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T-V distinction

In sociolinguistics, a T-V distinction describes the situation wherein a language, unlike current English, has pronouns that distinguish varying levels of politeness, social distance, courtesy, familiarity, or insult toward the addressee. The name T-V distinction derives from the common initial letters of several of these terms in Romance languages (e.g., the French tu and vous) and also some Slavic languages (e.g., the Russian ты ty and вы vy or the Slovene ti and vi).

Examples of T-V distinctions

Here are some examples of second-person pronouns in languages with T-V distinctions:

  second-person singular informal second-person singular formal second-person plural informal second-person plural formal
Albanian ti ju ju ju
Basque hi (very close or dialectal), zu zu, berorrek (very respectful) zuek zuek
Bosnian ti vi vi vi
Bulgarian ти (ti) Вие (Vie) вие (vie) вие (vie)
Catalan tu

vs (only to elder people)

Vs (to God)
vost vosaltres vosts
Czech ty vy vy vy
Danish du De I I
Dutch jij (Netherlands)
gij (Belgium)
U (when addressing God)
jullie u
U (when addressing God)
English (archaic) thou/thee ye/you ye/you ye/you
Estonian sina Teie teie Teie
Finnish sin te te te
French tu/toi vous vous vous
Gaelic (Scottish) thu sibh sibh sibh
German du Sie ihr Sie
Greek esy eseis eseis eseis
Hungarian te n (more formal) or maga (more informal) ti nk (more formal) or maguk (more informal)
Icelandic r i r
Italian tu Lei voi voi or Loro
Kazakh сен (sen) сiз (siz) сендер (sender) сiздер (sizder)
!Kung a i!a i!a i!a
Lithuanian tu jūs jūs jūs
Mandarin nn 你们 nǐmen none; regular plural form of 您们 nnmen is unusual; instead use other forms like 大家 djiā "everyone" or 你们大家.
Norwegian du De dere De
Polish ty Pani (to a woman)
Pan (to a man)
wy Państwo (general)
Panie (to women)
Panowie (to men)
Portuguese tu (usually voc in BP) voc/o senhor (formerly vs) vocs (sometimes vs) vocs/os senhores (sometimes vs)
Romanian tu dumneata / dumneavoastra voi dumneavoastra
Russian ты (ty) Вы (Vy) вы (vy) вы (vy)
Slovenian ti vi vi vi
Sorbian (Lower) ty wy wej (dual), wy (plural) wy
Spanish (Peninsular) usted (formerly vos, vuecencia, ussa) vosotros (masc.)
vosotras (fem.)
Spanish of the Americas or vos usted ustedes ustedes
Swedish du ni or Ni ni ni or Ni
Turkish sen siz siz siz
Ubykh wghʷa sʸghʷaalha sʸghʷaalha sʸghʷaalha
Welsh ti chi or chwi chi or chwi chi or chwi
Yiddish du ir ir ir

Language-specific remarks

Other languages may have different ways of distinction.

In Vietnamese, the words for uncle, aunt, elder brother, elder sister, etc. are used as pronouns. Similarly, in Japanese, kinship terms, titles, or names are commonly used instead of second- or third-person pronouns.

Korean has complex gradations. Korean uses honorifics and no less than 7 speech levels, making for a cartesian product of 14 basic verb stems, though some are rarely used. For everyday purposes, one can nevertheless simplify this into the basic distinction between plain and polite conjugations of verbs and adjectives. In general, the plain form is used when speaking to family, close friends, and social inferiors, and the polite form otherwise. When two Korean-speaking strangers meet where none is the obvious social superior, both use the polite form; when it is determined that one or both can switch to the plain form, one often asks for permission for this switch. The phrase used to describe this is mareul nota (literally, to release language). In Korean, polite form is called jondaenmal and plain form is called yesanmal or banmal. In contrast to the neutral term yesanmal, banmal often has a rather negative connotation, referring for instance to the plain form that one may deliberately use to provoke someone who should be addressed in the polite form.

The pronouns in the table above may affect verb conjugation. In French, the respectful vous takes plural verbs (but not adjectives), and in Spanish and Italian, the respectful form requires verbs to be conjugated in the third person singular; in the case of Spanish, this is because the form usted evolved from the title vuestra merced (your grace) which naturally took the third person. In German, the respectful form takes the same verb declensions as the third person plural.

Catalan vs follows the same concordance rules as the French vous (verbs in second person plural, adjectives in singular), and vost follows the same concordance rules as the Spanish usted (verbs in 3rd person). Vost originated from vostra merc as a calque from Spanish, and replaced the original Catalan form vos. Now vs is used as a respectful form for elders and respected friends, and vost for foreigners and people whom one doesn't know well. Vost is more distant than vs. Sometimes people justify the use of vost saying, "I only speak of tu with my friends."

Close friends, of course, are tu and venerable old ladies are vous, but there is a wide grey area in the middle. Even that is not universally true: in the Spanish dialects of some parts of Latin America (for example, in Colombia), t is almost never used, not even with close friends or relatives, which are usted, and t is more common in Mexico and California (even advertisements in California use t or its possessive tu, for example "En tu canal 73"/Lit. "On your channel 73"). In Argentina, where Rioplatense Spanish is the standard, there's no t and the informal pronoun is vos which is used rather indiscriminately.

It can often be quite confusing for an English speaker learning a language with a T-V distinction to correctly assimilate the rules surrounding when to call someone with the formal or the informal pronoun. Students are often advised to err on the side of caution, the formal; however, in the wrong situation this risks sounding snobby or at least riotously funny. English speakers may be helped by reminding themselves that the difference is comparable to using first name or last name when speaking to someone; however the boundaries between formal and informal language differ from language to language, and most languages use formal speech more frequently, and/or in different circumstances, than English. And in some circumstances it is not unusual to call other people by first name and the respectful form or the reverse, e.g. German shop employees often use these constructs if a customer is present.

In Greek, συ was originally the singular, and υμεις the plural, with no distinction for honorific or familiar. Paul addressed King Agrippa II as συ (Acts 26:2). Later, υμεις and ημεις ("we") became too close in pronunciation, and a new plural εσεις was invented. The ε of εσυ is a euphonic prefix.

Archaic English had a distinction between thou (informal) and you or ye (formal). Some groups such as the Quakers that advocate "plain speech" used the thou form with everybody, a custom some carry on to this day, although thou's passing out of most dialects of English, including the standard, has made it more symbolic than anything. This distinction was still present in Early Modern English, so works such as William Shakespeare's make use of it. For example, in William Shakespeare's play Richard III, act 1 scene 2, Richard attempts to seduce Lady Anne, the widow of a man that Richard recently killed. Lady Anne uses the informal thou, which in context is clearly intended as an insult (as though she were talking to a child). Richard uses the you form in the beginning, as a verbal way of elevating her above his station. But as they continue, Richard slyly switches into the thou (informal) form, starting with "He that bereft thee, lady, of thy husband, Did it to help thee to a better husband." By doing so, Richard cleverly makes Lady Anne's use of thee/thou, intended originally for insult, suggest that perhaps they are intimate instead. This careful switch from thee/thou to you is usually lost on many modern English readers, who are unfamiliar with the distinction.

Even within languages, there are differences between groups (older people and people of higher status tending to both use and expect more formal language) and between various aspects of one language. For example, in Dutch, U is slowly coming into disuse in plural, and thus one could sometimes address a group as jullie when one would address each member individually as U. In Latin American Spanish, the opposite change has occurred – having lost vosotros, Latin Americans address all groups as ustedes, even if the group is composed of friends whom they would call t.

In Germany, an old but by no means extinct custom involves two male friends formally splitting a bottle of wine to celebrate their deciding (mostly proposed by the elder or socially higher-standing of the two) to call one another du rather than Sie. Note this custom is also adapted among the Swiss-French of the Jura. In Poland a similar custom involves two men drinking a shot of vodka with their right arms crossed, saying their given names, and then kissing each other on the cheek (a custom also known in Germany, called Brüderschaft trinken, "drinking brotherhood").

In Denmark, the use of the formal forms of address has diminished significantly over the last twenty years. Although the De form is still used in certain contexts, it is much more common now for people to address virtually all people with the familiar du.

A similar movement is seen in Québec, where Québec French permits and expect a far broader usage of the familiar tu than in Standard French. While it is still appropriate and expected to say Vous under some circumstances, it is generally expected to use tu in a broad range of circumstances and using Vous may sound stilted or snobbish. By no means is tu restricted to intimates or social inferiors.

In Swedish there has been a marked difference between usage in Finland-Swedish compared to in Sweden. While the form Ni (noted as formal above) has remained the common respectful address in Finland-Swedish, it was until the 1960s considered somewhat careless, bullying or rude in Sweden, where addressing in 3rd person with repetition of name and title was considered proper and respectful. After that the usage swiftly changed in Sweden, and the 2nd person du (noted as informal above) came to dominate totally, until recently when in the late 1990s a usage resembling that in German, Finnish or Finland-Swedish has become popular among the youngest adults. It is also now common to see Du capitalized in places where the formal Ni would have been used before, such as in printed instructions or on signs.

In Ubykh, the T-V distinction is most notable between a man and his mother-in-law, where the plural form sʸghʷa supplants the singular wghʷa very frequently, possibly under the influence of Turkish. The distinction is upheld less frequently in other relationships, but does still occur.

Related verbs

Some languages have a verb to describe the fact of using either a T or a V form. Some also have a related noun or adverb.

  T verb V verb T noun V noun T adverb V adverb
Catalan tutejar
Danish dus De's
Dutch tutoyeren
Finnish sinutella teititell sinuttelu teitittely
French tutoyer vouvoyer tutoiement vouvoiement
German duzen siezen
Hungarian tegez magz tegezs magzs
Lithuanian tujinti tujinimas
Russian тыкать (tykat')
Slovene tikanje vikanje
Spanish tutear
Swedish dua nia

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