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Politeness in Russian language

Various languages have different levels of politeness for speaking with other people. The forms of the Politeness depend on the culture and in the native language.

There are various levels of politeness. This may be expressed in the type of words/vocabulary that one uses, or it may also be an integral part of a language’s grammar.

Languages with only one level of grammatical politeness

Nowadays English only uses one level of grammatical politeness. When speaking to someone, you always use the form “you”. You can use it while speaking with your little sister, and also with the queen. English used to have two levels of politeness, thou and you. However, over time, “thou” became less and less used, until it disappeared entirely and “you” was left to serve as the pronoun of choice for all situations.

Languages with two levels of grammatical politeness

Indo-European languages use two level of grammatical politeness. For example French uses the word pair tu/vous, Spanish uses tu/Usted, Portuguese uses tu/você, Italian uses tu/Lei, German uses du/Sie, and Russian uses ты/вы.

Because the verb often changes form, for example between 2nd person singular and 3rd person plural, you also have to know how to change the verb accordingly.

When to use "ты" in Russian

"Ты" (ty) is an informal way of addressing people. "Ты" is used when speaking to friends, members of the family, to those who are younger than oneself. One could even say that this way of addressing applies to those people with whom one does not feel any distance. Note that ты is used when addressing a single person, while вы would be used to address a group of people, no matter the relation.

When to use "Вы" in Russian

"Вы" (vy) is a polite way of addressing a single person, and also the plural form of “you”. "Вы" is used when speaking to teachers in schools or universities, to elderly people, in general to those who are older than oneself, also to whom one feels or wants or must show one’s respect. Вы is used when speaking to strangers if they are older or do not belong to the same group of society. Thus, вы implies some distance.

Patronymic is another form of expressing respect, politeness or distance in Russian. Name+Patronymic are usually used together with the polite form “Вы” (e.g.: А что Вы думаете по этому поводу, Иван Петрович?). If you use only patronymic without name when addressing a person (e.g.: Здорово, Петрович! Что скажешь, Петрович?) this means that you are friends and you use only “ты” in this case – it is quite colloquial.

If the person you have addressed with “Вы” feels that there is no need to keep any distance, the situation is informal or he/she is such a person who prefers to be addressed only with “ты”, then he/she may say: “Говори мне ты”. Or in the case when you use name+patronymic: “Зови(те) меня просто по имени”.

Languages with multiple levels of grammatical politeness

Japanese politeness is famous for its array of bewildering politeness levels. The most common formal version is the verb ending -mas(u) at the end of a verb, or the use of suffixes such as -sanor -sama, or prefixes such as o- or go-. Depending on whether the person you are speaking with has a higher or lower social status, you would use different personal pronouns or verbs.

Korean politeness is definitively complex. In Korean, you mainly have 3 forms of politeness: the impolite form, known as (Banmal), the informal polite (most used) and the formal polite. These rules apply for most of the words in the vocabulary. The termination of the verb conjugations depends on those rules, with the use of suffixes such as YO, DA, KA.




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