Verbalized honorific second person pronoun

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Yesterday, a Beijing cabdriver made the following remark to David Moser, who reported it to me:

"A? Ni 50 sui le?  Zao zhidao wo jiu hui 'nin' ni le."

"啊?你50岁了? 早知道我就会 ‘您’ 你了。“

"Ah?  You're 50 years old?  If I had known I would have 'nin'ed you."

The character nin2 has been around since the Jurchen (Jin) Dynasty (1115-1234).  In the early centuries of its usage, nin2 was to be found mainly in the performing arts, popular fiction, and drama.  It was also used in semi-vernacular ci and qu lyrics, allowing for greater variety of rhyme (the regular form of the second person pronoun is ni2 你).  From the Mongol (Yuan) period (1279-1368), nin2 was sometimes also used as the plural form of the second person pronoun.  So far as I know, it is only in modern times (20th century) that it came to be used widely as an honorific.

During the classless decades after the founding of the PRC, nin2 was discouraged, perhaps even outlawed.  When I started going to China in the early 80s, I never heard it used.  In the mid-80s, nin2 began to resurface, and by the 90s it had become common.  Now it is employed almost ubiquitously for older people and superiors.  I should point out that these are my own impressions; I do not know of any formal studies on the frequency of nin2 in modern speech and writing for different social classes.

I have an innate revulsion to being addressed as nin2 (which happens constantly when I am in China), and I never address anyone as nin2.  Many of my closest Chinese friends feel the same way as I do about nin2.  It seems that the people who favor nin2 tend to be those who are desirous of climbing some social or bureaucratic ladder.

I have not been in / on (!!) Taiwan enough since the early 70s to know what the frequency of nin2 is there, but my impression is that it is used less often on the BAO3DAO3 ("precious island") than on the DA4LU4 ("continent").

Incidentally, the verbalization of the second person pronoun du (familiar) / sie (respectful) as duzen und siezen also occurs in German (pronounced with the 'z' hard, as if dutzen/sietzen).  It seems, though, that — in contrast to nin2 (at least on the mainland) — fewer and fewer Germans "duzen" other people nowadays.  Of course, the former constitutes an increase in respectfulness, while the latter amounts to a decrease in familiarity.

[A tip of the hat to Didi Kirsten Tatlow]


  1. A-gu said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    I have only been out of Taiwan for a year, but while I was there I found usage of nin2 to be pretty rare; I saw it mostly mostly in a written context and heard it spoken maybe 6 times in 5 years, even in business situations.

  2. h. s. gudnason said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    In my experience, I found that in the '90s and '00s, many more people in Germany and Austria used the familiar form with me–and expected me to use it with them–than in the '60s and '70s.

  3. Bruce Rusk said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    Many languages have verbal/nominal forms; there's a handy chart here that should apparently be updated to reflect this usage.

  4. r.s. said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

    There's also 'sinatama' (duzen) and 'teietama' (siezen) in Estonian.

    sina (thou) + ta (a derivational suffix, here pretty much just serving to create a verb) + ma (infinitive)

    And, of course, 'tutoyer' and 'vouvoyer' in French. But that's already a bit different.

  5. r.s. said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

    Sorry, I hadn't refreshed. Bruce Rusk beat me to it.

  6. Luis said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

    "Tutear" is the verb "to use the tu form" in Spanish — don't think I ever head *ustedear or anything like it.

  7. jfruh said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

    I was in Berlin in 2002 during the Love Parade, at which point there were many (generally well-mannered) drunken youth on the streets. I didn't speak German but was with an another American friend who did; at one point he had an exchange with a tipsy teenager, after which he said to me "Dude, that kid totally just du-sted us." I have always found his formulation hilarious, and am glad to hear there's an actual German equivalent.

  8. Moacir said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

    I guess "duzen" and "siezen" are the German equivalents of "tutoyer" and "vouvoyer" in French. Every time I have been tutoyé-ed (and that's how I say it in English, too) it's been jarring, which signals how thoroughly, in only a year of living in France, I've grown accustomed to being vouvoyé-ed pretty much all the time, despite being still pretty young.

    The first time I was tutoyé-ed "inappropriately" is linguistically interesting (for me), since the surprise at being tutoyé-ed (by a clerk at a rugby store on rue St. Jacques) had three components:

    1. That it happened at all.
    2. That I noticed.
    3. That I felt uncomfortable.

    Incidentally, there's a café in Vilnius attached to the French embassy, "Café de Paris," with a francophone staff. With some of them, I vouvoyer them in French but use "tu" in Lithuanian—French and Russian seem, to me, still more formal about these things than Lithuanian (or Spanish).

  9. ke said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

    French, too, has nice – reduplicating – verbs describing the usage of the familiar (tu) and the respectful (vous) second-person pronoun: tutoyer and vouvoyer.

    Why do think duzing in German is declining? I should think that today there are more workplace environments where people duz each other from the start than there were a couple of decades ago. I once read that in the post-war era even university students siezed each other before they got to know each other better (this may be an exaggeration, though).

    On the whole, I think, if there has been any substantial change in using the familiar and the respectful second-person pronouns in German over the last few decades, it's rather in the direction of more du and less Sie (the latter is always capitalized).

    One reason may be more international workplace settings and the use of English. The closest equivalent to duzing that English has is calling someone by their first name, and people are quicker to do that in English than they traditionally are to duz someone in German.

  10. K. said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

    I wonder how reliable this quotation is. If it is accurate, it leads one wonders how genuine the cabdriver was being. Even once they had full knowledge of Mr. Moser's passenger's age, they still chose to persist with "你." Maybe more of a play at showing politeness rather than actual politeness itself. Or perhaps they simply meant that they would have initially used "您" but by the point in the conversation where this utterance occurred, felt that enough familiarity had been established to use "你."

  11. Adriane Boyd said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

    It's also my impression the trend with "du" vs. "Sie" is the other way around. I think "du" has been gaining since the late 1960s and now it's more common for people to say "du" to their colleagues at work and in other professional situations. With the influence of English in multinational companies, I have heard of odd situations where people higher up are addressed by first name in English (more or less equivalent to "du" if it happened in German) but with "Sie" and by last name in German.

    A delivery person and a hairdresser both said "du" to me recently and it made me uncomfortable, not because I am particularly offended by a stranger using the familiar form, but because it breaks all the rules I've learned as a non-native speaker and makes me (even) more anxious about what to say myself.

  12. Lareina said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

    Now it is employed almost ubiquitously for older people and superiors. I should point out that these are my own impressions; I do not know of any formal studies on the frequency of nin2 in modern speech and writing for different social classes.
    could not agree more!!!!!
    Also nin is used more frequent in Pekinese….that it is almost equivalent with ni
    i.e. "您去哪儿?“

  13. Sid Smith said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    Many years ago, I was with my then fidanzata when she was addressed as "lei" by a young shop assistant in Genoa. Tragedia! These days, no doubt, she hardly notices it.

  14. Chandra said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

    @Moacir – Interesting… in Quebec, almost everyone tutoies each other nowadays (even university students to their professors), and when I was in France I found that although there was a stronger tendency to vouvoie, people's perception was that tutoyer was becoming more prevalent.

  15. Dave M said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    I was familiar (!) with "duzen," and naturally assumed there must be a corresponding word for using the polite form, but I only heard "siezen" very recently (I should say I only hear German at the movies nowadays; I think this was in The White Ribbon). The line was something like "Du sollst mich nicht siezen," which a subtitle rendered as "Don't be so formal," which is pretty good, although it leaves unclear what prompted the character to say it.

  16. JH said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    My impression of the phenomenon in Singapore is that nin2 is still perfectly acceptable (though not very common), and as far as I know, elementary school students are still taught in Chinese lessons that it's the thing to do when addressing elders, etc.

  17. marie-lucie said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    i don't think it is true that using Du or tu is the equivalent of using a person's first name. In Québec it is true that in general first name = tu (but fewer people are automatically addressed by their first name) but this is not necessarily true among adults in France, where when in doubt, you should use Vous (unless you and the other person are very young, which was probably the case in the store mentioned above).

    I don't have TV at home, so I rarely watch it and am not very familiar with the current mores, but I recently saw a short interview with a former US ambassador. The interviewer (a youngish woman) addressed the ambassador (a man past middle age) by his first name! I thought this was undue familiarity.

  18. Faith said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    Back in Montreal in the '60s, my partner tutoi'ed a priest. She claims it is only because she was stoned at the time, and the priest didn't react, but all her equally stoned hippie friends were aware enough to tease her about it to this day.

  19. Troy S. said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    @Luis I've never heard of "ustedear" either, but I've definitely seen "vosear" to describe how the Castilians speak.

  20. Doctor Science said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:19 pm


    One reason may be more international workplace settings and the use of English. The closest equivalent to duzing that English has is calling someone by their first name

    That's a difference between what we might call "linguistic grammar" and "performative grammar" — or something.

    The English second personal familiar is, linguistically, "thou". It dropped out of common use centuries ago, so that most English-speakers and certainly most Americans are only familiar with it from the King James Version. Because God is addressed as "thou" in the KJV, Americans (at least) tend to assume that "thou" is not familiar (as intended), but super-deferential. For instance, I have had difficulty explaining that Tolkien uses "thou" to indicate intimacy or emotion, because the association with religious awe is so strong.

    So for Americans, the grammatical behavior "increase or decrease formality/respect/intimacy" — a universal social need — must be performed with names, not pronouns.

  21. Moacir said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:23 pm


    If there's commerce going on, I have never been tutoyé-ed (or tutoyé-ed someone). Maybe I'm weird, maybe it's Parisian, I don't know.

    At work (mini-satellite campus for my uni. w/ predominately French staff), when someone has come to me for help, they have always vouvoyé-ed me. Later it gets a bit more informal, if the people continue to teach for a while, but I continue to vouvoyer the two senior instructors, and neither has *ever* corrected me or said I'm being too formal. OTOH, I refer to both by their first names. Last names at work seem to be used only as jokes, at being hyper-polite.

    I'm now teaching some undergrads English, and I certainly don't get the sense that they'd consider tutoyering me. They call me "sir" in class and email (I'm working on chasing that away… what sounds acceptable in French sounds stilted in English, to me).

  22. Moacir said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:30 pm


    I found the rugby store situation so jarring, in fact, that I went to a nearby establishment where I know the owner (a rugby fan) and asked him about it. I thought maybe it was a rugby thing: maybe rugby fans consider themselves part of a family and are informal with each other as a matter of tribal principle. The acquaintance said that, no, that clerk is just a jerk and probably noticed I was a foreigner and didn't bother being polite. My continued, rampant performance of being a foreigner in Paris has never otherwise prompted "tu," though. Getting addressed in English, yes. But tutoyé-ed?!? Pas possible!

  23. Sijie Ren said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    "who favor nin2 tend to be those who are desirous of climbing some social or bureaucratic ladder" , seems only holds in bureaucrat context when a gown-up call his peers this way, which indeed give people an impression of kiss-ass behavior. Otherwise, I'm under the impression that it's simply a way to show respect in daily life. People expect young generation to address elders with 您, otherwise would be seen as a lack of civility.

    Pekinese–that's the first thing came to me, too:)

    It seems to be a funny and sometimes satirical way to address peers. By starting with"您呐", you would know the following comments are hard to take. Here it functions as "with all due respect", or when the speaker is really bitter, just a sarcasm.

  24. Mark F. said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

    So what are some languages besides English that don't have a formal/informal distinction in second person pronouns?

  25. Moacir said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    @Mark F.:

    "Você" in Brazilian Portuguese has largely become like "you" in English: the formal second person form taking over all second person forms. Interestingly, in Brazil often the "tu" remains in its other (possessive, dative, accusative) forms. I'm pretty sure that, despite growing up with a BP-speaking father, I was not addressed as "tu" until he remarried a woman from the Azores.

  26. Sid Smith said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

    There's also an anxiety about "you" in English. Hence "Your Honour, Excellency, Highness, Grace", etc — as in "Would Your Worship care for a crumpet, claret, catamite?"

    There (used to be?) a much-mocked tendency in v posh British shops to use Madam or Sir in the same way? "Would Sir like to try the larger size?"

  27. Sid Smith said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

    @ Dr Science

    "Americans (at least) tend to assume that "thou" is not familiar (as intended), but super-deferential"

    So where does "thee" fit, please?

  28. John Cowan said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    Doctor Science: thou and friends are used in The Lord of the Rings in a variety of ways. See my blog posting "The second person singular in the Lord of the Rings".

  29. behrwolf said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

    Has any of the Mandarin speakers in this forum ever heard the Beijing third person honorific tan1 怹 ( being used in actual spoken discourse? Or even yin2

  30. behrwolf said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    [2nd trial, 2st crashed on the yin2 character below]

    Has any of the Mandarin speakers in this forum ever heard the Beijing third person honorific tan1 怹 ( being used in actual spoken discourse? Or even yin2 (, the third person possessive pronoun ("theirs") in Min, now allegedly be used as a honorific posessive in Beijing sometimes?

  31. Ivan said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

    @Sid Smith: "Thee" is simply the accusative/dative of "thou." So we say "thou hast" but "I have thee." Wikipedia provides a good grammatical context in light of "modern" pronouns here.

  32. George said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    @Mark: Arabic does not have a formal/informal distinction although using the 2nd person plural would be very formal and polite. It is my impression, that it is largely restricted to print (such as in magazine interviews).

    I asked my wife (Egyptian-American) how she would address the president. She said 'siyaadatakum,' which is siyaadat 'a respectful title' + kum 'possesive second person plural.' This would be simlar to 'your honor' in English (but with a plural pronoun).

  33. TO said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    @Troy S.
    Surely you mean the way Argentinians or Central Americans speak, no? I'm not aware of any tendency to use 'vos' colloquially in Castilian-speaking Spain.

  34. Adrian Bailey said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

    I was surprised, watching a French film, to hear the main character say to his new lady friend, "Je vous aime." Polite intimacy.

  35. Alexander said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

    Victor, as you'll remember from "The Philadelphia Story", 70 years ago you might have been Thou'ed by Quakers right around you in Swarthmore.

    (Hench, Atcheson L. 1929. "Nominative 'thou' and 'thee'" American Speech 4. / Maxfield, Ezra Kempton. 1926. "Quaker 'Thee' and Its History." American Speech 1 (No. 12):638-644 / Maxfield, Ezra Kempton. 1929. "Quaker 'Thou' and 'Thee'." American Speech 4 (No. 5):359-361)

  36. áine ní dhonnchadha said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

    In Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge or Gaeilig), tú is 2s (thou > you) and sibh is 2p (you > y'all). However, in Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhilig), tú is intimate singular and sibh polite singular and all plurals.

    While distinct languages, they are sufficiently close in physical and linguistic proximity that songs are borrowed to and from each other. Usually there is linguistic "detailing" – an Irish speaker will adjust the Scottish words and grammar, usually relatively minor issues of pronunciation.

    I am curious how the pronominals work out in such songs, however, as wholesale replacement of words is *definitely* not the norm.

    Also, when I was at University of Peking (BeiDa) in 1996-7, the polite form nín was *definitely* in use: people used it when talking to the police and to teachers, for example, and I *always* used it when speaking to older women, particularly the owner-operators of teashops and other places we frequented.

  37. áine ní dhonnchadha said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    Ugh I'm doing the Irish thing again: the Gàilig form is more commonly thu than tu, and there is no accent. Apologies to daoine na hAlban.

  38. Leonardo Boiko said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

    As Moacir says, in Brazilian Portuguese “tu” is basically as dead as English “thou” (save for a few topolects). "Você”, originally a respectful, very formal term of address (“vossa mercê” = “Your Mercy”), has come to be the universal second-person pronoun for all situations.

    But things are not so simple. Consider verbal inflections. “Tu” was originally matched to the second inflection, and “você” to the third; if you conjugate “to stop (a car)" in an imperative mood, you’d have “estaciona tu” vs. “estacione você”. Since in modern BP “você” is the universal pronoun, speakers have no problem mixing them and saying “estaciona você ”. One could reasonably thinks the distinction was lost and “estacione” and “estaciona” are now interchangeable (and they are in most cases).

    However, try asking a Brazilian what is the better “stop here” sign: “estaciona aqui” vs. “estacione aqui”. They’ll invariably say the latter. Somehow “estaciona”, the (old) tu-inflection, still feels too informal for a sign. The almost-extinct formal/informal distinction still pops up now and then in specific cases such as this.

  39. Outis said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

    @Adrian Bailey: would this be this film with Sophie Marceau and Pascal Greggory? If so, I was quite jarred by the scene, too!

    In France, at least in Paris, tutoyer seems to be getting more and more common. At least that seems to be the impression that many have these days. It's quite common these days to hear researchers tutoyer each other in academic conferences, during the presentation. At my faculty, there are professors that span the whole range of tu-vous usage: there are those who vouvoyer and are vouvoyé-ed, there are those who tutoyer but are tutoyé-ed by students, and there are those who tutoyer and are tutoyé-ed in return. The trickiest are those who have no distinct pattern of tutoyer and vouvoyer at all.

    In Taiwan, 您 is usually preferred in formal business communication, public announcement and advertisement — both in writing and speech. Otherwise, it is sometimes heard in particularly posh restaurants or services. I've also once participated in a Buddhist circle where everybody addressed everyone else as 您 (and also calling everyone as 師兄/師姐) regardless of age or seniority. But I suppose this would be a special case.

  40. Peter Taylor said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

    As a few people have commented, there is no *ustedear in Spanish, although tutear and vosear both exist. The equivalent for usted is "tratar de usted".

  41. Victor Mair said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 6:40 pm


    As a matter of fact, I live in the lovely town of Swarthmore, and sometimes I seem to hear my *friends* and neighbors saying "thee" and "thou" to each other, so Quakerish is the atmosphere.

  42. Aravindhan said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

    I use the Tamil equivalent of Sie / vous (nīṅkaḷ) when I speak to my daughter (she's four). I know plenty of other Tamils who do the same (although it's starting to be seen as an old-fashioned thing to do, and the custom has completely disappeared in urban areas). I'm not sure where the custom comes from, though I've heard it said that it's so children learn to address others with respect. How common is this in other languages which have a strong second person familiar / honorific distinction?

  43. zoetrope said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

    Interesting that the chart gives 'tutoyeren' and 'vouvoyeren' for Dutch when the actual pronouns are 'jij'/'je' and 'u' (though it gives 'jijouwen' as a rare form for the informal). I wonder whether the French forms replaced previously existing Dutch words or whether the Dutch words just never existed.

    The first dialogue in my Dutch book has the phrase "Zeg maar jij, hoor" for telling someone to 'tutoyer' you. That certainly sounds more Nederlandsish, but I'm still not used to the Dutch adding 'hoor' onto the end of everything!

  44. Matt McIrvin said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 6:56 pm

    In English there is also address as "Sir/Ma'am". It's a staple of stand-up comedy to be dismayed by this as a sign of advancing age, but this has always struck me as strange since I'd been addressed as "Sir" in commercial contexts even as a small kid. It may be an East Coast/West Coast thing.

  45. Sid Smith said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

    When I were a Lancashire lad 40-odd year ago, my uncles said things like "Asta bin out?" meaning "Hast thou been out?" (The dumping of the initial h was just the usual Lancs thing.)

    They'd use "oo" as a pronoun, too, though I can't remember the context. In his biography, Anthony Burgess, a Manchester boy, said that oo only referred to women and was descended from early English.

  46. Mark F. said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

    It is striking how similar the the patterns seem to be for English, Arabic, and Brazilian Portuguese. I just found "I am sure you art not prisoner" in As You Like It on Google Books, which seems an exact parallel to the combination of singular verb and historically plural pronoun that Leonardo Boiko described.

    So are there any languages where the informal second person pronoun has fully driven out the formal one?

  47. Zhaodan Tai said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

    I agree with Lareina, it is more common in Beijing dialect. It's mainly a way to express respect, but nowadays young people use it to each other for sarcastic effects or just joke with each other.

    As for the nin2 and ni3 distinction, it reminds me about the Tu-Vous distinction in Sociolinguistics.

  48. Chris said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 9:11 pm

    When I studied Mandarin (within the past 5 years), we were taught nin2 as a polite form of address, but it was almost never used in our texts outside of the vocabularies and certainly never used in class — we "ni'd" our (Taiwanese) instructors and (mainland) tutors.

    Conversely, the French exchange students I've been friends with seemed to universally find it difficult to tutoyer their professors, even those with whom they were chummy. "Friend" did not seem capable of overriding "professor." I was university staff, but could generally pass as a student, so their befuddlement at suddenly learning that they should have been me vouvoyant for the past months was a source of amusement, and was expressed in terms not too different from those of the cabbie.

  49. Tezuk said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

    How about 您貴姓? That seems to be a set phrase. In Taiwan, I rarely here 你貴姓?

  50. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 9:40 pm

    @Mark F.: Hebrew doesn't draw a distinction. Books about French and Spanish might explain French "vous" and Spanish "usted" by translating them to "k'vodó", which literally means "his honor", but which is much more formal and less common. It's not at all a part of the regular pronoun system; it's more like "your honor" in English.

  51. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 10:21 pm

    Addressing a German police officer with du instead of the polite Sie is verboten. If you do, you'll be fined 600 Euro (currently ca. US$840).

  52. John said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

    In most Romance languages God gets the informal, while the priest will get the formal. Always seemed odd to me.

    Of course the traditional version of the Lord's Prayer uses "thy."

    (Italians still "give each other the ." I've now passed over into the formal, which confused the heck out of me this summer during a conversation over a young woman who was absent from her office when I asked about her.)

  53. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

    The first time I realized that some British dialects still had the old 2nd person familiar forms was when I heard my Yorkshire boyfriend (now husband) say to a young countrywoman of his, who we happened to encounter on the streets of Palo Alto, "How art tha?" She was the girlfriend of a fellow grad student friend of his, and turned out to be from Leeds. They then began to speak unintelligibly. I could make out a few more _tha_s and _thee_s but at that time I had never heard 'deep Yorkshire' so I couldn't follow the conversation. They were working class to lower middle class young people then (it was the mid 1980s) so it wasn't just the elderly who spoke it then. I can now understand most Yorkshire spoken in movies, but in pubs, I still get lost when I try to follow the conversations of the old guys when we go to the north of England. (I amuse myself by trying to decipher the dialects in pubs.)

  54. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

    In older forms of German (e.g. in the 18th century) there were two forms of address besides du (formally 2s) and Sie:(3p): er/sie (3s) and Ihr (2p). This is besides such circumlocutions as Ihre Gnade (your grace) and the like. Their use depended in an intricate way on the relative social standing of the speakers.

    In Italian, Lei has in generally replaced voi (which is what you generally hear in Italian operas) as the respectful pronoun, though I believe Mussolini tried to restore the latter.

    In Spanish tuteo and voseo refer to the the use of tu and vos, respectively, as the familiar pronoun, but tutear is often used to mean using the familiar pronoun regardless of whether it's tu or vos. An Argentine will, for example, propose to another "nos tuteamos" and the two will proceed to address each other by vos.

    In Polish the the respectful address uses Pan/Pani (the gentleman/the lady). I think that Brazilians similarly use o senhor/a senhora, but not as regularly as Poles do.

  55. Joe Fineman said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 11:03 pm

    When I was studying Russian years ago, I learned (IIRC) that "ty" was for use with family, small children, intimate friends, animals, God, and the Tsar. An amusing assortment, similar to some of the vagaries mentioned above.

  56. Sijie Ren said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 11:11 pm


    I've only seen this character 怹 in dictionary , but never actually heard anyone using it in daily life… However, 老舍 used it in his writing, and the setting of his works were in old Beijing.

    Some people say it's especially favored by 旗人 in old times, but nowadays it's incredibly rare. I was wondering about the origin of this character. Is there any academic investigations on this? Was it possibly coined by Manchurians?

  57. marie-lucie said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 11:16 pm

    Adrian Bailey said,

    I was surprised, watching a French film, to hear the main character say to his new lady friend, "Je vous aime." Polite intimacy.

    Was the film set in our own times, or at a more remote period? How old were the two protagonists? Were they shown before the relationship began?

    It would be very strange for young people to behave this way, unless they were doing it as a joke, pretending to be characters from another time, maybe.

    Aravindhan said,

    I use the Tamil equivalent of Sie / vous (nīṅkaḷ) when I speak to my daughter (she's four). … I'm not sure where the custom comes from, though I've heard it said that it's so children learn to address others with respect. How common is this in other languages which have a strong second person familiar / honorific distinction?

    This custom used to be prevalent in French aristocratic families, so that children would learn to address not only strange adults but also their parents with "vous". Once the children were four or five years old the parents started to use "tu" to them, but the children would keep using "vous". Ordinary children, who use "tu" within the family, tend to address adults with "tu" until they are discouraged from doing so around the age of five or six. I think that addressing one's parents as "vous" is pretty much out of style even in the aristocracy nowadays, but in French Canada this was the rule until a generation or two ago (among rural people especially), as in past centuries in France.

    My mother taught in a "maternelle" school for many years (a pre-kindergarten school, integrated in the public school system). All the children (under six) would say "Maîtresse, tu …" without being corrected by the teacher. Occasionally if a boy was acting up she would say to them "Monsieur, vous …" – the psychological distance created by the child being addressed as a grownup would often be sufficient to settle the situation.

  58. marie-lucie said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

    Religious use: In France, Catholics used to address God as "Vous", and Protestants used "Tu", but I think that "Tu" became general after the reforms of John XXIII.

    As a student, one year I had a roommate who later became a nun. I once read a poem she had written, in which she addressed God (or perhaps Jesus) as "Tu" (this was before the reforms).

  59. Zora said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 11:42 pm

    In Tongan, you use 'afio na instead of koe when talking to the monarch or praying to God, and feitu'u na when talking to nobles. Very few commoners find themselves in such situations; usually they'll let a matapule (something like a hereditary herald) speak for them. There are enough other verbal pitfalls — common words that must be replaced with elegant euphemisms — that it's safer to trust the specialist.

    There's no equivalent to tutoyer/vuvoyer in daily life (that I know; I'm not a native speaker). However, it's common to express rank in an interaction by speaking of oneself with a pronoun, kita, that expresses one's deep sense of humility.

    There must be other languages that take this tack — not exalting the hearer, but abasing the speaker.

  60. Wilmar said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 12:15 am

    In parts of Colombia, even children, especially boys, say usted to each other. Colloquially they might use vos but never . is used by cursi (posh) women, artists, gays and adults addressing small children. Another funny phenomenon is the use of "don/doña" + first name (with usted), in situations where Russians would use first name + patronym.
    In Germany Sie can sometimes go with first names (among office coworkers, maybe influenced by sweeping first name usage in English) and du can go with Herr/Frau X (among supermarket cashiers who know each other by their name badges).

  61. Will Steed said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 1:22 am


    I've never heard anyone use tan1, but yin1 is the normal 2pl pronoun in 厦门闽 Amoy Min and Taiwanese.

    Another alternate form of "ustedear" is simply decir usted a alguien.

  62. eRiC oNer said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 1:51 am


    This is interesting to me, because I've always wondered how children who had L1s with this distinction learned to address their parents that way. I suppose just the way they pick up any language, by imitating what they hear around them, but if they're being constantly addressed informally, it seems like the learning curve would be pretty steep. I grew up in an almost entirely English speaking environment, but my grandmother told me that my grandfather's mother used to tell him " es la escoba", i.e. don't you address me like that; the informal is for common things, not your elders.

  63. Nee in Germany said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 2:44 am

    @ Reinhold {Rey} Aman

    I also read recently* that there is a certain intonation of Sie that can get you in trouble with the police in Germany, but that is so far beyond my capabilities as a second-language speaker, I don't think I'll be getting popped for that any time soon.

    *in one of those short "informational" articles on–How Not to Get in More Trouble if the Police Stop You, Even if They are in the Wrong, or something to that effect

  64. daniel silliman said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 4:08 am

    "fewer and fewer Germans "duzen" other people nowadays" — you mean "siezen"? I'm an American in southern Germany and "du" seems to get pretty healthy use. "Sie" is still used with old people and in some formal encounters — buying things, e.g., — but college students never siezen each other, young adults don't seem to use it, "boomers" or the equivalent seem to often resent it as being called old, only a few professers are called "Sie" and only if they insist on it, etc.

  65. Eric Vinyl said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 6:35 am

    I know I am basically a horrible person for knowing this, but add Esperanto to the list of languages with an informal second-person pronoun which has fallen into disuse for the same reasons as thou and BP tu.

  66. Noam said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 7:54 am

    Modern Hebrew? No formal 2nd person that I have ever heard used.

  67. George said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 8:04 am

    In addressing God, Muslim and Christian Arabs use the 2nd person singular, not the more formal plural. On the other hand, an ordinary Christian Arab would use the plural in addressing the Coptic pope.

  68. Sven said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 8:44 am

    "fewer and fewer Germans "duzen" other people nowadays"

    Hm, I'm German, almost 40 years old, and of course it is anecdotal evidence when I say so but if anything, it's getting more common for Germans to "duz" each other these days. We're used to English in the work environment and my guess is we like the informality of the English "you". It can be very awkward to choose the correct address — you can go wrong either way, being too formal or too familiar, and it's often welcome to have that choice made for you. There's often relief when you get it out of the way early on ("Do you prefer 'Du' or 'Sie'?") and the choice has never been "Sie".

    Also, "Du" and "Sie" usage is influenced heavily by environment. Nowadays in sports or on vacation you'll rarely find anyone say "Sie". With society becoming more informal and relaxed you see less usage of "Sie". It's still common among the older generation, though. My grandmother and her best friend always "siezt" each other, even though they'd known each other for centuries. And that was not uncommon for their generation. I'm willing to bet you'll hardly find that when my generation turns 70.

  69. michael farris said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    @Eric Vinyl, you're not a horrible person, but you're wrong. Ci didn't fall out of usage in Esperanto, IIRC it wasn't part of the original design and it's never been a part of mainstream usage. Vi (singular and plural) has always been the only second person pronoun the great majority of speakers ever use.

    I'm not sure about when or how or why ci was introduced but it's used now mainly in translations when the distinction between T and V forms is especially important in the original.

    The esperanto translation of one of the Maigret novels uses ci and vi to reflect the T/V usage of the original (where the distinction is crucial to the plot). Interestingly it initially reads awkwardly (which exactly mirrors the feelings of one of the characters who feels pressured to use it when he would rather not) but gradually seems more natural. The other Maigret novels translated into Esperanto though use vi throughout.

  70. Dan Lufkin said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    Up until 50 years or so ago, Swedish (and by osmosis, Finnish) one addressed the domestic help in the 3rd person singular. "She may clear the lunch things now."

    Papiamentu has tu and bo, but one generally uses the 3rd person Senyor/a and you hardly ever hear tu outside the family.

  71. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 9:41 am

    Duzen is handled differently regionally.

    While some Germans reserve du for intimate friends and family, and continues saying Sie to even long-time business associates and colleagues, as you travel south things get muddier.

    The Austrians say there's no "Sie" above 2000m (above sea level); also members of trade unions or other leftish organizations call each other "du". In fact, members of any kind of club tend to say "du" to each other. In the monarchy, the high aristocracy were all on du terms among themselves. A skiing instructor is automatically du. People say du in informal situations such as chatting to a stranger at a bar. And finally, the impersonal "du" is used dominantly instead of "man".

    When inviting someone to call you "du", in Germany this is expressed as such (ich glaube, wir können uns jetzt du sagen, oder?) , in Austria the signal is "also, ich bin der/die [first name]".

    French, by the way, also has equivalent verbs to Duzen and Siezen: "vouvoyer" and "tutoyer".

  72. xah lee said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 9:41 am

    [(myl) deleted for violation of comments policy]

  73. Johanne D said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    An interesting phenomenon that I noticed happening in Spain after Franco's death: the generalization of the "tuteo". These days, you have to be 100 years old or maybe a government minister to be "tratado de usted". This is often true even in writing – in instruction guides and so forth.

  74. George said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    On the tu/vous distinction in French and previous references in this thread to a film in which a character said "Je vous aime" to his lover, the most incongruous use of 'vous' that I have ever come across myself involved a husband addressing his wife, both in their mid-thirties at the time (the late 1980s): "Pourriez-vous me passer le joint, je vous prie". In the circumstances, I found this almost painfully hilarious.

  75. Mark Etherton said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    I have Parisian friends (a married couple in their forties) who vouvoyer each other. I've always found it attractively formal rather than hilarious. There's also a passage in Sybille Bedford's autobiography in which she recalls how embarrassing it was to tell someone she loved them, but comforting herself with thought that at least she had said "Je vous aime" rather than "Je t'aime".

  76. George said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    @Mark Etherton, you should bear in mind that it was the sort of situation in which my "painfully hilarious" threshhold was somewhat lowered. But I still think it was very funny.

  77. Johanne D said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    I have some cousins in Baie-Saint-Paul (eight of them, born between 1940 and 1955 approx.) who were divided in two : the four elder ones used "vous" with their parents, and the four younger ones "tu". The strange thing is, they didn't realize it until I — at age 8 or 10 — pointed it out to them!

  78. M said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 11:40 am

    My understanding is that ci (thou) has never been in common use in Esperanto.

  79. Joanna said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

    Latin American graduate students in my classes will tell me that addressing their professors as "tú" in Spanish feels uncomfortable to them, even if asked to do so. When I first learned Spanish I learned to be scrupulous about using Usted with people I did not know, those older than I, etc, so I also have been struck by the fact that, since Franco's death, there has been a huge shift toward informality/tuteo in Spain, to the point where my use of Ud is even perceived as an attempt to reject or rebuff someone.

  80. Army1987 said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    lol. the “perhaps even outlawed” should perhaps be dropped. What a propaganda.
    In Italy the Fascism "discouraged" the use of lei (lit. a 3rd person feminine singular) in favour of voi (2nd person plural).

  81. Army1987 said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    BTW, I have the impression that "tu" is gaining ground in Italian: I would only ever use "lei" to complete strangers who look at least ten years older than me and to superiors.

  82. Lane said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

    I'm pretty sure Victor must have meant *siezen*. I don't know anywhere in western Europe where the T-forms are declining and V-forms are ascending, since 1968 and all that. The Danish "sie", *de*, is rare-to-vanishing. I don't think I've heard it more than once in five or six trips to Denmark and five years of marriage/relationship with a Dane.

    Kind of a shame. Spice of life and all that. But I don't miss the nervousness I felt in certain marginal cases in Germany, where I wasn't sure about du/Sie. And each T-V distinction is different in terms of the distribution of age, seniority and so on. My hasty impresson is that in some countries, T-V is status based: an adult can T someone who must V him back (my impression of Spain), where in other cases, it is politeness- and age-based: most adults V each other unless they are friends, as in Germany.

  83. michael farris said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    Poland is another country where T use has radically increased after an important political change and Hungary is another (collapse of communism in both cases).

    Interestingly Iberian Spanish, Polish and Hungarian all use gramatically third person forms for V use (and number and politeness are kept separate).

    The first time I was in Poland in 1984 I heard conversations between adults who seemed to be very good friends but carried out exclusively in V forms. This is unimaginable now.

    I have also noticed that younger colleagues (doctoral students and fresh PhD's) seem to have a few uncomfortable years where they're often not sure of which to use. They're too old and professionally advanced to use T forms with everyone but the V forms aren't so natural either. Fortunately Polish offers a lot of impresonal constructions that allow them to avoid the issue more than speakers of some other languages can.

  84. Jim said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    "So what are some languages besides English that don't have a formal/informal distinction in second person pronouns?"

    It's probably the norm worldwide, since there are many other, and more flexible ways, and which require less business. Korean marks the whole clause, while still also allowing marking on specific nominal phrases inside the clause. Could it be any more straightforward? Zapotec does the same kind of thing, but by means of raising the pitch of the entire sentence, as if the speaker is mimicking a child.

    Aine has given at least one other European example. M-L, can you think of any American language north of Mexico that has this distinction? I can't, and even in Mexico, I'd be surprised if any other than Nahuatl did it.

    Something else – these analogous forms inthese european languages are obviously marking difenret oppositions. Some are high-low social distinctions, and some are just social distance, the way oyu tlak to strangers. Odd that none of these languages can mark for situations where a social lower is not directly subordinate to the listener, even in military situations for instance, where it can be a very useful distinction – "Yes sir, right away, (as soon as I clear it through MY commander, which you can bet I will do FIRST.)"

  85. Robert said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    Since English is a language in which nouns can be verbed, there is a verb for call someone thou, and it is simply "thou", as used by Edward Coke during the trial of Walter Raleigh:
    "I thou thee, thou traitor".

  86. marie-lucie said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

    High/low, formal/informal, etc distinctions can only arise in a strongly stratified society. Different terms of address for familiar/stranger within the same community imply a group too large for evey adult to know all other adults at least by sight. Latin did not make such distinctions: "Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant!" The use of vos did not arise until later during the Empire, and the other honorifics in European languages (Spanish usted, Italian Lei, German Sie) are later still.

    I suspect that the formal distinctions in Nahuatl (which are not simply binary, and are marked on the verb, not on the pronouns) may have arisen during the Aztec Empire, not earlier: for one thing, they are extremely regular, which suggests a relatively recent origin. Does Quechua have a similar system? I don't know about any other examples in the Americas, but I don't have a comprehsive view of all the languages.

  87. Army1987 said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    (BTW, a weird effect of the change in usage in Italian is that a 70-years-old is much more likely than a 40-years-old to address me — a 23-years-old — as "lei", all other things being equal. Anyway, it is so rare that I'm addressed as "lei" that I don't feel very comfortable when it happens.)

  88. Aaron Davies said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

    @Jim: and Japanese of course changes practically everything–verbs are conjugated for social relation at least as much as for temporal issues, and rather moreso than for "traditional western" conjugation elements (person and number).

    one thing that tends to escape modern speakers (of english, at least) is that (afaik anyway) "thou"ing God was meant to show intimacy, as God is on an intimate level with everyone. does anyone know if this rose in conjunction with the reformation, or did the ongoing changes in english at the time obscure the evidence?

  89. H.B.B. Noizzz said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 11:46 pm

    @ Xah lee

    Please stop posting. Barring that, try and clean out the vaguely racist language/swear words before you do.

    Thank you.

  90. John D said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 4:08 am

    Funny exchange at a restaurant on the beach in Barcelona last year:
    I noticed that our waitress was speaking fluent German at another table (and I live in Germany, hence I speak German though not natively).

    Me: Ah, so are you (Sie) German?
    Waitress: Well yes, but you can duz me, I'm not like 60 years old.

  91. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 5:11 am

    @ H.B.B. Noizzz

    What's the problem with Xah Lee's posting?

    a) where's the racism?
    b) swearwords there are, but it strikes me that if Xah Lee is a non-native speaker, his or her writing, including swearwords, is a rather good approximation of everyday American speech. It may not be very polite, but maybe he or she hasn't been exposed to very genteel milieux.

  92. army1987 said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 8:01 am

    "Friend" did not seem capable of overriding "professor."
    Same for me. I never managed to confortably use "tu" with a professor (or a priest, or my landlord), no matter how well acquainted I had became with them; this is weird because, except for the choice of pronouns and verb forms, the language I use with them becomes completely informal, including the use of the regional dialect and even the occasional profanity. Conversely, if a stranger of my age or younger asks me for (e.g.) road directions, I use "tu" with them but otherwise use relatively formal language.

  93. David said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    In Sweden, "du" became the default alternative in the space of just a few years around 1970. One reason was that it seems as if Swedish never quite managed to adopt a neat T/V distinction like German or French. As Dan Lufkin pointed out, one fairly common form of address (not just to domestic helps, I think, but to other people as well) was the third person. Alternatively, impersonal constructions were used: "Tas det socker i kaffet?" (lit. 'Is sugar to be had in the coffee?') or "Ska det vara mjölk till téet?" (lit. 'Shall there be milk with the tea?'). The "most correct" form of address was otherwise with name and title. If someone was a director called Lindström, you addressed him as "direktör Lindström".

    The second plural, "ni", seems to have been regarded as somewhat condescending. As titles became less important and the entire system was felt to be very awkward, "du" seemed to be the most natural option.

    To younger speakers, the condescending tone that "ni" once had is very hard to understand. After the breakthrough of "du", it is often claimed that there has been a slight increase in the usage of "ni": young people who learn French or German (or Spanish, which in fact is more common today) become familiar with the T/V distinctions in those languages, and thus assume that it is this distinction, rather than the more complex system of third person and impersonal forms, which collapsed in the shockwaves of 1968.

    While one can occasionally hear "ni" in polite use, there is no great demand for the introduction of a T/V distinction across the board in society. In fact, it is now not entirely uncommon to hear the royals, especially the royal children but also occasionally the King, addressed as "du". That the Prime Minister and other senior politicians should be addressed as "du" is taken to be a matter of course. In fact, even if "ni" should make inroads into businesses and workplaces, "du" will very likely remain the default term of address in politics, since the "du reform" is so closely tied to Swedish egalitarianism: no politician would want to distance him- or herself from the ordinary voters by refusing to insist on "du".

    It seems as if the situation is different with the Swedish spoken in Finland, which in many respects is more conservative. There, it seems that a European-style T/V distinction is better-maintained.

    Finally, Swedish of course has verbs for these practices: "dua" and "nia".

  94. John Cowan said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    There's a Wikipedia article on T/V distinctions that gives details (often slightly dubious) for 45 languages. The Nordic languages, especially Swedish, seem to be the tops at the moment for abandoning the T/V distinction in favor of using T in all circumstances. According to the article, the old V form in Swedish came to be seen as "careless, bullying, or rude", and so a vast set of circumlocutions arose to replace it, all of which were dumped in the 1960s.

  95. Mark F. said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    Etymologically, does anybody know whether the Hebrew 2nd person singular pronoun descends from an ancestral V form or T form?

    Is there something anyone can point to in modern Brazilian culture, or 16c English culture, that led the V form to drive out the T form, rather than vice versa?

    I realize that very often there is no answer that is both interesting and knowable.

  96. Ken Brown said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    Matt McIrvin said: "In English there is also address as "Sir/Ma'am". It's a staple of stand-up comedy to be dismayed by this as a sign of advancing age, but this has always struck me as strange since I'd been addressed as "Sir" in commercial contexts even as a small kid. It may be an East Coast/West Coast thing."

    I think it might be a British/American thing. "Sir" seems to me to be far more commonly used by Americans than Brits. Over here its basically reserved for hierarchical, uniformed situations – military, police, schools (in the British sense – NOT universities)

    Yes you can be called "sir" by a shop assistant but it sounds to me rather old-fashioned and a bit creepy or insincere. Its not that common I think. Gives me the same feeling that the OP describes.

  97. Aaron Davies said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 9:23 pm

    @mark: i've seen suggestions that the English stopped thouing each other in order to not be mistaken for Quakers, once the Restoration had made all the sects politically unpopular. the Quakers, of course, thou'd each other (spoke "plainly", in their terminology) precisely because it was the T form, and they believe(d) that everyone was socially equal.

  98. Matt McIrvin said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 12:38 am

    More precisely, I suspect that "Sir/Ma'am" is much more commonly used in the Southeastern US than elsewhere in the US, and that the comedians expressing unease over it were Californian. But I haven't collected the statistics.

  99. George said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    @Ken and Matt:

    Sir and Ma'am were mandatory in the South during my mid-last-century youth. I can vividly recall being visited by friends from Wisconsin and the children (my age) saying just plain 'yes' and 'no' to adults. I was shocked.

    Although I would now, at least chronologically, qualify as a 'sir,' I cannot avoid the usage when addressing an older person or persons in positions of authority and respect.

  100. v said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 9:23 am

    "Poland is another country where T use has radically increased after an important political change and Hungary is another (collapse of communism in both cases)."

    Strange, one would have assumed change would be in the opposite direction? I haven't paid much attention to the situation here in Bulgaria, but I think my impression is V-ing is on the rise.

  101. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    A few comments. On Sir/Ma'am in English, it's usage is still very common in the parts of rural Alabama where I work, and even a good bit of suburban Alabama where I live. Even with some of my students who I work rather closely with (friends with their parents, etc), they'll still invariably use Sir with me, but to the extent of things like "Yes Sir" or "I'm sorry Sir?" if they didn't hear me. Any sentence beyond a handful of words and it disappears.

    In Spanish, the development of the vos/tú/Vd. distinction across countries is very interesting. My coworker came back from Costa Rica and couldn't bring herself to tutearme, because it was hardly used, but I find it equally difficult to tratar de usted. In Spain, I think the best way to describe the use of Vd. is that it creates a barrier between the two speakers. Even though I've asked them many a time to tutearme, many parents of ELL/Spanish language kids can't come to call me anything but usted. When I worked in Spain, the students even called us teachers by first name, tú was the default form for parents, coworkers, bosses, friends, random people on the street. As a previous person mentioned, someone would have to be old and a stranger for me not to use usted, or alternatively, it'd need to be a very formal situation (legal, or similar).

  102. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    I went to a progressive school (in Ireland, early 80s) where we were supposed to call the teachers by their names. But sir and miss remained the dominant classroom forms of address. I bet they still are.

  103. marie-lucie said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    Matthew S: In Spain, I think the best way to describe the use of Vd. is that it creates a barrier between the two speakers.

    For me as a(n older) French speaker, using vous acknowledges the distance between the two speakers: using tu breaks through the personal psychological space around each person. This is justifiable when speaking to children (who need to share their personal space with other children and adults), but not when speaking to adult strangers, especially strangers in stereotyped situations (in a store, etc). For instance, if you are in a crowded bus or subway where people are physically stuck against each other, if you need to talk to another person (a stranger) it is especially important to address them as vous, and tu would be insulting if you would normally say vous to such a person (street demonstrators might use tu with each other, but those addressing President Sarkozy as tu definitely mean it as an insult). With people one interacts with often on an equal basis (eg co-workers), it depends to a certain extent on age and class: younger people and people at the bottom of the social scale are more likely to consider themselves "in the same boat" as others of the same age or stuck in the same position, who thereby share a psychological space. So are people in situations where there is often intense psychological interaction through sharing powerul physical and/or emotional experiences (dangerous professions, demanding sports, actors, musicians, etc). And of course sexual relationships: those rare married couples reported as using vous in front of other people are unlikely to do so in their most private moments.

  104. H.B.B Noizzz! said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 7:58 pm

    @ Ben Hemmens

    Apologies for possibly coming across as angry, that wasn't my intent.

    To address your questions, a) came from the line "I think it's worse in Japan and their language", which seemed to have some slight value judgement placed on it. Perhaps that was me reading into it, in which case, apologies again.

    b) That might well be the case. His personal website states that he's lived in the U.S. since 14 years old (and is now 42), so I think that's a sufficient amount of time to learn how to avoid such language.

    Again, sorry for coming off like that. Despite my objections (mainly stemming from looking over his personal site), as a native speaker of a relevant language, his opinion has worth, and shouldn't be shut down.

    To speak on the Japanese comment more directly, while such value judgements are essentially more a result of personal opinion than any objective data, I find the Japanese system of honorifics to be quite… comforting, for lack of a better word. That is to say, by inflecting as much for social status as for case/tense, it provides a quick way to assess social situations and create intimacy/space between people.

  105. Qov said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 4:24 am

    When I read your description of nin2, I thought immediately of the "I'm not that old!" response to store clerks making the transition from "miss" to "ma'am." Interesting how there is a common thread that what is nominally a term of respect can have a derogatory or unwanted meaning.

    For the record, Klingon has no pronouns denoting levels of intimacy or authority, but there is a sparingly used verb suffix, -neS, that elevates the formality of an utterance to show that type of respect towards the addressee.

  106. PaulB said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    On "thou" and "thee": it is (or was) common for Quakers to use "thee" as a nominative as well as an objective pronoun. George Fox has this usage occasionally in his writings so I speculate that it may have been a feature of his native dialect (in Leicestershire).

    Browsing for evidence, I came across this remark by William Penn, writing about the Quaker practice of using "thee" and "thou" Against the Bishop of Cork's Exceptions

    …though the Bishop confines us to Propriety, as the only Reason of our Practice, that he might the better Lash us with the Impropriety of Thee for Thou; which yet he might have spared, since nothing is more common with all People, than to take the like Freedom in Speech, in Cases as well as Tenses; not excepting the Learned themselves.

    It seems that Penn was a Descriptivist.

  107. marie-lucie said,

    October 23, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    I met a linguist (now retired) who grew up on a small island off the coast of Newfoundland, where he was chided for using "thee" to the teacher when he first went to school.

  108. J.H. said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 9:37 am

    Interestingly, my father, a native Cantonese speaker who does a lot of business in China, uses 您 nin2 all the time when talking to people in Mandarin, regardless of their social status. It's kind of embarrassing to hear him calling his friends 您 nin2. (He's pretty stubborn, so my mom and I have given up trying to correct him. I remember being about six and trying to tell him the difference, but in vain.) I suppose he does it to be safe and to make sure he isn't disrespectful to anyone, since in the Cantonese he's used to speaking, there's only 你.

  109. Bob Ladd said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 11:16 am

    I can confirm for ke (very near the beginning of this thread) that university students in Germany used to use Sie with each other as a matter of course. As David says about Swedish, the change happened very abruptly in a few years around 1970 (or rather, a few years after 1968). I taught in Heidelberg in 1972-73 and in one of my classes had a student who had been an undergraduate for 4 or 5 years and wanted nothing to do with all the leftist nonsense going on around him. He insisted on addressing all his fellow students at Sie, much to the amusement of most of them.

    About the abruptness of the shift: In the early 1980s I worked for another couple of years in Germany and got to know a couple who had spent the years from 1966 to 1972 in the US. When they left for the US, almost everyone in Germany used Sie with almost everyone; when they came back only six years later, all kinds of ordinary social and work relationships were per Du. Ten years later, when I met them, it was clear that they still found the new norms very unsettling.

    In response to various commenters above: there really is a very strong tendency in German for Sie to go with surname address and du with given-name address. German expats at Cornell in the early 1970s – who had all come to the US before the shift – had a more or less explicit agreement that they always addressed each other by their given names, because of course this is what they did when they spoke English with each other, but when they spoke German they used Sie or du according to the nature of their relationship (which mostly meant that they used Sie). This was acknowledged to be anomalous but the best way to handle the cross-language situation.

    Final note in this connection: in the English-speaking world, big companies (airlines, supermarkets, etc.) that require their employees (flight attendants, checkout assistants, etc.) to wear name tags generally use given names rather than surnames on the name tags. This usage sometimes carries over to other languages in Europe (e.g. Italy), but never, in my experience, in Germany, where such name tags always just have the surname or the surname preceded by Herr or Frau.

  110. 博远 said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 7:25 pm


    I am a student at Sichuan university and I live in Chengdu. In Chengdu many people use "您" -this has a meaning comparable to "老人".

    It's very common.

  111. Richard said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

    您 is a northern thing.

    I don't believe any southern Chinese (including those in Taiwan) have something corresponding to that in their local regionlect, so 您 is only used in writing or in stock phrases like 您貴姓.

  112. Richard said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

    FYI, for a history:,%E6%82%A8,%E7%88%BE,%E6%B1%9D&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=11&smoothing=3

  113. Yuri Yuan said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 6:56 am

    I previously lived in Nanjing, where nin2 is almost never used, nor do I hear it now in Singapore.

    Personally I feel like nin2 is only used in areas around Beijing, or only in the northern part of the country.

  114. Wentao said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

    As a native Beijinger, I use nin2 all the time when talking to people older than me, even to intimate ones like my parents. I remember in school someone who addressed the teacher by ni3 would be generally considered very rude and disrespectful. But certainly this is only a Northern thing.

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