Romance languages, Familiar–formal distinction

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The Romance languages—occasionally called the Latin languages or, less often, the Romanic or Neo-Latin languages—are a group of languages descended from Vulgar Latin. They form a branch of the Italic languages within the Indo-European language family.


In medieval times, most Romance languages developed a distinction between familiar and polite second-person pronouns (a so-called T-V distinction), similar to the former English distinction between familiar "thou" and polite "you". As in English, this generally developed by appropriating the plural second-person pronoun to serve in addition as a polite singular. French is still at this stage, with familiar singular tu vs. formal or plural vous. In cases like this, the pronoun requires plural agreement in all cases whenever a single affix marks both person and number (as in verb agreement endings and object and possessive pronouns), but singular agreement elsewhere where appropriate (e.g. vous-même "yourself" vs. vous-mêmes "yourselves").

Many languages, however, innovated further in developing an even more polite pronoun, generally composed of a noun phrase (e.g. Portuguese vossa mercê "your mercy", progressively reduced to vossemecê, vosmecê and finally você) and taking third-person singular agreement. A plural equivalent was created at the same time or soon after (Portuguese vossas mercês, reduced to vocês), taking third-person plural agreement. Spanish innovated similarly, with usted(es) from earlier vuestra(s) merced(es).

In Portuguese and Spanish (as in other languages with similar forms), the "extra-polite" forms in time came to be the normal polite forms, and the former polite (or plural) second-person vos knocked down to a familiar form, either becoming a familiar plural (as in European Spanish) or a familiar singular (as in many varieties of Latin American Spanish). In the latter case, it either competes with the original familiar singular tu (as in Guatemala), displaces it entirely (as in Argentina), or is itself displaced (as in Mexico, except in Chiapas). In American Spanish, the gap created by the loss of familiar plural vos was filled by originally polite ustedes, with the result that there is no familiar/polite distinction in the plural, just as in the original tu/vos system.

A similar path was followed by Italian and Romanian. Romanian uses dumneavoastră "your lordship", while Italian the former polite phrase sua eccellenza "your excellency" has simply been supplanted by the corresponding pronoun Ella or Lei (literally "she", but capitalized when meaning "you"). As in European Spanish, the original second-person plural voi serves as familiar plural. (In Italy, during fascist times leading up to World War II, voi was resurrected as a polite singular, and discarded again afterwards, although it remains in some southern dialects.)

Portuguese innovated again in developing a new extra-polite pronoun o senhor "the sir", which in turn downgraded você. Hence, modern European Portuguese has a three-way distinction between "familiar" tu, "equalizing" você and "polite" o senhor. (The original second-person plural vós was discarded centuries ago in speech, and is used today only in translations of the Bible, where tu and vós serve as universal singular and plural pronouns, respectively.)

Brazilian Portuguese, however, has diverged from this system, and most dialects simply use você (and plural vocês) as a general-purpose second person pronoun, combined with te (from tu) as the clitic object pronoun. The form o senhor is sometimes used in speech, but only in situations where an English speaker would say "sir" or "ma'am". The result is that second-person verb forms have disappeared, and the whole pronoun system has been radically realigned. However that is the case only in the spoken language of central and southern Brazil, with the northern areas of the country still largely preserving the second person verb form and the "tu" and "você" distinction.

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External Links

  • WikipediaMichael de Vaan, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages, Brill, 2008, 826pp. (part available freely online)Lexikon der Romanistischen Linguistik (LRL), edd. Holtus / Metzeltin / Schmitt

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