Italian Language Blog

“Lei” part 2: a brief history Posted by on Oct 2, 2008 in Grammar

Following on from Natasha’s blog, I would like to add a few historical notes.

The use of Lei (lit.: She) as a form of respect goes back to the XVII-XVIII century, when it was common not to address somebody important directly, but to use abstract forms such as la Signoria Vostra. E.g. “Cosa pensa la Signoria Vostra di quest’opera?” that is: “What does Your Lordship think of this opera?” or “La Signoria Vostra desidera un caffè?” that is: “Would Your Lordship like a coffee?”.

As you can see from these examples, the sentence is constructed in the third person singular, and because titles like signoria (lordship), maestà (majesty), altezza (highness), etc. are all feminine, this explains the use of the feminine pronoun Lei (she). There are some wonderful examples of the usage of these titles in the comedies written by Carlo Goldoni, the famous Venetian play writer.

Originally all the adjectives had to be in the feminine form to agree with Lei, but now, in modern Italian, you use masculine ending adjectives when talking to a man. E.g.: “Lei è troppo buono“.

The Italian language as we know it today was created following the unification of Italy in 1870 and there are still many linguistic variations throughout the country. In certain parts of Italy the Voi was used much more frequently than the Lei, particularly in the South and in Emilia Romagna. In 1938 Mussolini, who was from Emilia Romagna, tried to introduce the use of the Voi believing that the Lei was from Spanish origin. This usage is known as the Voi fascista, and is now very rare, used only by some older people.

Finally, good news for all learners of Italian: in spoken language the Lei is disappearing and Tu is becoming far more common, particularly in shops and restaurants. Lei it’s still used in official written language and when you speak to somebody very important, like Professors or Doctors.

 Un cordiale saluto a Lei

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  1. Mauro:

    I read your article with interest. For the sake of argument, “lei” was introduced by Italian Renaissance courts but later reinforced by the presence of Spain in the Italian peninsula. Voi was not really a fascist form of address, it existed before as a go-between “tu” (very informal) and “lei” (very formal). Voi is sometimes used by older speakers in southern Italy (a vernacular usage) and is no longer Italian.

    Mauro Baglieri

  2. John Burwood:

    Very interesting, I have always wondered why in Italian the formal address is “Lei”.
    My wife is from the South of Italy and she always used “Voi” for respect when talking to her Grandparents.

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