I don't think the title is super clear, but I couldn't a better way to word it, let me give a few examples

From what I understand, the "original" pronouns were

  • English:
    • Singular Informal: Thou
    • Singular Formal: You
    • Plural: You
  • French
    • Singular Informal: Tu
    • Singular Formal: Vous
    • Plural: Vous
  • Spanish
    • Singular Informal: Tú
    • Singular Formal: Usted
    • Plural: Ustedes

While the spanish one (my native language) is not literally the same word, it's pretty similar. Is this the case for most languages? Why is it so?

  • 2
    In Spanish, the informal plural is vosotros or vosotras (literally you and others) depending on gender, while Ustedes (literally Your Graces) is simply the plural of Usted. But vosotros has been lost in Latin America
    – Henry
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 1:28
  • @Henry Hah, that's my being Argentine showing up, we literally never use vosotros/as
    – YoTengoUnLCD
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 1:30
  • @sempaiscuba Thanks for the suggestion! I was unaware of that SE, should a mod move it there?
    – YoTengoUnLCD
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 1:31
  • @YoTengoUnLCD I can migrate it for you if you want.
    – sempaiscuba
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 1:36
  • @sempaiscuba Yes, please. Thanks!
    – YoTengoUnLCD
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 1:44

2 Answers 2


The formality distinction you are talking about is sometimes called the "T/V" distinction, because in a lot of the European languages that have a formality distinction in 2nd person singular pronouns have an informal singular with a "t" and a formal singular with a "v" (as many Romance and Slavic languages took the "v" form from the plural, and have similar roots for deriving the 2nd person pronouns). If you want to see a map of where there is a formality distinction, here you go https://wals.info/feature/45A#2/30.9/198.9. This map is of formality distinctions in general, not formality distinctions that derive from the plural.

The "v" forms in a lot of European languages derive from the 2nd person plural, but in many languages (such as Italian and German), the 3rd singular is the more formal form. In yet others, like Hindi or Hungarian, the 2nd person singular formal does not look like the informal or the plural. The European languages developed them after the fall of the Roman Empire, using the metaphors that PLURAL IS POWER (see also, the "royal we").

To browse a few more distinctions, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%E2%80%93V_distinction#Table.

  • Thanks a lot for the very informative language! I imagined it was something like the "Plural is power" but I didn't want to bias any answer, do you have any reference to that metaphor being used? I also was unaware of the royal we, super interesting stuff! Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 3:09
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_we Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 3:09
  • A book that says a similar thing is books.google.com/…, page 94, the first full paragraph Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 3:11
  • Sadly, I don't have a copy of the book I'd like to cite, "Metaphors We Live By" by Lakoff and Johnson, which puts forth a theory of how metaphor is essential to everyday uses of language. Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 3:14
  • It's fairly new in European languages. The German Sie (from 3pl 'They' with pl verb agreement) didn't become general until around 1800. Before that Er 'He' and Sie 'She' (from 3sg, with sg verb agreement) preceded them for some decades. The story is similar in other languages, and comes from the same source.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 15:03

There is no such distinction of 'you familiar' and 'you formal'in Latin, Ancient Greek or Ancient Egyptian just second person singular and plural (and occasionally in some of these languages 'dual' when addressing two people, plural sometimes being reserved for 3 or more).

The feature to which you refer is quite common in modern Indo-European languages, but I am not sure if it has many parallels elsewhere.

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