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In this passage from Dostoevsky's Adolescent, Arkady is getting worked up about a mistake his sister is supposedly making in Russian. I was wondering what plural их for singular его is about in the following excerpt:

« — Лиза, я сегодня видел Васина, и он у меня про тебя спросил. Ты знакома?

— Да, в Луге, прошлого года, — совершенно просто ответила она, садясь подле и ласково на меня посмотрев. (…) — Я их месяца три знала, — прибавила Лиза.

— Это ты про Васина говоришь их , Лиза? Надо сказать его , а не их . Извини, сестра, что я поправляю, но мне горько, что воспитанием твоим, кажется, совсем пренебрегли.

— А при матери низко об этом замечать, с твоей стороны, — так и вспыхнула Татьяна Павловна, — и врешь ты, вовсе не пренебрегли.

— Ничего я и не говорю про мать, — резко вступился я, (…) Я только о том негодую, что Версилов, услышав, что ты про Васина выговариваешь их , а не его , наверно, не поправил бы тебя вовсе — до того он высокомерен и равнодушен с нами. Вот что меня бесит! »

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  • For the same reason as you use "you" instead of "thou" when talking about one person :) – dimanne Mar 10 at 8:09
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Russian has the T-V distinction.

This means that you use the plural version of "you" (вы) when addressing a person who is senior, superior, or just someone you're not too acquainted with.

This only works for the second person. If your are talking of someone in third person, you use the singular pronouns and verbs, even if you would have used вы to address them.

Liza is being hypercorrect and uses the polite plural form even in the third person.

This is not the mainstream usage, even though it was used quite widely. Educated people were not supposed to talk like this.

In fact, this pattern was commonly used as a literary device to convey the characters' laughable attempts at imitating the speech of the high class by many Russian writers, from Dostoyevsky to Chekhov to Zoschenko.

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  • I think it rather indicated submissiveness than attempts to imitate high-class speech. Like the -съ – Anixx Apr 1 at 10:44
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Dostoevsky lives centuries ago. His language style is unused now. If I say "их туфли" meaning ONE human, that means I grovel.

But we usually use "вы" talking to some senior, meaning "You are much more experienced than me, I really respect you".

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    please stop mentioning that you're Russian when it's not necessary - it is supposed that anyone who leaves an answer possess a certain expertise and of course the majority of such people are native Russian speakers. – shabunc Mar 9 at 13:48
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    I like pickles btw. – undercat Mar 10 at 0:26

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