by Melinda Gallo

You and you

An Italian side-effect on my French is the use of "tu" and "vous" (equivalents of "tu" and "Lei" in Italian). We don't have a familiar and formal "you" in English. I find the rules are a bit stricter in French than they are in Italian (at least in Florence where we live). I know better than to generalize about the Italian language because when I talk to any of my friends in Torino or Milano, they tell me things can be a little different.

I remember once Dave and I went to a hotel in Milan last year. The man politely asked me for my name "Come si chiama Lei?" He was about my age, maybe a little older, but it was a nice hotel and, of course, "Lei" is absolutely de rigueur.

Then he looked at me and said, "Loro sono pronti?" I looked back at him blankly and looked all around the lobby, but we were the only people there. "Scusi?" And he repeated himself, "Loro sono pronti?" Then, it dawned on me: he's talking to us! I suddenly remembered that "Loro" (which also means they) was the plural of "Lei," but I had never heard anyone use it before as the formal form of you (plural). (Loro sono pronti=Are you ready)

After living in Florence for two years, not a single person ever used the formal you in plural form (Lei). Most people would just say "voi" (the plural form of you) because it's simpler and sounds "better."

In Florence, I have learned that most people will use "tu" with me if I see them more than once (like in a shop or restaurant) and/or if they are about the same age or younger than me. I use it with everyone at the outdoor market except a few older people who seem to exude more respect from me somehow.

Although sometimes in Florence, I notice people go between the two. They start with "Lei" and then go to "tu" and then back to "Lei." So I guess the line is not as clear to anyone else either.

And here in Corsica, I have found myself using "tu" to people who are about my age without even thinking. It is quite unheard of to ever use "tu" in French to anyone you don't know or who doesn't tell you that it's OK. So, I try to back pedal and repeat the same sentence with "vous," which doesn't always work that smoothly. I have been told that the rule isn't as strict as I make it out to be, but when I lived in Paris I never used "tu" to anyone unless they were my friends. At any rate, in Florence it's not a "faux pas" if you misuse the familiar or formal forms of you. You just have to correct yourself in the next sentence and you're OK.

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