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I know from older and southern Italian friends that in their childhood they used the "voi" pronoun (like "vous" in French) as a polite form to address other persons. So how come this switched nowadays to the "Lei" form, a choice I must confess I found it always bizarre and always avoided it because it seemed to me more impolite to address someone like if it wouldn't be present and potentially insulting males by referring them as females, than to actually use "tu" for everybody. So who dictated the sudden change?

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    related italian.stackexchange.com/questions/1238/… Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 18:09
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    @martina very good answer you're pointing to, but I'm more interested on what caused the change so suddenly or who decided it in the last 2 generations
    – symbiotech
    Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 18:28
  • Fun note: One of my highschool professor used loro instead. It was a mess, since you couldn't tell when he was asking you something or if he was asking something to the whole class.
    – Bakuriu
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 13:34
  • ai tempi del fascismo in certe scuole si imparava ad usare e a dare del "voi"
    – mle
    Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 18:15

3 Answers 3

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As for the relative difference in the usage or the two courtesy pronouns "Lei" and "Voi", I point out the answer in

"Darsi del tu" and "del lei"

The main idea outlined is that nowadays' standard Italian uses only tu as the informal friendly pronoun, and Lei as the courtesy one, so that Voi has almost disappeared, except than in some conservative usage in the South (mainly used to address old people).

As for the history: first of all Voi is much older (needless to say, it's the more intuitive). Lei comes from the 15th century usages like "vostra maestà/vostra Signoria" (possessive adjective related to "voi" with a feminine noun), which then originated the use of "Essa" (so, feminine) as courtesy pronoun and which then became "Lei".

Much later, during the Fascist years, the usage of Lei was discouraged through the imposition of the Voi as a rule (people were asked to rewrite things to change pronouns). This is because the nationalist regime believed that "Lei" came from the years of the Spanish domination over Italy (this is not true, as we said).

A detailed outline of all this here.

This attempt hasn't had the result of eradicating Lei anyway. So, the difference between the two forms has a long history and the reason why it is still used in some dialects is because they probably didn't pass through the 15th century change.

I also want to report the answer by Indro Montanelli to this same question, here.

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  • I would say that voi is fairly commonly used in the South, and not only when speaking with old people.
    – nico
    Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 21:49
  • More about Voi and Lei here.
    – edmz
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 14:18
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Both are still used, but "voi" is spoken only in south Italy. Using "Lei" it's more confidential and it's reported to the other "person" aspect, while "voi" is more polite, used for people at a topper level of you.

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    No, I don't think there is such a difference between "voi" and "lei". Everybody nowadays uses the second one, only in the South and towards old and conservative people you are expected to use the "voi". Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 18:23
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In the south of Italy (I'm talking about Naples especially), "Lei" is used only if you want just to be distant, not too direct. This happens when you are talking with some stranger at the same level (age, socially, etc) as you, but you have to keep in mind that it is considered not polite.

Instead, you HAVE TO use "Voi" if you are talking with someone, who, in some way, "deserves respect", for example your boss, an elder person, a police officer, parents of your spouse, a priest, etc.

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  • That's not true. You use the VOI with less educated/more traditional people and this is the only difference. Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 9:46
  • @martina: Where are you from? I'm from Napoli. If you are from Napoli too, which part?
    – FdT
    Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 11:03
  • Ho vissuto per anni nella provincia. Non credo che il fine tuning delle differenze sia così locale, e in ogni caso, questa discussione diventa una questione di opinione/esperienza, ma continuo a sostenere che uno istruito non si rivolge ad un altro istruito col "voi". Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 11:14
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    Uno studente non e' istruito se e' ancora studente. Evidentemente consideriamo il termine istruito in maniera diversa, e, spero, tu non lo consideri come sinonimo di "educato". Secondo me, c'e' una profonda differenza fra chi e' madrelingua italiana (se permetti, ti colloco in questa categoria) e chi e' madrelingua napoletana. Ti diro' di piu', usare il "Lei" e' addirittura mal visto perche' crea una distanza ed e' ritenuto piu' cortese vedere l'interlocutore sempre ad un livello superiore. E' invece di uso comune, e ben accetto, che un professore dia del "Lei" ad uno studente.
    – FdT
    Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 13:10
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    Ti colloco in quella categoria (non che sia offensiva, chiaramente) perche' se in famiglia si parla l'italiano e', forse, piu' naturale utilizzare il Lei, come ho capito tu preferisca. Se puo' servire, frequentavo il liceo classico e si usava il "Voi" con i professori (anni 90/2000)e questo indipendentemente dal voto medio, se puo' indicarti un grado di "istruzione". Ma possiamo concludere cosi': casomai tornassi a Napoli e mi incontrassi... dammi del Voi. Io ti daro' del Lei, promesso :D
    – FdT
    Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 15:22

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