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Italian grammar and etiquette

Discussion in 'off topic' started by stevec67, Mar 18, 2023.

  1. stevec67

    stevec67 pfm Member

    Regulars here will be aware that I recently had a holiday in Italy in an attempt to learn the language. I did that, and had a great time. I can now carry out basic conversations and I have some idea as to how it works. Great. I know there are a few Italian born/resident people here and I need a bit of guidance on the tu/lei thing.
    For the benefit of others here, Italian, like French, has 2 forms of "you". Familiar and formal. You use "tu" for people you know and "lei" (like "vous" in French) for formal situations. Turn up at a hotel and they will call you "lei" because this is respectful. It's like the English "How can I help you, Sir?"
    French is very clear. I'm very familiar with the language and the customs around it. I know the tu/vous thing very well and they even have an expression where you ask someone you have only recently met "On peut tutoier?" which is permission to shift to the informal (tu/toi) and usually coindides with exchanging names. There's a general rule of thumb that if you don't know somepone's first name and you are not addressing a child then you use "vous". To do otherwise is like walking into a pub and having the barman call you "buddy" or your wife "darlin'". You might easily take offence.
    Back to Italian: they don't have the same rule, or they interpret it differently. It is acceptable to say to someone you don't know "di dove sei?" (Where are you from?) and this is the informal "tu" form. Likewise you can walk into a shop and say "Avete arancia, per favori?" (Have you any oranges, please?" and again this is the "voi" (plural of "tu") form. You would never, ever do this in France. It's "vous" all the way in shops, bars, hotels etc. Even at work unless you know the person well and they are a peer.
    So have I got the wrong end of the stick here or is there a slightly different interpretation in Italian?
  2. molee

    molee pfm Member

    According to my (northern) Italian partner, it depends.... There is a general shift toward the informal but there is a generational aspect. Younger people will tend toward the informal but shift back to the formal when addressing an older person whether known or otherwise. There is more to it than this too but I am already paraphrasing. Context is everything as usual.
    narabdela likes this.
  3. stevec67

    stevec67 pfm Member

    Thanks molee. That helps a bit. In fact in practical terms it helps a lot, in the sense of saying that there isn't much of a rule and at my level I really shouldn't worry about it and I should just concentrate on the content. As of now I'll stick with tu/voi and only use "lei" on special occasions.
  4. PaulMB

    PaulMB pfm Member

    First off, "Avete...?" is plural and so is neither "Tu" nor "Lei." However, in southern Italy it is sometimes used as a respectful form of address towards a single person. Curiously, Fascism, in trying to re-shape Italian society, decided that the "Lei" form was "bourgeois" and replaced it with "Voi." A bit like in French, where "Vous" is respectful but also plural. So if you happened to be addressing Mussolini you would say "Pensate di invadere l'Etiopia?"
    But I think you can forget about the "Voi" to all intents and purposes, unless of course you are addressing more than one person, in your arancia example (that actually sounds odd, did you mean a "spremuta d'arancia" or "una arancia" or "arance" or "aranci," the last two both plural for orange.
    Strangers of the same age and circumstances will often use the "Tu" if they feel matey. Some people do this a lot, others prefer to stay with "Lei" because it sort maintains a dignified distance, although it is not necessarily less friendly.
    Also, professional colleagues often use the "Tu".
    But these days, particularly since your interlocutor will realise you are a foreigner, nobody is lightly to be offended by "Tu." But will be impressed if you construct a sentence using "Lei."
    The particular thing about "Lei," is that it actually introduces distance in grammatical terms. So a sentence using "Lei" is built as if one is talking about some third party rather than directly to the person you are actually talking to. This is different from French, where the person simply becomes plural.
    So, "Tu sei bello," you are beautiful, becomes "Lei e' bello," or "You/she IS beautiful." Because "Lei" also happens to means she or her.
    It is a bit like if in English you address someone as "Your honour" or "your eminence." "Will Your Eminence have a cup of tea?"
    stevec67, KrisW, AndyU and 2 others like this.
  5. PaulMB

    PaulMB pfm Member

    It often happens that two people start using the Lei and then, as the relationship warms up, move to Tu. Sometimes this happens without anyone really noticing. Sometimes one of the two (In theory it should be the elder or higher ranking who takes this initiative) will say "Ma vogliamo darci del tu?" or "diamoci del tu." Also, Tu goes with use of first names, while Lei goes with Mr/Mrs/Doctor, etc and surname. But Italians are very messy in these things, I cringe when addressed as "Signor Paul", but it happens, possibly because it is easier to pronounce than my surname.
    One thing I hear sometimes and find very unpleasant is when people expect to be Lei for their subordinates but address their subordinates with Tu. A linguistic establishment of rank.
    Nero likes this.
  6. Nero

    Nero Don’t call me Bud

    And then there’s German….
    canonman likes this.
  7. Mike Reed

    Mike Reed pfm Member

    If indeed these formal/informal addresses are still widely practised in Italy and France (and maybe Spain, Portugal and Romania, having Latin derived languages), I salute them. In this country, every Tom Dick and Harry from any company addresses you by your first name or simply 'mate'. In my adult lifetime I remember the sequence of surnames (with titles) for business or first acquaintance, only moving to first name terms when appropriate. In business, that was rarely appropriate.

    I find this American led familiarity, now endemic, utterly demeaning. Sorry; rant over, but French and Italian are, i.m.o., lovely languages aurally. I spent 3 months in Milano and around during the sixties; did a wee bit of amateurish teaching for food money and watched Wagner at La Scala. Il Buono, il Bruto e Cattivo (?)was doing the rounds but unfortunately for me, it wasn't dubbed. Hat off to you, Steve 67 and keep up the progress.
    Craig B likes this.
  8. chartz

    chartz If it’s broke fix it!

    In Spain it’s tu also. I find is very convenient. Our tu/vous is just a pain, and it’s really not that clear sometimes!
  9. paulfromcamden

    paulfromcamden Baffled

    I lived/worked in Milan for six months and loved it but shamefully failed to pick up more than a smattering of Italian.

    In my defence, working in IT the correct response to 98% of enquiries was apparently a regretful shrug and "mi dispiace non è possibile..."
  10. MikeMA

    MikeMA pfm Member

    You talk of American familiarity, but when I was a UK civil servant working with Americans, their military personnel and civilian officials invariably addressed me as ‘sir’ or ‘Mr M’. To my UK colleagues I was just Mike
  11. kensalriser

    kensalriser pfm Member

    In fact this is the answer to 98% of all enquiries in Italy. In France the same percentage holds but the response is just the shrug.
  12. gintonic

    gintonic 50 shades of grey pussy cats

    it's not American led mate. when I was working contracts with the British Council, my opposite numbers would always be polite, using titles. It is a youth driven familiarity - and refreshing it is. I still have to remind certain colleagues not to refer to me as Dr.....
  13. ciderglider

    ciderglider pfm Member

    About 20 years ago I did evening classes in Italian. The teacher was from Florence, and very keen that we used the formal "Lei". One of the other people in the class went to Italy for work, not sure which area, and he told us that no-one he met used Lei.
  14. PaulMB

    PaulMB pfm Member

    Taxi drivers, shop assistants, receptionists, bank clerks, restaurant waiters, policemen, formal work contacts, the plumber or house painter, the dentist or doctor, will invariably address you as Lei and expect the same. Once one is part of a "team" of some sort, this can quickly become Tu. Among young people it is usual to start straight from Tu. It is roughly equivalent to "Sir" or "Mr. Smith" and "John." I've had the same tailor for about 40 years, and we still both use the Lei because it feels "right," but I might take my car to a mechanic and immediately go into Tu. Often it is quite arbitrary and if one person leads off with Tu you go along with it. Or if you want to maintain a little distance and formality you could respond with Lei and he/she might take the hint and go along with that. You have to sort of play it by ear, sometimes.
  15. mandryka

    mandryka pfm Member

    I think Dr Gintonic is quite a good name for you actually.
    gintonic likes this.
  16. Mike Reed

    Mike Reed pfm Member

    Not sure what an American led mate is unless apprenticed to plumbers etc. :D. However, if this familiarity didn't emanate from the States, I'm very pleased to be in error. Unfortunately, this just makes it worse if it's home-grown; some latent disrespect and untoward familiarity as part of the British psyche? Can we really blame the yoof as someone has done? I maintain it should be 'Mr Yoof'.

    'Familiarity breeds contempt' really holds water, i.m.o.
  17. Nero

    Nero Don’t call me Bud

    I think it does vary regionally. If you want to be safe, third person is best, but to be honest, as a foreigner, you will never get it right, and the receiving end will know that.
    As in Germany, it is now being driven by the young, who are more familiar anyway. However, I still come across pompous self-obsessed German academics who insist on being Professor Feckwit or whatever, despite having done business with them for 20 years or more.
    ciderglider likes this.
  18. PaulMB

    PaulMB pfm Member

    Bear in mind, too, that most Italians do not speak "good" Italian, just as most Brits do not use "good" English. So is you are studying the language aim for the best possible quality of classic Italian, don't try to imitate jargon, slang, regional differences or just the plain ignorance of correct Italian among the people you run into. If you want to be "matey" just smile a lot as you masterfully deliver a perfectly constructed sentence chock full of subjunctives and conditionals.
    ciderglider likes this.
  19. Nero

    Nero Don’t call me Bud

    It normally takes me so long to construct such a sentence that by the time it gets delivered, the subject has changed!
    ciderglider likes this.
  20. MikeMA

    MikeMA pfm Member

    An interesting thread.

    Friends who live in France tell me the whole tu versus vou thing is still observed more rigidly there than the equivalent in Italy and Spain. Is this true I wonder?

    Do they ever ask you for a quick check up?

    I think you may be right about familiarity being youth driven, but whether it's refreshing is, I think, a matter for debate.

    When I lived and worked in West Berlin and then Madrid - I speak passable German but my Spanish is a bit ropey - I enjoyed trying to observe the local customs and civilities of language, and things like being greeted formally and politely on entering shops. The equivalent experience back home would usually involve being ignored by a bored looking shop assistant picking their nose while hiding behind the till, though I'm glad to say things have vastly improved in recent years.

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