I have learned from Avva that Swedish, which used to have a formal/informal pronoun distinction Ni/du comparable to French vous/tu or German Sie/du, has virtually lost it, and the change occurred in a remarkably short time. The origins of the change are recounted in a fascinating discussion at soc.culture.nordic; as Jan Böhme explains,

Bror Rexed, when he became General Director [of] the National Board of Social Issues and Medicine (Socialstyrelsen), in 1968(?), issued a formal decree[…] that he wanted to be called by first name and “du”, and expected the rest of the staff to do the same.

The development was considerably speeded up when Olof Palme, as new Prime Minister in 1969, let reporters call him “du” on live broadcasts.

One reason the change occurred so quickly is that Swedes traditionally addressed anyone with a title by that title, using the third person: “Would the professor like more tea?” (Jan Böhme’s father was called “Mr. Appeals Court Justice” until the late ’60s.) Thus the use of “Ni” was slightly derogatory, implying that one’s interlocutor had no title or office worth bothering about. With that kind of system, it must have been a relief to start using one pronoun for everybody. The interesting thing is that, according to Jon Kåre in the same discussion,

Norway almost immediately followed Sweden in adopting “du”, although our polite form of address was simply “De”. That is, the system was like in French or German, and not at all like in Swedish.

If anyone knows anything more about this, please leave a comment.

Avva speculates on the possibility that Russian itself might lose its parallel Vy/ty distinction within a generation, since young people routinely use “ty” with each other, but decides it’s unlikely because of the ingrained use of the distinction to reinforce subordination in the workplace: the boss addresses his underlings as “ty” and they must respond with “Vy.” Avva despises this (as would I), but since he lives in Israel he doesn’t have to put up with it.

Addendum. Avva points me to a discussion by Dmitri Evmenov of the origin and history of Swedish Ni; it was originally I, borrowed from German, and became Ni through reanalysis (ären I > äre ni).

Further addendum. Des says Ni is making a comeback (thanks to SAS)! See comment #4 within.


  1. Steve,

    Dmitri Evmenov brings more interesting
    information about the Swedish Ni here
    (in Russian):

  2. The same thing seems to have happened in English, although I was told in reverse – in that the intimate form [thou, thee, thy, thine] was abandoned precisely because Puritan Protestants had insisted on democratically addressing everyone, including God, in the intimate — and therefore
    a] irritating everyone else, and
    b] paradoxically tainting thee, thou etc [by association with God] with the feel of the _formal_. In my experience most English speakers today sincerely believe that you-you-your-yours is/was the _intimate_ half of the pair, despite its obvious resemblance to the formal ‘vous’, and thou’s obvious resemblance to ‘tu’.

    My mother today lives in part of Yorkshire where ordinary people still use the thou-thee-thy-thine form every day, though generally in the form of a muttered “th’- ” tacked onto the front of the sentence. There must be many other such outposts. [Vermont, Steve? Tennessee?]

    But is this story of thee and thou becoming seen as formal, correct?

    When I was brought up as a Quaker in Manchester, I was taught not to use Mr or Mrs or Miss at all [so going a whole step beyond the Ms reform] and just say “Mary Wilson” or “John Peterson” at all times. So the Puritan insistence on linguistic democracy seems to still be in place.

  3. Mark: Thanks for bringing up the issue; I was pretty sure it wasn’t the Puritans and/or Quakers who were responsible, but I didn’t know what was, and it turns out nobody else is sure either. I did some research and wrote an entry on the subject that I think will be of interest to you.

    Avva: Thanks! I’ll add an Addendum on that.

  4. Recently “ni” has made something of a comeback as a polite form (ugh!); my Swedish teacher says this was pioneered by SAS (the airline) to emphasise their commitment to service (double ugh). Since the original change was called “the du reform”, I’ve been calling this the “du counter-reformation”. If I ever make it to Sweden I’ll report on how far the rot has spread…

  5. I would be very sad to see the T/V distinction in Russian go. However, it is alive even with relatively small differences in age. Here’s my little story…

    I was infatuated with one of our teachers in Russia. She was only 23 (three and a half years older than me), but since she was a teacher, I had to call her “vy”, and her me. When we got to know each other better, we would address each other as “ty” alone, but then switch to “vy” at the university. It wasn’t until everyone already knew that we had become friends that we started using “ty” around everyone else. And by then I’d already determined that she wasn’t interested. 🙂

  6. I’m surprised about the Vy/ty etiquette in the workplace. In German (at least in Vienna) it would be considered highly improper for one person to address another as “Sie” and the other to respond with “du” unless he/she were proposing to start on a mutual “per du” basis. The same etiquette applies to the use of first and last names – my boss was in the habit of addresssing her American staff by their first names and the Austrians as “Herr/Frau…”, while we all called her “Frau…” An Austrian friend told me she was out of line – she should have addressed us all formally (but of course as Americans we couldn’t care less).

  7. Can anyone comment on the use or otherwise of the honorific plural form before the Reformation?
    What I want to know is whether people before the Reformation, who did not have access to Reformation own-language Bibles, in which distinctions were presumably made right across Europe on the basis of singular and plural form only (am I right?), used the singular form or the honorific plural form in addressing God.
    Or do we only have record of prayers in Latin, where the issue presumably didn’t arise?
    When did the honorific plural form come into existence in Gaelic, English, French, German?
    Kind regards
    Peter Reynolds

  8. In Sweden there was an alternative way of addressing someone politely besides title.
    That was using the words for him and her. “Kan han vara så vänlig och se efter en gång till?”
    “Could he be so kind and please look again?”
    han = him/he
    hon = her/she
    This practise was very common and is still in use
    in some places today.

  9. When I lived in Germany years ago it was de regueur to use the du-ihr/Sie system. I found it quite nice as you would come to know how someone felt about you and you could make distinctions between acquaintances and real friends. When I found someone I truly liked and we finally duzt each other I was very happy and could show this off in public. Today, I think, people one does not even know will say du so it has lost its charm, sadly I think.

  10. “Oh, what sad times are these when passing ruffians can say Ni at will to old ladies.”
    I’ve heard the loss of thou in English blamed on the rise of the middle class: social rank became muddled, and people said you more often to be on the safe side.
    In the comic strip Gaston Lagaffe, an office manager calls his underlings vous and they call him tu. Perhaps this is only a symbol of the chaotic lack of discipline in that office.

  11. Oh, I guess it was here that I heard that.

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