My summer vacation: Watching a German movie on the plane and learning some language history

Raymond Chen

When I travel on an airplane, I like to watch movies in German because it gives me a chance to practice my aural decoding, which has always been a weak spot of mine.

One movie was Der Vorname, which was put in the “Comedy” category, but it’s a comedy like the Alan Alda movie The Four Seasons is a comedy. I.e., not actually a comedy.

I tried to redeem my bad choice by watching a German-dubbed Shrek. I noticed that Shrek and Princess Fiona address each other as ihr, which is the second-person familiar plural. Why is that?

A colleague of mine explained that ihr is an archaic form of the second person pronoun. It’s used in fairy tales, so the movie uses it to capture the fairy-tale feeling.

However, Shrek and Donkey address each other as du (second person informal), not ihr.

My colleague thought about it some more and realized that he had made a mistake. “Ihr is the archaic second person formal, corresponding to modern Sie. And as a general rule, nobody is formal with a donkey.”