In English, we have a single word for the second person singular and the second person plural . If those grammatical terms are too complicated for you right now, bear with me as I explain.
The word ‘you’ is the personal pronoun of choice whether we are addressing one person directly, or a group of people directly. Neither the number of people we are addressing, nor the relationship we have with those people (manager-employee, teacher-student, parent-child, friend, cousin etc), influences the form of the personal pronoun because in the English language, it’s all the same to us!
In Russian, on the other hand, these factors are important. The pronoun used to address a single person is dependent on: (1) that person’s relationship to you; and (2) the number of people being addressed. Let’s take a look at how the pronoun used changes according to circumstance.
a. To address one person with whom you need to maintain a level of formality (such as a police officer), you would use the pronoun вы.
b. To address one person with whom you have an informal relationship (such as your best friend), you would use the pronoun ты.
c. To address a group of people, irrespective of their relationship with you, you would use the pronoun вы.
Want a cool fact that might come in handy at the next pub quiz? Historically, English did possess a formal ‘you’ and a ‘informal’ you which varied according to number. You’ll probably recognise them from having read Shakespeare at school, King James bibles, or watching period dramas – thou and thee (singular) and you and ye (plural). Back then, the English case system was alive and kicking. The first word in the pair was the nominative case pronoun, whilst the second word was the accusative case pronoun. More on that and how it connects to Russian here (the nominative case) and here (the accusative case).
Sometime around the 14th century, folks in the Middle Ages begin to use the plural forms you and ye to address a single person in order to show respect and so began the unstoppable march towards using a single form of address with everyone – ‘you’ – by society, lest one be perceived as rude. The turn of the 17th century saw thou and thee used on an informal basis only, or by superiors to their subordinates. Today, these pronouns continue to be used in dialects found throughout the UK (for example, in Yorkshire and Sheffield in England and in older communities in Wales) as well as in certain communities in America, such as the Quakers.
I can sense you trembling now as the following thoughts begin racing through your mind:What type of people do I need to show respect to??? How will I know when it’s appropriate to use ты with someone??? What a headache – why doesn’t Russian simply get rid of one of the forms as we’ve done in English!
When you’re new to a language with such a concept, it can be tough to get your head around this difference, I know. So, to help you out, I’ve created a colourful flow chart that breaks it down and makes it easier for you to learn how to use вы and ты correctly!
When using the chart below, remember that although you may be advised to use the polite form of address вы in the first instance, at some point (which could be on the day you meet someone, or after having spent much time getting to know them), you may be invited to use the informal form ты. If you ever make it to that stage, congratulations – you’ve either found a really friendly person, or made a friend!
Want to thank me? Simply leave a comment in below, or leave a story about a major faux-pas you made addressing someone in Russian!