Levels of formality across languages

Levels of formality are key to define the tone of a given speech. Various writing styles, idiomatic expressions, verbal morphology, and pronoun variations may have a different formality level across languages, countries, social groups, or professional domains. These variations may have an impact on those trying to immerse themselves in a different culture.

Across languages, levels of formality can largely be grouped into four categories: formal, neutral, informal, and vulgar.

How formality is represented in different languages

While some languages reflect their level of formality by merely employing a more formal or informal tone, others rely on specific grammar resources to avoid any kind of ambiguity (eg., variation of the second person pronoun “you”). In this article, we will use English, Spanish and French to explain and give some examples of how formality perception can vary depending on the language.

English, simple but effective

English is one of those languages that can solve its register needs without any specific grammar convention. “You” is the only second person subject pronoun in English language, and verb conjugations rarely vary across different subjects. Thus, formality entirely depends on other syntactic elements. The strategies to reinforce the idea of formal, neutral, informal and vulgar speeches are usually based on:

  • Polite ways to address the other person (e.g., using Sir/Madam and conditional questions).
  • Colloquialisms, emotional punctuation and abbreviations (e.g., using exclamation marks and friendly vocabulary).
  • Curt expressions, swearing, slang, copious abbreviations.
  • Simple language, absent added connotation (because the good, if brief, is twice as good)

Spanish, forever young

As opposed to English, Spanish uses two distinct second person pronouns. Simplified, they are used to express formal (“usted”) and informal (“tú”) tones—although each word contains various connotations depending on the age, social group, or other circumstances in which the word is used.

Compared to other languages, Spanish has always had a greater tendency towards the use of an informal tone—a phenomenon that was amplified during the XX century. The use of “tú” usually refers to youth, friendship and kindness, while “usted” sets a solid distance between interlocutors, which can sometimes be associated with a respective treatment. To understand the use of these pronouns in Spanish, we need to understand how Spanish society communicates, as well as the intentions laced within any message we wish to send, and how to best defines the relationship with the people to whom we’re addressing.

Generally, exceptions to the informal form of address in Spanish include:

  • Elder people in general, or unknown groups that are considerably older than us. However, one must tread lightly—some may feel insulted if this form is incorrectly used.
  • Social classes (royalty, aristocracy and very rich people), as a general protocol.
  • Particularly specialized and sensitive domains (formality being associated with difficulty and objectivity.)
  • Rare cases of doubt.

This makes “usted” suitable almost exclusively for formal speeches—leaving “tú” as the go-to for all neutral, informal and casual speeches. Of course, language is not math, and one should always check with a native linguist before making a final decision.

French, elegance is an attitude

French also has two different subject pronouns: one for formal (“vous”), and another for informal (“tu”). However, the related social conventions are completely different than the above mentioned for Spanish. “Vous” is the default in almost all situations that take place outside the family and friends networks; the use of the word is considered a sign of good manners and integration within French culture. Conversely, “tu” gives off a less respectful vibe, which may be negatively received if a close relationship between interlocutors is lacking. For example, “tu” should be avoided when addressing neighbours, professionals, or unknown groups—regardless of their age. One exception is children, who may properly use—and be addressed in—an informal tone.

French is very strict in this regard. Typically, the only exceptions to formal form of address are:

  • Small children
  • Friends and classmates
  • Family
  • Coworkers in modern companies
  • Violent situations
  • When there is express consent

Therefore, “vous” is the appropriate word for well-mannered and educated folks when addressing other adults—even in neutral and informal speeches. Thus, “tu” is reserved for vulgar or merely private communications.

Spain and France, so close yet so far

  • Ask for a lighter in Spain → informal (“tú”)
  • Ask for a lighter in France → formal (“vous”)
  • Develop a carpooling app in Spain → informal (“tú”)
  • Develop a carpooling app in France → formal (“vous”)
  • Build a social media for Spanish postgraduate students → informal (“tú”)
  • Build a social media for French postgraduate students → formal (“vous”)
  • Design a banner for a heavy metal festival in Spain → informal (“tú”)
  • Design a banner for a heavy metal festival in France → formal (“vous”)
  • Write an instruction manual for a 10-year-old child in Spain → informal (“tú”)
  • Write an instruction manual for a 10-year-old child in France → informal (“tu”)
  • A bank notification about the state of our accounts in Spain → formal (“usted”)
  • A bank notification about the state of our accounts in France → formal (“vous”)

The importance of formality in translation

When translating content into different languages, we are usually required to specify how we wish to address our potential audience. However, we rarely properly emphasize the different levels of formality across languages—perhaps because our language is not concerned with such levels, or due to a lack of familiarity with these nuances.

So the question should be:

  • What is your intention when you communicate with your audience?
  • How do you want them to feel when they use your product?
  • Do they have a specific profile?
  • Please give us a quick example of how your content is written.

Once these questions are clarified, it’s the linguist’s role to analyze and reach a conclusion on formality level—depending on the target language’s cultural conventions. Some languages are more direct than others, and what it is considered fresh and dynamic in some cultures can be taken as a sign of disrespect in others. Adapting the style to the target means that our company cares about its clients, and may ultimately be more appealing for potential leads. After all, connecting with people in the right way is key to success in today’s connected world.