How To Use Formal & Informal Correctly In Greek

Have you ever felt confused with these two questions? Τι κάνεις; and Τι κάνετε; Which one to use with a friend? Which one to use in a formal context? And which one to use with many people?

If you already know some Greek, you know their meaning: Τι κάνεις; [How are you? Comment vas-tu?] Τι κάνετε; [How are you? Comment allez-vous?]. But how about their use?

For French speakers, the distinction seems obvious (keep reading, however; this post might surprise you!).

For English speakers or for students who learn Greek through English and do not have this distinction between singular and plural or plural for politeness in their own mother tongue, the use of formal and informal might be complicated to learn and use.

In this post, I will help you distinguish these two forms and learn how and when to use them when you speak Greek. 

French Politeness

Let's jump back in history for a while. Sometime during the 19th century when French was the language of commerce, politics, diplomacy (et aussi de tout ce qui est beau if you allow me the comment!), Greek language borrowed the French personal pronoun “vous” [εσείς: you, plural] to address one person in a superior position.

For example, someone who was rich, had power and influence on others.

Until that time, the Greek language didn’t have this distinction.

It’s interesting that in Ancient Greek there was absolutely no special word or phrasing to address those in power or the elders.

The personal pronoun was simply σύ [you, one person] and ὑμεῖς [you, many people]. If you already read Greek and you’re interested in Ancient Greek as well, there is this nice article about it.

Bottom line is, politeness and respect had different ways to be expressed among people; plural for politeness came much later.

One, Many and Formal Context

Fast forward to modern Greece, things are somewhere in between.

When you learn Greek, it is common to find it initially hard to know when to use what.

After all, Grammar seems very clear, but politeness is not a Grammar thing, it is social.

Let’s break this down, shall we?

If you ask your friend Kostas how is he, then the question will look like this:

  • Τι κάνεις, Κώστα; [How are you Kosta?]

Grammar says: Kostas is one person so you simply need to use the singular form “Τι κάνεις;”

If you ask your friend Kostas and Maria how they are, then you might ask something like this:

  • Τι κάνετε (Κώστα και Μαρία); [How are you Kosta and Maria?]

Grammar says: Kostas and Maria are two people and you are asking them both so you use plural.

What’s this plural for politeness, then?

Let’s see what’s socially acceptable to ask - in most cases (Yep, hold on).

1.a. Τι κάνεις Κώστα; [How are you Kosta?]

Kostas is your friend, so you ask him in a friendly, informal way. This is why you use singular.

1.b. Τι κάνετε, κύριε Κώστα; [How are you Mr. Kosta?]

Kostas is still one person, however the context is formal and we use both Mr and the plural for politeness - which, by the way,  is the exact same form we use for plural or simply put, many people such as Kostas and Maria.

Let’s see one more example.

2.a. Λουίζα, είσαι εδώ; [Louisa, are you here?]

Louisa is someone you know well or she might be your child, your niece etc. In any case, the context is informal so you address her in a singular way. Politeness is defined by the way you ask, your face expression, tone, intention and pitch, not the grammatical number you use.

2.b. Κυρία Αντωνίου, είστε εδώ; [Ms Antoniou, are you here?] 

Ms Antoniou is someone you don’t know that well or she is a senior, she is your supervisor or manager or elder aunt. In any case, the context is formal and you speak to her in plural. Politeness is defined by the way you speak and the grammatical number you use.

So is it always the case? No. And this is where things get interesting.

Politeness Is A Social Thing!

In Greece, the recent past of addressing someone according to simply being one or many, along with the specific cultural factors, e.g. expressing proximity and familiarity or on the opposite, acting cold, both contributed to a more complicated use of plural for politeness.

Here’s a list of situations in which you can usually use this type of plural:

  • speaking to a superior (manager, supervisor, director etc)
  • speaking to a senior, an elder person
  • speaking to someone you don’t know, e.g. in the street, or the shop

And here’s a list of situations where you can usually choose the plural for politeness:

  • when you want to be polite with all the people above
  • when you want to create a distance between you and the other person, e.g. when you’re offended and would rather react cold
  • when you want to honor someone
  • when you are speaking to someone you know or a child in a fun, playful way, you might ask “Τι κάνετε, πώς είστε;” and continue the conversation in singular.

However, since politeness is not just defined by the grammatical number, you can equally be polite by using the singular:

  • if someone speaks to you in singular, even if they don’t know you
  • if you feel some kind of proximity, for example chatting with the person next to you in the bus, who might be as well a senior!

By understanding that politeness is used by the intention, tone, pitch you have, and in addition the grammatical number of choice in any given circumstances (εσύ / εσείς), using it in Greek eventually becomes a habit. (So... you're nearly there!)

Yes, it might initially seem as one more thing to remember, but language is far from mere words, isn't it? 

It’s also expression of feelings, cultural norms and complex systems of communicating with each other.

And I bet these are some of the reasons we love learning it.

Do you find it clear how to use formal and informal in Greek? Let me know in the comments!

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