In Afrikaans, it is considered very disrespectful to use "you" ( "jy") when referring to someone who is above the level of a peer. Instead, it is expected that you use "u", which is a very respectful form of "you". Also you can talk in the third person "How is ma'am today" would be the equivalent.

I cringe internally when I say "How are you" to someone older than me, because in Afrikaans it would be very rude. I was bought up to only ever refer to my parents in the third person. "how is mom today", "what is dad doing" when speaking in Afrikaans. The lack of English equivalent feels very wrong and disrespectful.

What is the best way to convey this in English? I have been reassured that saying "you" to a parent isn't rude, and I understand that this can be cultural, but I'm particularly looking for what options English offers in this regard, as far as existing vocabulary, that convey respect. I'm in South Africa.

  • Interesting. Talking to someone in the third person, seems playful and may be perceived as condescending or strained if you do not know the person, in AmE. Doing this with one's parents would be fine, however. I suggest you still use you but add some address to convey respect. "Mr. X or Sir, can I help you with something?"
    – Mike
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 10:38
  • 2
    I understand the problem because my wife is of Chinese descent. It is normal for younger siblings to use an honorfic form for older brothers and sisters and their spouses. But as they speak to me in English they will tend to say 'Brother Bill', otherwise plain Bill would sound too familiar, they being younger than me. English is a poor language for conveying respect for seniority.
    – WS2
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 11:21
  • 4
    @WS2: I must beg to differ, sir. Even though you are older than me (and I certainly hope I don't have a history of appearing disrespectful to you! :) the problem with me using forms like that first sentence isn't because English isn't good at conveying respect for seniority - it's that Anglophones in general (being major representatives of "Western civilisation") prefer to avoid respectful usages in informal contexts (since they're often seen as facetious). Commented May 25, 2014 at 12:09
  • 1
    Conveying respect is a cultural "thing", puhleeze !! Commented May 25, 2014 at 12:51
  • 4
    Very strange off-topic closure. Isn't the proper way to use terms of respect the most essential part of using a language? Everything else is secondary when they refuse to listen to you anymore :) Commented May 26, 2014 at 23:25

5 Answers 5


I think you is the polite form (u). The less polite form is thou (jy), but us Brits, polite as ever, now call everyone by the the polite form and thou fell by the wayside a long time ago.

Thou barely ever surfaces in normal English unless you want something to sound historical, but it is still in Holier than thou and used to be (20th century) common in regional dialects from Yorkshire and parts of the Midlands (anyone can feel free to correct my geography).

So you shouldn't feel so bad using you it's not the same you (jy) that you think it is.

  • 1
    Lancashire, too, although there may be some detail differences.
    – DaveP
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 12:19
  • 2
    A great answer that shows that, although it has been inexplicably put on hold as off-topic, this question is indeed about the English language.
    – senderle
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 17:56
  • @senderle off-topic means something else on this SE, I have no idea what though.
    – Frank
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 18:06

You haven't stated where you are currently located (if not in South Africa); how your question should be answered will depend both on your location and your social setting. So I will respond in general terms.

You should be aware that in the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand at least, expectations of social deference and the conventions of traditional hierarchy are generally much less pronounced today than they were before the social upheavals of the mid-20th century -- especially, perhaps, within the bounds of individual social milieus.

You could nevertheless sprinkle your exchanges with those to whom you wish to demonstrate respect with the occasional sir and ma'am (especially in the southern states of the USA, where some of the older formulations of gentility still cling on to some degree); this in addition to the instances of "excuse me", "please" and "thank you" which I'm guessing already come naturally to you.

Just be aware that where such obvious signals of deference are not usually expected (as in the UK, for instance), it can be almost as easy to alienate one's audience through over-politeness as through over-familiarity. If I addressed one of my parents the way you apparently address yours, they would wonder (probably rightly) what was wrong with me. Generally speaking, if you just exhibit general considerateness towards the person you are talking to you won't go far amiss.

Your statement, "The lack of English equivalent [to third-person modes of address] feels very wrong and disrespectful" seems to me to be overlooking one of the most important factors connected with a successful interaction -- namely, the necessity to help your interlocutor to feel at ease rather than to focus on your own conceptions of what you think polite behaviour ought to consist of.

Such a result is achieved differently in different social and geographical settings; bear in mind that the conventions and social institutions that exist in American and British society (etc.) are considerably different to those of South Africa.

  • 1
    I know this doesn't directly address the question but, I have spent some of my adult life living in Asia, and have been on many visits there. Some advice I was given as a young person was that you will never go too far wrong in a foreign setting if you behave in a way which is generally considered courteous in your own country. Rather than go overboard trying to accommodate new manners, it may be a lot more effective simply to smarten up the ones your mother taught you.
    – WS2
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 11:29
  • 1
    Quite right, Erik. When in America, do as the English do. Commented May 25, 2014 at 14:02
  • 1
    @WS2 I suspect that the person who gave you that advice knew you weren't from New England. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 14:08
  • You say bear in mind that the conventions and social institutions that exist in American and British society are considerably different to Soutj Africa. On the contrary the English-speaking South Africans seem quintessentially in the cultural mold of British/Australian/New Zealand people. (Indeed over a million of them hold British passports) And Afrikaans-speakers are dealing with them on a daily basis. So I wouldn't have thought there were great social hurdles to cross here. The Boer War ended over a century ago!
    – WS2
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 8:13
  • @WS2 - Despite making two edits after her original posting after my strong hint that it would be useful to know more about the context of her query, the OP hasn't favoured us with a clarification. So I still have no idea where she is located. However, let's assume for now that you're right to infer she is still in SA and regularly deals with her English-speaking compatriots. In that case, she would be familiar with their usual modes of address and wouldn't need to ask about them here. So I infer that she isn't actually in SA, and therefore think my generic reply to her remains perfectly valid.
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 8:31

Same in Dutch when I was growing up. That's been disappearing rapidly in the past two decades. I started noticing when my mom insisted that she wanted to be addressed as jij instead of U. Took me a while to get used to :)

"You" in English used to be the equivalent of U, 2nd person plural pronoun (jullie in Dutch). Same idea as the French "Vouz". "Thou" used to be 2nd person singular, equivalent of jij. The distinction has disappeared completely and thou became archaic and often misinterpreted as the formal form. You can't say "How art thou?", it sounds respectful but will draw some funny looks :) You can say "How are you today, Sir" if you want to but it is hardly necessary. You'd use it in a chat with the President.

The loss of a distinctive 2nd person plural pronoun in English is pretty painful to a Duch guy like me that's got it ingrained in the brain. I'm not alone, it is a problem that's solved with regional variations. Y'all is popular in the Southern USA, "You guys" is pretty well spread, "Youse" has pockets of usage. I personally liked "Yunz" near Pittsburgh, not infrequently mangled into "Yunzes" :) Much to the chagrin of my wife that grew up near there and still considers it an abomination, so I have to use y'all.

  • 2
    Voting this up, because "Sir" and "Ma'am" are the answer (at least in the US. I don't know how they will be taken in the UK where some folks are actually entitled to that form of address via knighthood).
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 13:31
  • FWIW: Where I grew up, "y'all" was not to be used, but "you all" was common. A weird distinction, I know, but the former would get you looked down upon, while the latter was perfectly normal usage. If you are in the US, you might consider consulting this map
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 13:47
  • @T.E.D. iirc, in Texas "y'all" is singular ("how are y'all doing?") and the plural is "all y'all" ("how are all y'all?").
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 19:25
  • @ChrisW - Turns out the existence of singular y'all is very contraversial. If you have some good evidence of its existence, I'd suggest submitting it to the appropriate sources. "All y'all" is said to typically mean a larger amount than just two. Sort of an inclusive plural (where y'all might mean more than one, but not everyone). That's certainly a better match with my experience.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 15:14
  • @T.E.D. I didn't grow up using "sir" and "ma'am," but it's used a lot where I am now. I like that (with the right voicing) it conveys respect without undue reverence. To combat that "hardly necessary" feel Hans mentions, I find myself juxtaposing formalities by using using more relaxed speech, punctuated by the title. A classic example sounds like, "How ya doin', sir?"
    – zourtney
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 22:45

The distinction between formal and familiar forms of "you" exists in French: see for example this French Wikipedia article -- Tutoiement et vouvoiement -- but it doesn't exist or it's archaic/obsolete in English (which is why I had to link to a French-language Wikipedia article).

Actually I'm wrong, there is an English-language article on the subject, here: T–V distinction

One relic is in the use of "royal we" by royalty ...

I am wondering what is the best means of showing respect in English to a parent, a parents friend, or someone older

You would have to use other signs of politeness or of deference: for example speak when spoken to or whatever the senior person likes. There's no purely-linguistic or grammatical formula.

  • And spanish has Tú vs. Usted, and German du vs Sie. I think English is quite unusual in not having the distinction. Commented May 25, 2014 at 20:43

I think the US, respect tends to be expressed with posture, attitude, and content of what you say rather than with the use of specific words. Formalisms such as specific honorifics tend to feel stilted (although as others have noted, there are regional variations), but wouldn't be offensive.

  • Depends on the context. If they're used when a situation doesn't really call for them, they can (and often do) come across as sarcasm or an implication that someone is really old. Not interpretations you want if you're genuinely trying to show respect.
    – cHao
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 18:26