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.”

Raymond Chen
Raymond Chen

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  • Avatar
    Victor Agababov

    It’s the same in Spanish I think. When you read books about medieval times they all address peers as vos, rather than usted and reserve tu for subordinates.

  • Avatar
    Tilmann Krüger

    There might be a connection with the “pluralis maiestatis”, or “royal plural”: Since the king or queen would refer to him- or herself as “wir” (“we”, first person, plural), it is only fitting to addess them with “ihr” (second person, plural). And @Victor Agababov, I think all the european languages inherited this custom from the romans. Even the english, although it doesn’t make much of a difference there, as second person is always “you”.

    • Avatar
      Michael Dunn

      It’s called “T/V distinction” in linguistics, because it’s common for the pronouns to start with those letters, such as tu and vous in French. English has thou and related pronouns, although they too are archaic.