It would make sense to me that, as the social differences decline due to the progresing demographic transition, the societies would tend to loose the the distinction between formal and informal language (not in general but in the sense of special word forms to talk about the person it's being spoken to), just as it'd happend in the evolution of English (where it had been the formal language that had faded out).

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    Latin had no T-V distinction; that developed in Romance (and shows no sign of dying out in many modern descendants).
    – Draconis
    Mar 3, 2017 at 22:01
  • intuitively, yes, for at least 2 reasons: the larger a society the harder it is to discern relative social status of the people you meet. and the more cosmopolitan the society, the greater the need to simplify, so foreigners can function. but on the other hand, Japanese, for example, retains a highly complex system of linguistic marking of social status. so there may not be a general rule.
    – mobileink
    Mar 3, 2017 at 23:22
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    Portuguese and Spanish in a number of dialects have gone even beyond a two formality and managed a three way. Spanish can do usted (formal), (intermediate), vos (informal). Portuguese can do o/a senhor/a (formal), você (intermediate), tu (informal). Most dialects of both though only have a two way distinction. Mar 4, 2017 at 0:07
  • @guifa - In Portuguese, você is informal. Tu is informal, but regional. There are only two degrees of formality for the second person direct case pronouns, o/a senhor/a and tu/você. Mar 4, 2017 at 12:04
  • @LuísHenrique As I stated, most dialects (in the case of Portuguese, Brazilian ones) have a two-way distinction. In Portugal, however, there is a three way distinction (and você uses the same pronouns as o/a senhor/a, "Você recebeu o paquete? Mandei-lho a semana passada" or "Você jantou no restaurante ontem? Acho que lá o/a vi". You can only use mandei-to or te vi with tu), in Brazil, where tu is regional, it is generally only a two way, and based on what I've seen (I don't have much experience with pt-BR) você has adopted the tu oblique pronouns. Mar 4, 2017 at 13:54

1 Answer 1


I think you are mixing different things.

One is that a stratified society has different degrees of formal education for different people. There consequently is a tendency for the upper layers of such society to speak a different "sociolect" than the lower layers.

The other is that people speak in different registers in different contexts. Anyone, from a beggar to a Supreme Court justice, speaks differently when in court than when among friends in an informal context.

Applying this to your specific question about pronouns, those things may or may not relate.

Taking Portuguese as an example, let's imagine a dialogue between beggar and judge. In court, it should go more or less like this:

Judge: Afinal, o senhor viu ou não viu quando o agressor fugiu?

Beggar: Já disse à senhora: vi, mas 'tava escuro, então não vi direito.

Albeit there is an enormous difference of status between judge and witness, it expected that both call each other a formal pronoun. It would be extremely rude for the witness to call the judge "você", only excusable by ignorance. But it would also be rude for the judge to call the humble witness "você", particularly if it is not a young man or woman.

Now let's imagine a street dialogue between the same characters:

Beggar: 'Cê pode me dar uma moedinha aí, tia?

Judge: Se você cuidar do carro pra mim, na volta te dou um trocado.

Since the context is informal, they may call each other informal pronouns (você and its popular contraction ). It would be more respectful of both to use formal pronouns, but it is optional.

On the other hand, the use of formal pronouns in informal contexts may be intended as sarcastic, as in parents calling their children o senhor during reprimands (and so, depending on context, the usage can easily be perceived as less respectful than the use of an informal pronoun).

Also, archaic usage often sounds formal to our ears, even though it was intended as informal at the time it was uttered. We tend to hear English "thou" as formal because it is in the Bible and nobody speaks like that anymore; but it was informal, as opposed to formal "you", a few centuries ago.

  • Thanks, but I'm sorry, I don't see much of an answer to the question wheter there's an overall trend to merge the different kinds of languages (or differentiate, who knows). Even though I admit, this could be rather a sociology question.
    – Probably
    Mar 4, 2017 at 13:47
  • The point would be, the "decline of social differences" (even if it was a fact, which, with the concentration of wealth under way for the last forty years, is quite doubtful) cannot account for the fading out of the grammaticalisation of "respect", because the relationship between both is iffy at best (the use of "respectful" pronouns can be based, as in Portuguese, more on age than on social status, more on the formality of contexts than on the reality of social relationships, etc), Mar 4, 2017 at 13:57
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    English lost the distinction between formal and informal pronouns, and that loss coincided, for a long time, with the decline of formal and informal social privileges. But it also lost gender flection for most words, even though there was no decline of sexual dimorphism between English speaking males and females. So the most likely explanation is that English went through a much wider process of degrammaticalisation, which accounts for the loss of nominal gender, case, and formality flections, and verbal person flection. Mar 4, 2017 at 14:03
  • Oh, you're right, this context is surely very important. Thanks.
    – Probably
    Mar 4, 2017 at 14:05
  • @Probably You are welcome. Mar 4, 2017 at 14:43

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