My summer vacation: Speaking German (wait, what?)

Raymond Chen

Raymond

It was during our family summer vacation to England and France that I spoke German out of necessity, rather than doing so just for fun.

And I wasn’t even in Germany.

We were traveling on the Paris Métro, and the two people opposite us were speaking to each other in their own language. One was sitting and the other was standing, so they were effectively shouting to one another because the train was so noisy. Hardly a private conversation.

My wife (not a German speaker) asked me if it was German they were speaking, and I confirmed.

This got the attention of one of the Germans, and I broke the awkwardness by engaging in some small talk.

“Where are you from?”

“How long will you be here?”

“You should come visit Germany next time!”

My algorithm for deciding whether to use Sie (formal second person) or du (informal second person) is simple.

If it is not a social situation, then I use Sie. Examples: Buying tickets, asking for directions.

If it is a social situation, then avoid using the pronoun as long as possible, employing circumlocution to defer the inevitable. “Is there an X?” versus “Do you have an X?” for example.

Eventually, the other person will choose a pronoun, and then I go along with it. Fortunately, in this case, the man on the train chose one before I was forced to. He went for Sie.

This contrasted with my experience in the United States, where German speakers seem to be more likely to use du in social situations, even with people they are meeting for the first time. Maybe spending so many years in the United States caused them to recalibrate their formal/informal meters.

Bonus chatter: English, German, and Swedish each went in a different direction with respect to formal and informal address. We start with this:

LanguageInformal singularInformal pluralFormal
Germanduihrihr
Swedishdunini
Englishthouyouyou

All three languages agreed that formal address is accomplished by using the informal plural.

By the 20th century, formal address in Sweden shifted to addressing the person by their title or name, depending on the situation. The use of ni was considered rude because using it implied that the person you’re talking to wasn’t important enough to merit being addressed by title or name.

Today, we have this:

LanguageInformal singularInformal pluralFormal
GermanduihrSie
Swedishdunidu
Englishyouyouyou

German switched to using the third person plural pronoun (capitalized) for formal address.

English abandoned the informal address and shifted to using the formal you for everybody. Informal address is still used for backward compatibility (e.g., in prayers) or to create an old-fashioned atmosphere.

Swedish underwent Du reform in the 1960s, wherein the complex system of address was replaced by just using du for everybody.

I discussed the topic some time ago, to which I defer.

Raymond Chen
Raymond Chen

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12 comments

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  • Avatar
    Julien Oster

    As a German having lived in the US for five years, this got me wondering what I would use. It’s true that in most situations where I meet Germans here I end up using “du”. But is that maybe just because the situations where you meet a fellow German in the US are more likely to be that informal?

    Would that train situation have occurred here in the US… I probably would still have used “Sie”. It’s very very subtle, there are of course no definitive rules, and it will vary from person to person. However, you were there with your family, and this creates some form of formality already. If you were sitting opposite of me in the train alone, wearing casual clothing, I would have used “du”. Casual clothing with family: “Sie”. Business attire, alone: Also “Sie”. Significantly older than me: “Sie”. Significantly older than me, but obviously on the way to a (rock or pop) concert or festival: “Du”. Significantly younger (adult) than me: Just slightly more likely to use “du”, still “Sie” if in business attire or with family for example. Anyone who I have previously met at any informal situation (someone’s birthday party, students at the same university at the same time even if we did not talk, friends of a mutual friend at the same Biergarten table): Overrides everything, it’s now “du”.

    This is obviously me making situations up, in real situations other subtle details may shift it in either direction. Germans understand that it’s hard, and won’t fault you for anything.

    • Avatar
      Christoph Schwerdtfeger

      As a German living in Germany I would second that behavior.
      If I meet someone unknown to me I always use “Sie” except when the person is a teen or younger. Your last example with the festival is non-formal by default, so it’s “du”.

      I was once talked at using “Sie” by a teenage girl standing in line at a McDonalds – that time I was 25 or so and I felt very old…

  • Avatar
    Алексей Евдокимов

    And Russian still can’t decide if it is good with вы (non-capitalized) or Вы (capitalized) on formal occasions with undefined amount of persons. In a conversation with a single person it is a definite Вы, but if there are probably more… nobody knows.

  • Avatar
    Brian MacKay

    Being from Montreal (though a native English speaker), I grew up with “tu” (singular, informal) and “vous” (plural or formal). You are more likely to hear “tu” in Quebec than you are in France. Occasionally, feathers will get ruffled when Quebecois visiting France misjudge the formality of the situation.

    But, I’ve lived in Texas for 20 years now. I explain to folks from outside Texas that the rules here are similar to French: “you” is the singular informal, while “y’all” is the plural or formal.

    • Ian Yates
      Ian Yates

      Y’all is about the most informal, nails on a chalkboard, thing that could be used to refer to a group of people – at least here in Australia.

      Ya is the informal you. Yous (you, pluralised) or yas (ya pluralised) is the super informal plural. And both of them are best said when you happen to have a beer in hand and that’s it – in my very humble opinion of course!

  • Andrew Brehm
    Andrew Brehm

    Technically you have to capitalize Du and Ihr as well when they are used to address someone.

  • Avatar
    cheong00

    Need clarification.

    I thought the English “Informal plural” form should be “them”, right? Or does “Informal plural” refer to something other than “pronoun you use to refer to multiple objects informally”?

      • Avatar
        MNGoldenEagle

        Y’all is the closest to a word in American English I can think of that qualifies as informal plural, but it’s a regional dialect and doesn’t apply across the language. Most people I know will say “you”, “guys”, “you guys”, or “everybody” when addressing a group of people, and none of it is strictly consistent.

  • Avatar
    Richard Cox

    An error. In older English “thou” was the informal form, and “you” (or rather, “ye” from which “you” has evolved) was the formal.

    Today most cases of thou appear to be formal, but that is 1. they’re old and the language was more formal, and 2. the bible. In the latter case remember the influence of the Reformation and having a personal relationship with God.