For me, one of the most fascinating things about language consists in the different variations in grammatical “person” that different cultures find necessary. For example, in Tagalog, there are two different ways to say “we.” One of them includes the person spoken to, and the other excludes him. I still haven’t nailed down what exactly is the reason they need this distinction beyond the ability for subtle social snubs, but it’s obviously important to them. Arabic doesn’t include that funny “we,” but it has a plethora of what (to me) seem unnecessary persons. For example, between singular and plural there is a special verbal form called the dual, which is used to talk about two people. Arabic verbs are also conjugated for gender. They have not only a “he” and a “she,” but also masculine and feminine forms of “they.” Even “you” in Arabic is gender specific. Is it my imagination that when people speak to me in Arabic I feel like I’m being told over and over again with every verb how beautiful and feminine I am?
My favourite grammatical distinction, though, is between the formal and informal forms of “you” (tu and lei) in Italian. In fact, I’ve been in love with this distinction for years. I first encountered it in Spanish. My parents made me study Spanish when I was a teenager. I didn’t really like it (I probably would have preferred any language to the one that “belonged” to them). However my mother found a fairly interesting course called Destinos. It was built around a specially produced television series where the characters spoke VERY slowly, and I didn’t mind watching it too much. I remember the plot line only vaguely, but I vividly recall the episode where the man and the woman began using the informal you rather than the formal you with each other. I was enchanted. What could be more romantic than proclaiming your intimacy with every word you spoke to each other? It was mostly lost on me at the time that everyone who was reasonably acquainted used the informal form, and it wasn’t specifically reserved for lovers.
The time I spent as a missionary in Chile only fueled the fire. As missionaries we were supposed to use the formal “you” with everyone except little children (and we weren’t allowed to greet everyone with the cheek kissing either). People I met when I was out with my companion thought it bizarre that we went everywhere together and still used the formal “you” with each other. That tantalizing, forbidden informal verb form continued to fascinate me from a distance, as I jealously listened to everyone else using it with each other. After I came home from my mission, I occasionally used my Spanish at work, but I couldn’t exactly use the informal form with clients at the law firm. So I never got much practice using “tu.”
The only exception is prayer. In both Spanish and Italian, we always use the “tu” form when we pray. I remember my sweet Bolivian mission companion being so sad one day when we met a woman who had never prayed before. When we encouraged her to try it, she addressed God in the formal way. My companion told me afterward that it was so tragic that the woman felt like she couldn’t use the “tu” form with her Father. This is interesting to me, because I have heard more than one talk in General Conference about how we (in English) use “thee” and “thou” in our prayers to show respect and deference to God. I wonder how those talks translate into the Romance languages, where they use the intimate, informal “tu”?
When we first arrived in Italy, I had so much trouble understanding what people were saying, figuring out which Spanish words worked in Italian, and trying to bumble out something resembling coherence that I didn’t worry for a while about formal “lei” and informal “tu.” So when we moved back last month and I walked into Church, I felt like I had walked into heaven when all our old friends immediately started speaking to me in “tu.” And I admit that I blushed crimson and lived off the compliment for a week when the hairdresser I visited to rescue what remained of my hair after a serious disaster (did I not tell you about that? Well, let’s just say that I learned that the Italian word for an egg-sized, hopelessly matted mass of hair is “nodo.” Yes, my hair is now very short) corrected my formal thanks, telling me to use the “tu” with her.
All this pales, though, in comparison with the exquisiteness of my husband actually addressing me in “tu.” He’s doing an intensive Italian study for his work, and it is by far the most romantic thing he’s done since, oh, at least three weeks ago when he found me real Aleppo soap. When he whispers to me in Italian, I just melt in his arms. And how can I not relent immediately when he begs forgiveness in intimately conjugated Italian? Finally, the romantic dreams engendered at fourteen as I watched educational Spanish telenovelas have come to full fruition. Just one more thing to love about living in Italy.