Du versus Sie: the usage of You in German

German has several forms of the pronoun “you”. The “du” form is the singular informal you, and the “Sie” form is the formal you. I think that for us North Americans, it might sometimes feel awkward for us to use “Sie” as we tend to be more casual. If I am not paying attention, I sometimes accidentally use the “du” form.

Perhaps using “du” for an English speaker feels more natural because we just have the one form of “you” in English (formal and informal, singular and plural).

When I was an exchange student in Köln back in 1994-1995, I addressed my school friends and other people my age using “du” and “ihr” (“ihr” being the informal you – kind of like y’all), my host families as “du” and “ihr” and everyone else as “Sie”. I was always a little surprised when my German friends’ parents were also included in the formal “Sie” category, but I knew that it was respectful to address older people as “Sie”.

I was more surprised that my German host mother always addressed her very good friend as “Sie”. When I asked her about it, she said that even though they had known each other for years, using “Sie” with each other was a sign of respect for her friend.

I think that the rules have relaxed since then. Our friend Rafael in Mannheim, who is our age, tells me that nearly everyone in his age group and younger uses “du” with each other (we are in our early thirties, in case anyone is wondering!). And indeed, I have definitely found this to be true.

In 2006, during the World Cup, I was in Hamburg with a group of German students. When my students were in their classes during the day, I spent much of the time with the other teachers at the school. Nearly all of them addressed each other using the informal “du”. One notable except was an older teacher, close to retirement age, who still insisted on using “Sie” with everyone. I asked him about it and he sighed a little, and told me he uses it as a sign of respect toward his colleagues. He said he wished the usage would continue but that he felt things are changing toward a more casual usage.

When I go into stores here, of course the formal “Sie” form is used between the clerk and me; the same goes for people I meet while on walks with Rosebud and for other people I don’t know. Rosebud, of course, is always addressed as “du” because she is a baby! And she will learn quickly that adults and possibly much older kids will be addressed using “Sie”.

I expected the “Sie” rule to hold true with our neighbors as well.
We live in a rowhouse; there are two other homes/families in our building. The other two families have children who are about our age, hence my expectation to use the formal “Sie”. Naturally I began our conversation with “Sie”. It’s always a safe bet to use “Sie”. I have been pleasantly surprised that soon after our initial meeting with both neighbors, we were accepted right away and we were “geduzt” fairly quickly into our conversation. (German has these two cool verbs: “duzen” – to call someone by the informal “du”, that is, to address someone informally; and “siezen” – to address someone with the formal “Sie”).

Although I like the respect shown when I’m addressed as “Sie”, it does please me that our neighbors feel comfortable addressing us with the “du/ihr” forms. Certainly they respect us (and have complimented me on my excellent German!), but I feel like the “du” usage means that we are accepted as good neighbors. I suppose, however, the blueberry muffins and black bottom cupcakes* I brought to the neighbors helped spread feelings of good will toward us, too!

For the Easter holiday, we will be traveling to Köln, where we will visit my German host families. I am really looking forward to it. Both of my German mothers only have sons, so when I came to them as an exchange student, they were thrilled to finally get their daughter. In one of the families, all three of the sons are married and have their own children but right now, they’re all living abroad (in the US and China). In the other family, neither of the sons are married. So you can imagine that both families are quite excited we’ll be visiting them for Easter. They can’t wait to meet their new “Enkelin”, Miss Rosebud. I’m glad that Rosebud will have German “grandparents”.

*Speaking of baked goods, my German oven has a convection oven feature in addition to the standard over/under heating element. I am gradually learning that the convection oven takes less time when baking. We’re also at an altitude of 682 meters (2238 feet). It’s not quite high enough to be considered high altitude for baking purposes, but close enough. One tip I’ve read is to reduce the leavening a little so I will be experimenting with my recipes. Do I have any taste-testers out there? 😉


9 responses to “Du versus Sie: the usage of You in German

  1. Kind of like listening to Mr. Rumbold from Are You Being Served sing Happy Birthday, “Happy Birthday to (italics)/you.”

  2. You probably need to be higher, altitude-wise, to need to start adjusting recipes when baking. I don’t remember having to adjust any recipes when we were living in Tucson, and it’s about the same altitude as where you are now.

  3. I’ve heard the rule stated as “you should ‘Sie’ someone a few times before you ‘du’ them.” 😉

    Similarly, in France, I’ve been told that the whole “tu” and “vous” distinction is going slowly by the wayside, which I think is tragic. I appreciate being able to indicate a certain level of respect through word form– we really don’t have anything like it in English.

    Am enjoying your blog immensely. I will be on your side of the pond in a month or so!

  4. The difference between usage in Köln in the mid-90s and Bayern today might be as much regional as temporal – you’ll have to see what you find there. I had forgotten that German distinguishes formal from informal in the plural too – romance languages only make the distinction in singular, which probably says something interesting about cultural differences. Also, I find it interesting that our “you” is linguistically equivalent to “sie”, not “du” (since “thou” of course was “du”) and that the informal fell out of use in favor of the formal, only to have the formal become informal. I wonder why we lost the informal, while German and French are losing the formal?

    What a great read!

  5. Sometimes I’m confused about how to use u, je, and jij in Dutch ’cause I’m usually in contact with Flems who use ge instead of je and instead of it being informal it’s the one they use with anyone. I’ve heard for Dutch it’s not quite that important what you use, anyway, so… whatever. 😉 I also have trouble keeping up with what takes the plural because in Russian, like in French, the formal “you” is used for singular, formal “you” or plural “you”… but I always forget what the Dutch u takes… I think it’s because I hate the word jullie, which is the plural… damn that word is ugly!

    But in Russian it’s similar… you never use the informal “you” even with your friends. They will tell you when to use it, which is usually after only a few sentences if they are peers, but it’s pretty important to use the formal “you” for strangers or elders else it is a great insult. My host mother always wanted me to use the informal “you” and I could never get used to it, heh.

  6. As someone who has joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) I am struck by the parallels to English. In the 17th Century, thee and thou were the equivalent of du and dich. You was like Sie. The Quakers, with a testimony on equality, insisted that everyone should be addressed the same, so they called everyone thee and thou – even Oliver Cromwell! As centuries passed, English evolved to have only one form of you, except instead of referring to everyone informally, they chose to refer to everyone by what had been the formal version. The Quakers, however, kept up their distinctive use of thee and thou until it faded away in the early/mid 20th century. Instead of being a testimony on equality, it became just a way to set themselves apart from the world.

    • I just had my students read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet XX from _Sonnets from the Portuguese_, in which she speaks to Robert (her Beloved) using the intimate or personal form of you (thee, thou), just like the German du or Sie:

      Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese
      Sonnet XX

      BELOVED, my Beloved, when I think 85
      That thou wast in the world a year ago,
      What time I sat alone here in the snow
      And saw no footprint, heard the silence sink
      No moment at thy voice, but, link by link,
      Went counting all my chains as if that so 90
      They never could fall off at any blow
      Struck by thy possible hand,—why, thus I drink
      Of life’s great cup of wonder! Wonderful,
      Never to feel thee thrill the day or night
      With personal act or speech,—nor ever cull 95
      Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white
      Thou sawest growing! Atheists are as dull,
      Who cannot guess God’s presence out of sight.

      Some of my students read this as a deliberately archaic voice while others saw it as Barrett Browning’s very personal communication to her lover.

  7. Perhaps I’m analyzing things too much, but I also find it interesting that the only pronoun that is capitalized in English is the 1st person: “I”, while in German the first person is not capitalized; the only capitalized pronouns are the formal 2nd person pronouns (“Sie” und “Ihnen.”

  8. Quite an interesting discussion…especially interesting to see how English has dropped the informal and then changed the formal to informal! Just to give commentary on one other language, of course Spanish also has the formal and informal, singular and plural words for you (tú informal singular, vosotros informal plural (but only used in Spain), Usted formal singular, Ustedes formal plural. In Spain (as it appears is true in other European countries) they are dropping the formal terms. Nearly everyone is “tuteado” (addressed with the tú form..even in stores and with people you meet casually) and vosotros. The interesting phenomenon lies with Latin Americans. The Usted forms are much more frequently used, and it is a good rule of thumb to use Usted with someone first and let them switch to tú before you do. Some countries almost exclusively use the Usted form (Costa Rica for example). Probably the most interesting phenomenon is the use of the archaic informal second person singular “vos” (from which vosotros was formed “you + others”) in Latin America. I just finished reading a book by a Nicaraguan and it was SO interesting to see the total use of vos and to learn the verb forms that go with it…it has its own unique verb conjugations that traditional Spanish language classes don’t teach even though there are many Central and South American countries that use vos every day. Well anyway, just a comment about how interesting languages are…and fun to compare!!

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