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I recently found out that French has two different words for "you."

From here:

Tu is the familiar "you," which demonstrates a certain closeness and informality. ... Vous is the formal "you." It is used to show respect or maintain a certain distance or formality with someone. ... Vous is also the plural "you" - you have to use it when talking to more than one person, no matter how close you are.

French is from the Romance language family, as far as I know.

I was immediately reminded of the verse (Malachi 1:6):

וְאִם-אָב אָנִי אַיֵּה כְבוֹדִי וְאִם-אֲדוֹנִים אָנִי אַיֵּה מוֹרָאִי

This (from Hebrew) literally means: "But if I [G-d] am a father, where is My honor? And if I am masters, where is My fear?" The word "masters" is in the plural, but it uses the word "I" and "My" in the singular! (As a side note, Hebrew has a different word for "you" s. and "you" pl.)

It is interesting to note that the major biblical commentators — among them Rashi, who ordinarily deals with simple questions in the text, such as translations; and Radak and Ibn Ezra, who were both grammarians — don't address this. The first one to address this was the Metzudos who writes (in Metzudas Tziyon): "It is the practice of the scripture to mention the name of 'mastery' in plural language; similarly, 'The masters of Joseph' (Gen. 39:20)."

Is there any relation between this French grammar rule and the Hebrew rule, in which the plural is also used for respect? (If there is, it would solve the problem of why Rashi didn't say anything about it, since he was French.) Is there any known reason how this Semitic language can end up with something that a Romance language has?

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see wals.info/chapter/45 –  jlovegren Aug 20 '12 at 23:59
    
Yes, there are many languages (not all related to one another) in which the plural form of "you" doubles as a polite form (such as French, Hebrew, Bosnian etc). There are also several languages in which the distinction between singular and plural "you" is orthogonal to the distinction between familiar and polite, such as Spanish (tu, vosotros, Usted and Ustedes) and German (du, ihr, Sie). I would like to know whether there are any language families that do NOT include representatives of all three types (that is, the English-like type, the French-like type and the Spanish-like type). –  user780 Aug 26 '12 at 1:06
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@DavidWallace Actually, Hebrew doesn't generally distinguish between polite and impolite "you" (which is why the verse I quoted was extraordinary) –  b a Aug 26 '12 at 4:08
    
Oh, OK, my mistake then. I thought that you were quoting a typical verse. Certainly true of French and Bosnian though - that much I DO know. –  user780 Aug 26 '12 at 4:17
    
I had not met this verse before, but I immediately assumed that 'adonim' was used exactly parallel to 'adonai' (lit. 'my lords'). Since God is speaking, a question of "respect" would not appear to arise directly, but I imagine that the plural "adonim" had become effectively a special word used to refer to God. –  Colin Fine Nov 22 '12 at 16:50
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5 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

This phenomenon is found throughout Indo-European languages. You can read about it at the Wikipedia article on T-V distinction.

One potential explanation for this plural-polite association says that it's derived from the majestic plural. That is, people in positions of power generally speak on behalf of those they represent/govern/etc, so they are in turn addressed in the plural.

Furthermore, one might think of plurality as merely one strategy for achieving indirection and impersonalization that happened to become grammaticalized and diffused widely. In that regard, plurality would not be much different from syntactic and semantic analogues, e.g. impersonal pronouns and honorifics. C.f. Junichi Toyota, Politeness as a distancing device in the passive and in indefinite pronouns.

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So I guess that explains the royal "we". –  acattle Aug 21 '12 at 9:04
    
Not just Indo-European languages, it's also in Georgian: შენ (shen) = "you singular familar", თქვენ (tkven) = "you plural or respectful". I wonder if it's some kind of universal or if it's a concept that spread from language to language? –  hippietrail Aug 22 '12 at 21:49
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Finnish has the same thing: sinä (singular) and te (plural or respectful). –  Ansgar Esztermann Aug 23 '12 at 9:51
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Hebrew and French are not related. I am unsure of any research on this specific topic, but it is not an uncommon thing to find a plural form being used to show respect. Telugu (a Dravidian language spoken in India... completely unrelated to both French and Hebrew) will do this as well. For example, when speaking to a person, if respect is shown you will refer to them using the 2nd person plural pronoun meeru rather than the singular nuvu. Using the singular form is only for either a close relationship (good friend or family member) or to be used when NOT showing respect (speaking to a child or an extreme inferior). When speaking of a superior or someone to whom respect is offered, plural is proper. This goes beyond the use of honorifics to 'add' more respect.

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In the Hebrew bible the word for 'God' is the formally plural ''elohim'', and the word used for "the Lord" is ''adonai'' - literally "my lords". While it is possible that in some sense these were seen as plural, to suggest any connection with the concept of the trinity is grotesque. –  Colin Fine Aug 22 '12 at 16:17
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In former English there was also the same distinction: thou/thy/thee/thine - you/your/you/yours.

e.g. in the bible sentences like 'Thou shall not kill'.

In French, there was also the 3rd person respect, e.g. speaking to the king 'Sa Majesté voudrait elle... ?' and in Spanish, this is the 3rd person respect that has become common use " Quiere usted... ?.

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@ Brad Miller

Not only Telugu, but most; in fact, every Indian language has the same rule of using plural to denote respect. I am a native speaker of Kannada. I know Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Hindi.

In Kannada 2nd person singular is "Neenu" (Used for friend or family member) and the second person plural is "Neevu" (Used for elders or superiors)

In Tamil, 2nd person singular - "Nee" 2nd person plural - "NeengaL" (Retroflex form of 'La') In Hindi, 2nd person singular - "Tum" 2nd person plural - "Aap" ( For second person plural "Tu" also exists but is used without least bit of respect and represents inferiority)

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The Turkish language has two simple 2nd person pronouns: "sen" and "siz". "Sen" is the 2nd person singular pronoun which is used to address a single person and connotes a speaker's familiarity, friendship, or consanguinity with the person being addressed. "Sen" is sometimes also used by the speaker if he/she is addressing someone much younger than themselves (e.g., a child) or someone of an inferior position or rank (e.g., in academia or on a job). "Siz" is the 2nd person plural pronoun and is used to address more than one person (irrespective of their relationship to the speaker) or a single person with whom the speaker is not very familiar with or closely related to. It's also used when addressing someone of a superior rank, position, or age. "Siz" is also typically used to express the speaker's politeness.

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