You might have noticed, from watching TV shows and movies on Yabla, or elsewhere, that in Italy, the term dottore (doctor) is used loosely, or rather, differently than in other countries. In fact, addressing someone with a particular role often means using their title (or guessing at it). Sometimes signor (Mr.) and signora (Mrs.) just don't seem respectful enough.
One example of this usanza (use, custom) occurs in a recent episode about Adriano Olivetti.
Io e la mia famiglia dobbiamo tutto al Dottor Dalmasso.
My family and I owe everything to Doctor Dalmasso.
Caption 61, Adriano Olivetti - La forza di un sogno Ep. 1Play Caption
Dalmasso is just an executive in a company, not necessarily a doctor (even in terms we go on to describe below), but he is one of the most important people there. People treat him with respect by using dottore instead of his name or they shorten it to dottor when it's followed directly by the person's name: Dottor Dalmasso, in this case.
In some cases dottor is used, but with a person's first name. Many people follow the reasoning that it's better to be too respectful than not respectful enough. In the following example, Giacomo could be a physician or someone's boss. We would need context to determine this.
Dottore! -Gina! -Dottore! Dottor Giacomo.
Doctor! -Gina! - Doctor! Doctor Giacomo.
Che succede? -Signora, Giacomo non risponde. -Giacomo!
What's going on? -Ma'am, Giacomo isn't responding. -Giacomo!
Captions 3-4, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP11 - Beato tra le donnePlay Caption
If the person is a woman, then it's dottoressa by itself, or followed by the name (first name or last name depending on the relationship). In the following example, the dottoressa in question works at city hall. Her position of importance gives her the title, more than any degree she might (or might not) have.
Dottoressa, scusate, ma perché ci volete fare questo regalo?
Doctor, excuse me, but why do you want to give us this gift?
Caption 24, L'oro di Scampia - filmPlay Caption
Lawyers also fall into the "important person" category and are often addressed by their professional status. We might liken this to the use of "Esquire," or "Esq." for short, used primarily in written correspondence with attorneys.
Sì, avvocato De Santis.
Yes, Attorney De Santis.
Caption 50, La Ladra - Ep. 5 - Chi la fa l'aspettiPlay Caption
The other way dottore is used is for someone with a college or university degree. Graduates earning the title dottore have often completed a Laurea triennale (three-year bachelor's degree equivalent) plus a Laurea Magistrale (two-year master's degree equivalent). It has nothing to do with being a medical doctor. Learn more here about higher learning in Italy.
As well as being an industrialist, Adriano Olivetti designed machinery, so it makes sense for him to have the title of ingegnere (engineer.) And so in the film about Olivetti, that's how many people address him. It so happens that he did, indeed, have a degree in engineering.
Ingegnere, Lei mi sta facendo una proposta incredibile.
Sir, you are making me an incredible offer.
Caption 46, Adriano Olivetti - La forza di un sogno Ep. 1Play Caption
Other titles commonly used in Italian before a name, or in place of a name, are Architetto (architect), Commissario, (commissioner, chief) Notaio (notary).
We hope this little article has shed some light on this curious usanza (custom). Finding a suitable translation for these titles can be tough. Sometimes there's no good alternative, so we use a word we feel can fill the bill, even if it isn't a word-for-word translation.
English doesn’t make the distinction — as far as pronouns go — between familiar and polite forms, but many languages do.
In a recent documentary about how the Italian language was influenced by Italian fascism, we learn that Lei, the polite form of “you” (singular), was actually banned from the language by Mussolini, and that the form Voi was imposed. But what’s this all about?
Let’s clarify, right away, that voi with a lowercase “v” is the second person plural personal pronoun, that is, “you” plural. We use it all the time. What we’re discussing here, however, is the use of Voi — with a capital letter — as a second person singular, polite form. It uses the same conjugation as voi (you plural).
The story is a long, complicated, and fascinating one, but here are the basics.
In ancient Rome, people used only the familiar form, “tu” (which later became the Italian tu (you, singular).
At a certain point, around the year 300, the Latin “Vos” ("you" plural used as a singular) began to be used with important figures such as emperors, much the same way as the pluralismajestatis was used.
“Vos” then became Voi in Italian, and was commonly used from the 1200’s to the 1400’s for addressing artists, nobility, etc. Dante used tu and Voi. Later, in the Renaissance, with the return to studying the Greek and Roman classics, there was a tendency to go back to the “Roman” tu.
Also in the Renaissance, Lei began to be used in offices and courts as a polite form of address. Lei corresponds to the third person feminine singular (she/her). The words used for prominent figures, like Eccellenza (Excellence) and Maestà (Majesty) are feminine nouns, and so, this led to a feminine pronoun: Lei. Lei was used alongside Voi for centuries as a deferential form of address, with tu as a familiar and intimate one. Many consider that the use of Lei came into use following the model of the Spanish, whose presence was felt in Italy during the 16th Century.
So, though not actually foreign (but believed to be, at least, partially), Lei was banned by Mussolini as being a non-Italian word:
Imposizione del Voi ...
The imposition of “Voi” ["you" singular, formal] ...
Parole straniere bandite e sostituite per legge.
Foreign words banned and replaced by law.
Captions 6-9, Me Ne Frego - Il Fascismo e la lingua italianaPlay Caption
Thus, Voi was revived and/or imposed all over Italy. After the fall of fascism, Voi fell into disuse in many parts of Italy, where it had not really had time to be assimilated.
In much of southern Italy, however, Voi, as a deferential form of address, had never gone out of fashion, as it had in the north. So, it simply remained, and to this day it’s still used as a sign of respect, especially in families: a nipotino (grandson) in speaking to his nonno (grandfather), for example.
If you are an adult and go on a trip to Naples, Sicily or other southern Italian destination, you may very well be addressed as Voi. This is a sign of respect.
Lei has entered Italian vocabulary and grammar books as the official personal pronoun for addressing someone formally. But since language is fluid and ever-changing — not by law and imposition, but by common use — this could change. There's a lesson about this!
Thanks for reading, keep up the good work, and feel free to write to us at
firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments and questions.
As we saw in a previous lesson, Italians are very conscious of formal and informal greetings, and will say hello in different ways depending on the situation. But there’s more. When speaking or writing to someone they must, or want, to treat with respect, they’ll use the polite form of “you”—Lei. This happens to be identical to the word for “she,” lei. To show respect, Lei gets capitalized, together with its possessive pronouns Sua, Sue, Suoi (your, yours) and its object pronouns La and Le (you). Although the capitalization of these pronouns is going out of style, it can be helpful for figuring out who is being talked about. Using the formal “you” is called dare del Lei (giving the formal “you”). The opposite is called dare del tu (giving the informal “you”).
In Ma che ci faccio qui! (But What Am I Doing Here?), Alessio finds himself in an embarrassing situation. (Yes, he’s about to fare brutta figura!) Things have gotten decidedly intimo, but Alessio da ancora del Lei (is still giving the formal “you”) to this woman, and she calls him out on it.
Ma che fai, mi dai ancora del Lei?
What are you doing, you still address me formally?Play Caption
In an episode of Commissario Manara, Lara is trying to get some information from a woman in shock over the death of her employer. Lara uses Lei since she is addressing someone older than her, and whom she doesn’t know. Lara sees the woman is touchy on the subject at hand so she immediately apologizes, even though she’s done nothing wrong.
When the personal pronoun in question is an object, either direct or indirect, it can become part of the verb, as we’ve talked about in a previous lesson. In the example below, the polite “you” is a direct object of the verb offendere (to offend), and becomes part of it (with a respectful capital letter in this case).
Mi scusi, non volevo offenderLa.
I'm sorry, I didn't want to offend you.Play Caption
In another episode, Luca Manara is being polite to his boss, but only on the surface. In this case, the indirect object pronoun is part of the compound verb, riferire a (to report to).
Ma, come, purtroppo Lei mi ricorda, io devo riferirLe tutto, no? -Si aspetta magari che le dica bravo?
But, since, unfortunately you remind me, I have to tell you everything, don't I? -Maybe you're expecting me say, "Good work?"
Captions 25-26, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP2 - Vendemmia tardivaPlay Caption
In the concluding segment of “Vendemmia tardiva,” la zia, as usual, uses her powers of conversazione and intuizione femminile to help solve the crime:
Avevo capito che, in tutti questi anni, è stata innamorata di lui. E per trent'anni gli ha dato del Lei, ma ti rendi conto?
I'd figured out that, for all these years, she'd been in love with him. And for thirty years she addressed him formally, can you imagine that?
Captions 5-6, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP2 - Vendemmia tardivaPlay Caption
Dare del tu (to address informally) or dare del Lei (to address formally) is an important aspect to settle in a new relationship. A common question to ask is: ci possiamo dare del tu? (can we give each other the informal "you?") or, ci diamo del tu? (shall we give each other the informal “you?”). The answer is almost always: sì, certo!
We’ve all heard the informal greeting ciao ("hi" or "bye") and the more formal buongiorno ("good morning" or "hello"). But when is the right—or wrong—time to use them? And what are the variations and alternatives?
In Il Commissario Manara - Un delitto perfetto, a freshly transferred Commissioner is greeting his new boss. He certainly wouldn’t say ciao. He says buongiorno. If it were after noon (technically after 12 noon, but more likely later) he would say buonasera ("good evening," "good afternoon," or "hello").
Buongiorno. -Si può sapere, di grazia, che fine ha fatto?
Good morning. -Can one know, may I ask, where you have been?Play Caption
At the market, Agata is addressing the vegetable vendor with respect. It is polite to add signora (ma’am) or signore (sir) when addressing someone you don’t know well, or when you don’t know their name. Agata’s friend just says a general buongiorno ("good morning") to everyone (a little less formal but still perfectly acceptable):
Signora buongiorno. -Buongiorno. -Volevo fare vedere alla mia amica Catena... -Buongiorno, piacere.
Madam, good morning. -Good morning. -I wanted to show my friend Catena... -Good morning, nice to meet you.
Captions 23-24, L'isola del gusto - Il macco di AuroraPlay Caption
Agata and her friend Catena are still at the market. Catena says buongiorno since she doesn’t know anyone at all. Agata just uses her vendor’s name (Giuseppe) to greet him, and he greets her using the familiar form:
Buongiorno. -Giuseppe! -Ciao Agata.
Good morning. -Giuseppe! -Hi Agata.
Caption 8, L'isola del gusto - Il macco di AuroraPlay Caption
Another vendor is saying goodbye to her customers: ciao to those to she knows well and arrivederci (literally, "until we see each other again") to those she doesn’t:
Grazie. Arrivederci, ciao.
Thanks. Goodbye, bye.
Captions 44-45, L'isola del gusto - Il macco di AuroraPlay Caption
One version of "hello" has a very limited application: pronto. It literally means "ready," and it's how Italians answer the phone:
Pronto, Sicily Cultural Tour. Buongiorno.
Hello, Sicily Cultural Tour. Good morning.
Caption 1, Pianificare - un viaggioPlay Caption
Still another way to greet someone is salve (hello). Less formal than buongiorno, it is still polite and you can use it all by itself. It is especially useful when you’re not sure how formal to be or whether it is morning or afternoon/evening, and when you don’t know or remember the name of the person you are addressing.
Salve, vorrei fare un viaggio alla Valle dei Templi ad Agrigento.
Hello, I'd like to take a trip to the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento.
Caption 2, Pianificare - un viaggioPlay Caption
As you go about your day, try imagining how you might greet the people you meet if you were speaking Italian. Keep in mind the hour, and how well you know the person—and, remember, when in doubt, there is always salve!
To learn more:
A detailed explanation of Forms of Address used in Italian can be found here.