An elderly neighbor stopped my husband along the street one day. “I must talk to you,” she said quietly, through her toothless grin… “I want to ask your pardon,” she added, head hanging. “For not showing you proper respect. But I didn’t know you were a professor! I’m so very sorry!”
“Aunty (zia),” he consoled her, “don’t you worry about it. I’m nobody special. You just keep treating me the way you always have.” Adding, “I’m the one that needs to show you respect. You’re my elder!”
You see, showing proper respect is part of Italian culture, so much so, that it’s incorporated into the language.
Italian has two distinct forms of address: Formal and informal. But it doesn’t stop there. We also have to deal with singular and plural! Which means the simple word you gets translated in four different ways: tu, voi, Lei, or Loro. And that simple, innocuous word causes much of the trouble.
- Tu and voi are both informal terms for you.
- Lei and Loro are formal.
- The terms tu and Lei are singular.
- While voi and Loro are plural.
Is your head spinning yet? Now you how I felt at first! But we’re not done yet! Different verb conjugations also exist for each for of you. And for each pronoun! Like he, she, it, we, and they! Isn’t Italian grammar fun? Like riding a non-stop, dizzying merry-go-around!
But getting back to the zia…
Sadly, the formal speech is disappearing somewhat, as younger generations show less respect. Yet it is still considered good manners in Italy to use the formal mode with older people, strangers, and those in authority. And with those higher in the social strata, such as doctors, professors, etc.
But even if the polite speech goes out of style, we’ll keep treating our elderly neighbors with respect. Their gray heads have earned it!
Now just for fun, check out our chart on the Italian verb “to speak”. But we’ll leave you with something easier: Arrivederci or Goodbye!
Which literally means “until we see each other again”!
Disclaimer: This image is purely for illustrative purposes, and is not the aunty of this story, but a woman from another place and time.