Lei e Voi - The Subject Pronouns of Respect (and Past Political Strong Arming!)
In ancient Rome, 'tu,' the familiar form of 'you', was commonly used; informally and formally. . Spain's presence in Italy during the 16th Century is considered an influencing factor in the use of 'Lei' instead of tu for polite address in government, courts, etc. But, when Mussolini came into power, he banned Lei as a non-Italian word; despite the fact, it is not foreign. Mussolini imposed the use of Voi/voi as a replacement for the banned Lei. In effect, Mussolini was trying to bend language by making the second person plural Voi/voi usable in both a singular and plural context (more on that later). During Mussolini's reign, 'Lei' was spoken in private. After Mussolini fell from power, Italians once again used 'Lei' publicly. That was then. Let's jump to the present.
Lei is the third person singular subject pronoun for 'You' used in formal situations. The 'L' is capitalized to differentiate it from lei (she). It is still used in modern Italian; and, for a native Speaker, its use reflects your level of courtesy and knowledge of social etiquette. It is used when speaking to a person who: Is older; is a stranger; has a position of authority; or, a specific social position. Many situations may call for it; such as, at the bank, at work, with your doctor and with a professor.
Since language is fluid and cultures evolve, it is not uncommon to hear Italians use tu rather than Lei. In fact, an older person may take offense because they do not think they are old enough to be referred to with Lei. It all depends upon the social situation. If you are being introduced to an 80 year old or a mayor, you should defer to Lei.
It is the prerogative of the older person or the person in the higher position to allow the use of tu instead of Lei - Chiamami senza troppe formalità o Dammi del tu (Call me without too much formality or Use the 'tu' form with me). If you are uncertain how to address someone - perhaps because someone is close to your age or there is no indication of a position requiring Lei - you always can ask: Possiamo darci del tu? (May we switch to the 'tu' form?). Among youths, children, family and people close to your age, tu is commonly used instead of Lei. If you are speaking to someone younger than you, tu is the appropriate choice.
If you are meeting many people at once for the first time, use the second person plural Voi/voi instead of Loro. Voi is used for both formal and informal language. Loro (third person plural with a capital "L') is very formal and rather outdated; although, you may hear it used with customers by waiters, hotel staff, et al, and it can be found in literary works.
Voi/voi has always been a linguistic fixture In Southern Italy where it - as opposed to Lei - is used as a sign of respect; whether you are addressing one person or several, and especially with family members. So when Mussolini banned Lei and enforced the use of Voi/voi, it was of no consequence to Southern Italians.
Ciao 4 now!
The verb must always agree in gender and number with the subject of the sentence (Lei is 3rd person singular, Voi is 2nd person plural), but the adjective still agrees with the actual gender and number of the subject (regardless of the 'Lei' or 'Voi' scheme):
Lei è alto. / Voi siete alto. = You (singular, masculine) are tall.
Lei è alta. / Voi siete alta. = You (singular, feminine) are tall.
Voi siete alti. = You (plural, masculine) are tall.
Voi siete alte. = You (plural, feminine) are tall.
Good Morming MT. Italy. After passing though several times zones while working and some rest, I (duh) realized that I had written a comment above with Lei and Voi all in Caps. Just to clarify, I did not do that to mean shouting. It just was a glitch from me due to writing something else that used Caps for emphasis. Mi dispiace. È ora di dormire di più. Buona Giornata! :)
Ciao MarkusRF! You would use the second plural verb conjugation for the formal Voi (capital 'V") even if you are expressing in the second person singular (you). Again, the use of VOI, instead of LEI, is akin to the dialects of Southern Italy (Sicily, Naples, et al). So if you go to the South, using VOI instead of LEI will reflect your respect. If there is anyone who knows Sicilian or Napolitan, please weigh in.
The history is much longer and more complicated actually, but it would take a much longer post just for that. To list a few points:
- Some form of "royal we" is already attested in Cicero in the 1st Century BCE, when he wrote "they accuse us of being of low birth" meaning "me".
- From what I see around the internet (no hard evidence) the plural you address started becoming common for emperors around the 4th Century and for popes at the end of the 6th Century
- Most Romance languages started using it consistently at the end of the Middle Ages or Early Modern Era, including Italian (e.g. Dante, "Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?").
- The use of Lei started during the Renaissance and was only reinforced under the Spanish rule (http://www.accademiadellacrusca.it/it/lingua-italiana/consulenza-linguistica/domande-risposte/allocutivi-cortesia)
- According to Stendhal in The Charterhouse of Parma the use in Manzoni (just after the Italian unification) was that "lei" was used to address people of high standing, while "voi" for pretty much everyone else, including servants, the "tu" only reserved for children or intimate conversation between people of low standing ("voi" was common between family members too)
- As you say, Mussolini's government (I'm not sure whether he personally cared) lobbied against the use of Lei: the fascist argument was that it was "servile", but there were intellectuals who approved and called it a "spagnolismo".
- After WW2 in most of the country "voi" started losing popularity, while it held on in the South, where Lei never gained much ground in the local dialects: however in the North it wasn't displaced by Lei, but by "tu", as the language started becoming more and more informal (possibly also caused by another fascist move, rejecting the Crusca's control of the official dictionary, which had kept the language somewhat stable for a century).
Spain's presence in Italy during the 16th Century is considered an influencing factor in the use of 'Lei' instead of tu for polite address in government, courts, etc. But, when Mussolini came into power, he banned Lei as a non-Italian word; despite the fact, it is not foreign.
So why would "Lei" have been considered a Spanish custom if the word is ostensibly native Italian?
I'm reading now that "Lei" originally referred to nouns like "Signoria", "Eccellenza", "Santità" and such - all feminine words. Now in Spanish, the formal pronoun "usted" derives from "vuestra merced" (Your mercy/grace). Is there the connection? That both "Lei" and "usted" have this servile undertone of "Your Grace/Highness" rather than the more straightforward plural pronoun "voi", just like French "vous"?
Yes, for instance the Sicilian Vossia that Piero mentioned is connected to the Spanish "usía" (vuestra señoría) and the similar Voscenza to "vuecencia" (vuestra excelencia): they are grammatically the same as Lei, e.g. "Vossia se l'immagina a un latro che si piglia sulo il dinaro e non agguanta macari i gioielli?" (Andrea Camilleri, Una lama di luce) - Italian "Lei se l'immagina un ladro che prende solo il denaro e non afferra magari i gioielli?" - English "Can you imagine a thief who only takes the money and doesn't grab e.g. the jewels?".