In both Italian and German, the third person feminine pronouns ("lei" and "Sie," respectively) also serve as the formal second person pronoun.

Etymologically, is it a coincidence that both these languages reuse this specific pronoun for formal address (rather than a dedicated formal pronoun like "usted" in Spanish)?


1 Answer 1


Italian uses the third person feminine by following Spanish usage of usted. It simply never developed a special pronoun, which is reasonable as Italian very rarely uses the pronoun at all (e.g. Cosa desidera?, Si accomodi, prego etc.) and prefers to express the person via verbal agreement. It used to alternate with the voi form (2nd person plural), but it displaced it after WWII as the latter had a strong association with the Fascist regime. There is also a loro (3rd person plural) form but it's nowadays basically confined to satire, as it is perceided as comically stuffy.

The German Sie is not a 3rd person singular form - it is a 3rd person plural form (as can be seen from the verbal agreement) and so it has more to do with the Italian loro than with lei. It has a similar origin to usted in that it comes from an ellipsis of Euer Gnaden, which means something similar to your grace but it is plural (and so requires the 3rd person plural form). It displaced the Ihr form (2nd person plural) in the nineteenth century, although I'm not sure what prompted it.

The similarity with the feminine 3rd person pronoun sie in the German language is completely accidental and has, as best as I can tell, no relation with the Italian lei or the Spanish usted.

  • Perhaps worth noting that Danish De (= Sie) is based directly on the German pattern, so that at least is not coincidence. Oct 13, 2023 at 10:45
  • Also, Italian Lei as a formal pronoun also comes from a noun phrase like vostra Signoria ‘your Lordship’, so the underlying process is the same for Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and German – it’s just that Spanish and Portuguese continued using the whole noun phrase (vuestra merced / vossa merce[d]e), contracting them into shortened forms that eventually became separate pronouns (usted / você); whereas German and Italian stopped using the noun phrases explicitly and instead started using existing anaphoric pronouns to implicitly refer to them. Oct 13, 2023 at 11:58
  • @JanusBahsJacquet You're right that the lei form is actually native to Italy, however it was greatly popularized during the Spanish domination by the influence of usted, The strong "foreign" associations of lei was what prompted the Fascist regime to prefer the voi form and thus, ironically, what prompted the almost total dominance of lei after 1946. Source (in Italian) Oct 13, 2023 at 12:07
  • Euer Gnaden isn't plural IMHO but a (fossilized) genitive, same as "Liebfrauenkirche", "Kirche unser lieben Frauen", "Orangenmarmelade" &cpp. This is borne out by similar words "Euer Majestät", "Euer Hoheit" and that it can be used with singular and plural verbs: "Sind Euer Gnaden bereit?", "Ist Euer Gnaden bereit?", though plural may be strongly preferred when you're already using such hifalutin titles anyway. Oct 16, 2023 at 5:22
  • "similarity with the feminine 3rd person pronoun sie [...] completely accidental"—hardly accidental I think. I'd guess it goes back to a tendency in older stages of these languages to re-cycle the feminine forms for the plural. Note that in German that the article ("der", "die", "das" -> "die") and adjectives tend to look like the f. form, cf. "schöner Mann", "schöne Frau", "schönes Kind" -> "schöne Männer", "schöne Frauen", "schöne Kinder" (i.e. plural forms re-cacly the f. singular adjective form). Oct 16, 2023 at 5:27

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