The Swedish formal “you” – does it exist? Posted by Stephen Maconi on May 21, 2018 in Culture, Grammar, Swedish Language
French has “vous”, German has “Sie”, and Spanish has “Usted”. Does Swedish have a formal “you”?
Many Western foreigners in Sweden will tell you that for them, the Swedish language seems rather blunt. Unlike their Western European counterparts, Swedes today, for the most part, don’t use any formal word for “you”. Whereas the Germans have Sie as a formal version of du, and the French have Vous as a formal version of tu, most modern Swedes will just use du in reference to anyone, regardless of formality level.
That is, however, not to say that the Swedish language doesn’t have an equivalent of the formal “you” in other languages. Quite the opposite – Swedish-speakers used to use ni, the plural “you”, when talking directly to people of higher status or age than themselves. This worked in the same way as the Vous or Sie, the examples above. However, modern Swedes will normally not use this form as it seems outdated and too formal, to them, for practically all situations.
The turning point at which the formal ni was replaced by the “regular” du was called du-reformen, a gradual change that spread across Sweden in the 1960’s and 1970’s, popularized by large newspapers and important figures of the time. Since then, the use of ni has basically been abolished.
Or has it? Strangely, the use of ni as a formal “you” has been making a slight comeback in recent years. Companies with consumer contact are continuously looking for ways to woo consumers, and the resurrection of ni as a formal “you” has been one of the developments associated with this. Another common way to seem more benevolent in the eyes of customers has been to capitalize the D in Du in an attempt to make “You” seem more important as a customer. The new ni-trend has mainly taken its form in written language – in spoken language, ni is still extremely rare as a formal “you”. (No worries – it’s still used as the plural “you”.)
And now the question is: Will the expanded use of Du and ni be a long-lasting trend? Only time will tell!
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