasts the formal Вы with the plural вы. On the bright side, the fact the plural and formal are often the same means you don’t have to learn a whole other pronoun.
Have Formal And Informal Pronouns Changed Over Time?
When you’re learning another language, figuring out when to use the formal “you” and the informal “you” is important. The distinction varies based on language and context, but the general rule is that you use the informal “you” with anyone who you feel close with, whether they be a friend, a parent or a colleague. The formal “you” is reserved for either less personal encounters, like a customer and a cashier at a store, or for clear power imbalances, like a boss and an employee.
These rules are hardly written in stone, however. The meaning of the formal and informal “you”s have already changed meaning since they were created. Originally, their use was entirely based on power, rather than familiarity. For example, a high-class person would address their high-class friends using the formal “you,” and a low-class person would refer to their low-class friends using the informal “you.”
Another important difference is that historically, it was far more common for one member of the conversation (the one of higher status or respect) to use a formal “you” and the other to use the informal “you.” Today, both people who are talking tend to choose the same level of formality in their pronouns.
There have historically been a few examples of people specifically rebelling against the formal “you,” especially in French. During the French Revolution in the 18th century, the people of the country wanted to eliminate vous in the same way they eliminated the monarchy. A few hundred years later, a period of civil unrest starting in May 1968 that pushed against capitalism and consumerism in the country also led to many young people dropping the vous from their speech. While neither of these movements was the death knell for vous, they definitely made tu far more common than it was before.
In the 21st century, there’s been a natural drop in the use of the formal “you,” especially on the internet. A BBC article on French Twitter use found tu to be far more common than vous. Using vous might seem too hierarchical and stiff if you were to use it with fellow Twitter users. The same article notes that similar changes are happening in Spanish and Italian. It seems that more and more, egalitarian societies encourage the informal “you,” and limits the formal “you” to very specific situations.
In contrast to what happened with English and a few other languages, it’s unlikely the formal “you” will completely vanish from French, Spanish or any other language in the near future. Because of the amount of existing writing, languages are more resistant to change now than in the past. But in the same way that society has become more lax about a number of cultural phenomena — dress codes, swearing, lewd discussions — it’s likely the informal “you” will become the norm in more countries. The formal “you” will be saved for special occasions, like job interviews and visiting grandparents. So unfortunately, you’ll still have to learn how to use the formal “you” when you’re starting a new language.