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How to Address People in German

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The wrong address to the wrong person at the wrong time can lead to an angry look (if you're lucky) or anything up to civil war (if you're not). English-speaking people abolished the use of 'thou' long ago - and peace, harmony and happiness have dwelt with them ever since. Still, once in a while you all should pity those that aren't as happy as you are, those that are thrown into an abyss of indecisiveness every time they meet new people, those that still have them and use them - the familiar and the polite form of address. Every now and then you should spare a few minutes' time to muse upon their unhappiness and send some harmony thought waves to them - the French-speaking, the Dutch- and Spanish-speaking, Lord knows who else and, well, those poor German-speaking wretches.

The Forms of Address

There are several alternatives for addressing somebody in German, all of which bear different implications. In the following table, all possibilities for addressing a single person are marked as italic:

 Singular Plural
wir (Wir)
ihr (Ihr)
3er, sie, es
he, she, it
sie (Sie)

Second Person Singular: du

Du is the familiar form of address for one person and is something like 'thou' as opposed to 'you'. In contrast to English, this form is still in common use.

The familiar form du is, of course, used between family members. Apart from that, it is also used to address friends and anyone else we love or like. Sometimes it is also a sign of superiority, especially in cases where it is used monolaterally, eg, when adults use du towards children and especially when teachers use it towards their pupils.

For some reason, animals are always addressed with the familiar form, whether we know them or not (eg, a stranger's pet). Only the favourite dogs of the most famous king of Prussia, Friedrich der Große, are known to have been addressed with the polite form by the servants.

First and Second Person Plural: Ihr and Wir

The Wir form of address was developed during the Middle Ages and was based on the pluralis maiestatis. It was common to hear emperors, kings and princes speak of themselves as Wir and, accordingly, they demanded to be addressed as Ihr.

Second person plural is used in French (vous) as the polite form. English and German did that too, but have abandoned it. However, some variants of Plattdeutsch that are spoken as local idioms in rural areas do use Ihr as a formal address.

Quite similarly to English, the first person plural Wir is often used by medical personnel: 'How are we feeling today' can be translated into German as Und wie fühlen wir uns heute?

Third Person Plural: Sie

Sie translates as 'they', and is used as 'they', too. It also serves as the polite form of address for a single person. In writing, the plural sie (meaning 'they') and the formal Sie can be distinguished because the singular and formal Sie is usually written with a capital 'S'. However, German grammar rules have been changed and both forms can be written in lower case now.

The main characteristic of the polite form is to express distance and respect. It can be used with esteem and regard for the person one is talking to, but it may just as well serve to keep them out of one's private sphere, out of the elect circle of people you converse with in the familiar form. Used in this way, the polite form alone can even express mild dislike.

Third Person Singular: Er

From the beginning of the Renaissance until far into the 16th Century, Ihr gradually shifted downwards, in a manner of speaking. It was no longer the form of address exclusively for monarchs and noblemen and women. It was also used towards peers, courtiers, high-ranking officers and renowned citizens. Something new had to be thought of for the real high society. So those that deemed themselves better than the rest started addressing each other with the third person singular, 'Er', to create distance between 'lower' social groups. Needless to say, your dignified monarch and princes did not join in this childish game, but they used the newly-invented 'er' condescendingly towards its inventors and enjoyed their little joke a lot.

Here we finally arrive at today's polite form, by smoothly blending the distance of the third person singular with the pluralis maiestatis.

Now When Exactly Do I Use Which Form?

Good question, difficult answer. When learning German as a native language, you develop a kind of feeling for the right form to use. But still, even native speakers put their foot in it quite often. To avoid this, people sometimes try to circumvent a direct approach by using convoluted structures involving wir or man (the impersonal form equivalent to the English 'one'), eg, in Wir sollten/man sollte die Arbeit bald erledigen! - although it is quite obvious exactly who is supposed to do that work rather soon.

The general rule is to use the polite Sie for anyone older than 16, but school is the only place where this rule is strictly applied. Teachers have to address students with the polite form from class 11 on, which is roughly at the age of 16. This Researcher very well remembers the scene when a teacher entered the class on the first day of a new year and politely asked which form he should use. The whole class burst out in laughter when someone from the rear of the classroom loudly replied Sag doch einfach 'Du' (as opposed to Sagen Sie doch einfach 'Du').

Young people address each other with the familiar form up to their mid-30s, provided they get to know each other under informal circumstances, eg, at a party, or at a rafting tour. Although if one of the young people is a shop assistant and the other is a customer then they would use Sie. Then again, if the shop happens to be a record shop or a comic store or something hip, they will both use Du. The Sie rule applies between waiter and guest in a restaurant, cafe or pub. Unless it is a place for students and the like, where Du is the right form to use. Confusing, isn't it?

Those are the rules concerning people between 15 and 35, but what if you're older or younger? At those ages everything is a whole lot easier. For schoolchildren the rule of thumb is that anyone who has finished school is a Sie. People who have crossed the magical border of the mid-30s usually come closer to the 'always-Sie' rule the older they are.

A warning to all native English speakers out there - the use of the Christian name in English and the use of the familiar form in German are not analogous. And please, don't use the polite form and Christian name together. This construction sounds horrible to a native's ears and can be found in British and American films that have been dubbed into German, within the confines of large international companies or sometimes in game shows on TV when the host addresses a candidate.

How Do I Switch Over From Sie To Du?

For Germans, switching over from 'Sie' to 'Du' is something similar to tearing down the wall between your and your neighbour's estate.

In case you're not a native speaker, the answer is simple - you'd better not. If you are considerably younger than a colleage, you don't. If you're roughly of the same age as your colleagues, but were the last one to enter the circle, you don't. In all these cases, you'll have to wait until a senior (or more long-standing) member of the group offers the Du.

Usually, this move is introduced by stating that you've been working with the team for so long now and that now the time has come to use Du, and that Du will make things so much easier and that everybody wondered why nobody had this idea at an earlier instant and, well, my name is Fritz. Next thing to follow is a very firm shake of hands or a beer, or both. Congratulations, you have been credited membership of the inner circle around Fritz! From now on, you may proudly announce that you are 'per Du' with Fritz whenever his name is mentioned in a conversation, and this can yield lots of a-has and faces that express acknowledgment or even envy.

There's only one possible translation for 'I love you', and that's Ich liebe Dich. For this reason, one of the hardest parts of dubbing an English film into German is deciding when the hero and heroine switch from Sie to Du because naturally there is no scene that covers the question Wollen wir nicht Du sagen? ('Why don't we switch over to Du?')

Finally, just as if there weren't enough rules and exceptions, everybody is a Du when your team goes out for an evening at the bowling alley. Sticking to Sie is a mistake which can be expensive because you might have to throw a round of drinks for the 'offence'. Still, keep in mind that, unless you have gone through this semi-official ceremony, this Du will be forgotten by the morning of your next working day.

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