This Simple Word Is One of the Hardest to Translate in Any Language

Who knew that such a common word could cause so many inconveniences?

You say this word every day, you see it written out in documents everywhere, and you have already read it three times in this sentence. Yes, the word “you” is actually one of the hardest words to translate in the world.

Now “you” is hardly the most complicated word in the English language. The pronoun has one, maybe two definitions. So how can it be so difficult to translate? The answer is surprisingly more complicated than you’d think. Fortunately, this TED-Ed video breaks it down for us.

The video notes that many languages have different forms of “you” depending on whom the “you” is referring to. This difference in usage is called the T-V distinction. You may remember from high school Spanish class days that there were several ways of saying “you.” If you were chatting with your male or female friend, you would use “tu.” If you were speaking to your male or female teacher, it’d be “usted.” You’d also use “usted” if you were talking to a group of people. Confusing, right? Bear with us.

Theoretically, the speaker respects the teacher (or whoever they’re formally speaking to) as if they’re worth more than just one person. This is why the same “usted” is used to speak to a group of people. Other languages have a gender specific “you.” If you’re speaking to a man, it’s a different form of “you” than if you’re speaking to a woman. “You” might also be different if you were speaking to a child as opposed to an elder.

This even used to be true for the English language. People used to say “thou” as an informal form of “you,” and “you” was more of a formal address. At some point, English speakers omitted informal usages and dropped the T-V distinction. That’s why we say “you” regardless of the context. (Did you know these six romantic words have no English equivalent?)

The final verdict? The reason “you” is so hard to translate is because there are SO many variations of it. The video jokes that hopefully no one will ever have to translate the sentence, “You and you–no, not you–you, your job is to translate ‘you’ for yourselves.” If you think that would be funny, these badly translated signs will have you cracking up.

Popular Videos

Brittany Gibson
Brittany Gibson is a regular contributor to RD.com’s culture, food, health, and travel sections. She was previously an editorial intern for RD.com and Westchester Magazine. Her articles have appeared on Buzzfeed, Business Insider, AOL, Yahoo, and MSN, among other sites. She earned a BA in English from the University of Connecticut