To English speakers, “you” seems like it should be one of the easiest words to translate. But languages are quirky. In English, “you” is “you” no matter who you’re talking to. But other languages have more options when it comes to second person pronouns. Knowing which version of “you” to use can be trickier than it might seem at first.
With that in mind, here are 3 ways “you” in English is different from “you” in other languages.
Formality and the many different ways to say you in other languages
In English, if you’re speaking directly to someone, you’d say “you” whether you’ve known them for 5 minutes or your entire life. The President is “you”, your child is “you”, your friends are “you”, and your boss is “you.”
But that’s not the case in every language. In some languages, there are multiple possible pronouns depending on your relationship with the person you’re addressing. The pronoun you choose for “you” can signal politeness and deference. It can indicate familiarity or intimacy. And it can even signal contempt.
Linguists call this “T-V distinction,” after the Latin pronouns “tu” and “vos.” And actually, English used to have a T-V distinction. Starting in the 13th century, ye was the formal, respectful version of “you,” used to address the upper classes. Thou was more informal and used for the lower classes.
Over time, ye became you, and people stopped using thou altogether.
The T-V Distinction in Translation
Sometimes, in languages where the formal form of “you” is no longer in general use, it will still be used for translations from languages that maintain the distinction.
For example, when translating the King James version of the Bible, translators consciously chose to use thou and thee even people weren’t using them anymore. This allowed the translators to preserve the T-V distinction found in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.
However, this decision had an unexpected consequence:
Its subsequent popularity and the religious rationale of many who continued to employ thou has preserved its use in English, but made it seem pious and (ironically) more formal and respectful than the everyday you.
Meanwhile, Icelandic uses the informal þú most of the time. But the formal version, þér, is used in some translations from languages that maintain a T-V distinction. It’s also used in court, and to make fun of people who think they’re more important than they are.
In some countries, moving from the formal version of you to the informal you is an occasion worth celebrating. As Wikipedia explains:
In Germany, an old custom (called Bruderschaft trinken, drinking brotherhood) involves two friends formally sharing a bottle of wine or drinking a glass of beer together to celebrate their agreement to call one another du rather than Sie. This custom has also been adopted among the Swiss-French of the Jura, in Poland and Russia (called by its German name, pelled bruderszaft and брудершафт respectively), though the custom in Poland is now slowly disappearing. It was formerly found also in Sweden.
And if you thought it sounded difficult to navigate two different levels of formality, some languages have more than two. Hindi, for example, has 3. There’s a formal form, an informal form, and an extremely informal form reserved for children, very close friends, lovers and God.
Meanwhile, Japanese has no less than 11 different ways to say “you,” each with varying degrees of formality.
In English, “you” is used whether the person you’re speaking to is male or female. But in some other languages, there’s a different second-person pronoun depending on the gender of the person you’re addressing. For example, in Hebrew, you’d say atah when addressing a male and at when addressing a female.
In Standard English, “you” is both singular and plural. But that wasn’t always the case. For example, in Old English, “ye” was a formal, polite way to address one person, but it was also the standard way to address more than one person.
Many other languages still have different words for “you” depending on whether the subject is singular or plural. For example, Spanish has the plural ustedes (formal) and vosotros (informal, not used in some areas). German uses ihr.
And while standard English may not have a plural second-person pronoun, casual English has evolved several different options, depending on where you’re from. For example, there is yous in Ireland, youse in Australia and parts of the American northeast. There’s you’uns in parts of the Appalachian mountains. And of course, there’s y’all in the American South.
“You guys” (in the US) and “you lot” (in the UK) are also common and have the advantage of conforming to “proper” English even if they don’t roll off the tongue.
Translation is more than simply substituting one word for another. The many versions of you in other languages illustrates why that’s the case. Especially in languages where different pronouns imply different degrees of formality, familiarity with the culture is essential to choosing the right word and setting the right tone.
And that’s just one of many reasons why it’s important to choose a dependable translation company. At K International, we can help your organisation communicate effectively with customers around the world. Check out our services, and feel free to contact us. We’d love to hear from you!