LEI – Language Confusion

LEI  – Language Confusion

 

Disegno di mio nipote Gaetano

When I moved to Italy many years ago, my husband tried to make the whole formality issue simple for me.  In Italian ‘Lei’ is the formal ‘you’ and ‘tu’ is the informal ‘you. “Use the LEI form with everyone,” he said. “That way you can’t go wrong.” A few weeks later I found myself at a luncheon, and knowing my Italian was too weak for a decent conversation with an adult, I tried my luck with a young boy.  “ LEI, come si chiama?” I said, using the formal YOU to ask him his name. He looked to the left and the right and back at me. “Me?” he said, confused. “My name is Giacomo, e LEI?” (and you?).

At this point it was my turn to look to the left and the right before realizing that he was talking to me and not to another person.  “Oh, I’m Trisha.”  Then the wise little Giacomo gave me a lesson. “LEI (you formal) do not have to use the LEI (you formal) with me because I am a kid and LEI (you formal) are not.” At that point I was completely lost and Giacomo had better things to do than to try to explain basic Italian grammar to a grown-up.

So I started to figure out my own list of rules for when you use the LEI.

Rule Number One — Giacomo’s rule –One must use the LEI with someone who is older than you to show respect.

Rule Number Two — One must use the LEI to show respect when speaking to people in stores, coffee bars, or with schoolteachers and doctors.

But with schoolteachers and doctors I get terribly mixed up.  The problem is LEI is YOU in the formal form but it also means SHE or HER.  With two daughters it is hard to know who people are talking about.  One time our pediatrician told me,  “If LEI (you formal) give this medicine to LEI (her) three times a day, in a week, LEI (she) will be much better. “ But when I responded, “Sorry, I don’t understand, who is LEI (she)?” the doctor thought that I was asking “Who are YOU (formal)?” and responded, “I am your pediatrician.” I had to beg LEI (her) to use the TU (you informal form) with me for the health of my daughters and for my own sanity.

Rule Number Three – my husband’s rule– When you get in a fender-bender with someone (very common in Rome), always use the LEI.

It took me awhile to understand this. I have noticed it is the Italian style to come flying out of the car and go on the attack immediately. Sometimes I have wondered if they think the person who is the loudest and most aggressive must be the wronged party.  Gustavo’s solution is to maintain distance with the LEI.

 

*Gaetano M. is my talented 11-year-old nephew

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Post in: Italiano

Trisha Thomas
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.

9 Comments

  1. ziogustavo
    2011/09/15

    grande gaetano!

    Reply
  2. Valerio Salvati
    2011/09/15

    Utterly hilarious – and alas, desperately true, even to Italian ears… so what’s the catch? As the the devil is always in the details, just think as if you were writing as you speak, and you’ll find the right logic to sort you out of the confusion: docs & teachers are “Lei”, your daughter is “lei”. Formality is not a linguistic accident – especially to those who deserve the least respect, in the end…;-)

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2011/09/15

      Valerio — Thank you for the comment. I basically agree, I have seen Italians use the Lei form brilliantly and subtly to get a desired effect: demand respect, show disrespect, create a distance, show appreciation. I don’t think as a foreigner I will ever be able to have that kind of command of the language, but I admire those of you who do. And, excuse my ignorance, what are Docs & Amps?

      Reply
  3. Lega Medcalf
    2011/09/15

    It reminds me of vous and tu………it caused me a lot of chaigrin with some of my French relatives. I enjoyed Gaetano’s cartoons.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2011/09/15

      Yes, it is the same thing as the Vous and Tu in French. One needs a French language etiquette lesson before asking for a baguette or a croissant with the man behind the counter at the boulangerie. S’il vous plait, or would that be s’il te plait, or does that depend on his age? I am glad you liked Gaetano’s drawings, he has promised me to do more.

      Reply
  4. Gwen Thomas
    2011/09/15

    Hilarious! I had a similar experience learning Spanish being told to only use the formal “usted” and I could never go wrong. Nope. Like you, with time I learned when and how to use the informal “tu” although is doesn’t seem quite so confusing as in Italian. The scene in the doctors office made me chuckle!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2011/09/15

      I think the proper use of the formal in Italian, French, Spanish and other languages is a fine art that Americans will never master. I think, at least in Europe, that it represents something deeper in society related to class-consciousness and class divisions over the centuries. But I just want to make sure I know what or who people are talking about!

      Reply
  5. Elspeth Slayter
    2011/09/16

    Gaetano’s drawing is priceless, it is the perfect complement to this very funny post. Are you finding that it gets easier after all of these years?

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2011/09/16

      I suppose the linguistic challenges get easier after many years living in Italy, but as you are finding with your experiences in Turkey some of the hardest things to get used to are not the language but deeply ingrained cultural attitudes. I was fascinated by you blog post on an attitude you met in Turkey towards marital betrayal
      http://slowly-by-slowly.com/2011/09/16/cigars/
      I have a post I am preparing and will publish soon on “Corna and Cornuti” which addresses Italian attitudes towards cheating which is slightly sillier than your harrowing burt fascinating conversation.

      Reply

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