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Apprendere la lingua italiana a Roma

The time seems to have gone when there was a clearly defined distinction between the three Italian personal pronouns that correspond to “you” in English, when one is speaking or writing directly to an interlocutor. These are tu (for children, friends and family), Lei (for social equals in a formal context or as a sign of respect for older people) and voi (for one’s social superiors or for a plurality of interlocutors). For example, in Manzoni’s 19th century epic novel “The Betrothed” (I promessi sposi) Fra’ Cristoforo addresses Renzo as tu, but Lucia as Lei, and Perpetua addresses Don Abbondio as Lei, while he replies to her with voi... The use of the informal tu in social media is now prevalent, and it is almost obligatory in order to underline the spirit of online democracy. This pronoun that is appropriate for a group of one’s peers and equals is generally adopted, in the attempt to blur the distinctions between people’s different ages and social classes, but it is not universally approved. While many internauts see the use of Lei as ridiculous and outmoded, others can be embarrassed or even offended when total strangers address them with the over-familiar tu. But how did these different pronouns evolve over time? The ancient Romans addressed their semi-divine emperor as tu, but then in 293 AD, Emperor Diocletian introduced voi as a respectful form for addressing the illustrious members of the Tetrarchy. Lei finally appeared in the 1500s, due to Spanish domination, especially in southern Italy. These various forms were thus established by a very slow and gradual process of interpersonal distancing. During the period of Fascism the formal use of voi was encouraged, as it harkened back to the glories of ancient Roman, in preference to the “effeminate” pronoun Lei, which became more usual again after the war (partly coexisting with voi, which has never fallen out of general use in the south of Italy). Finally, the youthful rebels of the ‘60s started extolling (and shouting at the barricades) the “democratic” pronoun tu. Current Italian usage tends to oscillate between the informal and friendly tu and the more respectful and official Lei. As regards my homestay students and myself, we always talk to each other using the nice, simple and homely tu!