Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It's ok. You can 'du' me.

I love speaking German. This we know. But sometimes, the rules of German just make me CRAZY. For example, the other day at work, someone was talking about how she had reached a point with a client that she can talk to her 'per du.' This was a BIG DEAL. She was excited about it. It meant she had broken the barrier and the two were on informal terms... they were officially on 'du' terms. No longer on 'Sie' terms... What is all this du and Sie mess? Well, this is one of the biggest differences between English and German (besides the three genders and the four cases) -allow me to explain the phenomenon that is German formal speech.

Say I run into an old friend at the store and we used to play naked in eachother's paddle pool (direct Bridget Jones reference for any fans...), I would greet this person in informal German:
'Hallo! Wie geht's?' or 'Wie geht's dir? Hast du Zeit?'
But if I ran into a complete stranger or a new client at work, and we have never played naked in any pools together, let alone never met before, and we are not on a first name basis, I would greet him/her in formal German:
'Guten Tag, Herr XXX. Wie Geht es Ihnen? Haben Sie Zeit für mich?'
So in German, when it is informal and you know the person well and are on a first name basis, you can go per 'du' and 'dir' and the accompanying verb forms ('hast du, or bist du, etc) without worry. In formal German, you have to use the formal tenses (haben instead of hast) with Sie or Ihnen. Sometimes, neighbors and work colleagues are forever on Sie terms. They never cross to the dark (albeit friendly) side. It is just not going to ever happen...

I mix up my 'du's' and my 'Sie's' a lot. It is the crux of being a non-native German speaker. I speak 'du' with colleagues at work. It is an American company - so we are naturally all friendly and open and work 'per du.' :) Then in the real world, I naturally 'du' everyone and screw up my whole intro and have to go back and 'Sie' the crap out of the conversation so the person knows I know what I am doing and wanted to give them the respect they deserved...

So on one hand - it is great to have this respect thing built into the language - but on the other hand, I think the German speakers should just give up this whole 'Sie' thing. I think it keeps them at a distance, it keeps them cold and at arms length. I have had conversations with Swiss that are oftentimes confused - 'Well, she du-ed me in the email but I don't think we are per du yet, as she is always like 'Sie' this and that on the phone. What should I do?!' OH THE PAIN OF THE DU- SIEs!?!' To du or not to du. That is often the question.

Well, here is your answer -just 'du' it already, I say... it will make the world a better place and make German easier for us non-native speakers.

Here - I will take the first step. You can all du me.

There ... one down. :)
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Emma O W said...

Here in Sweden, we had a Du-reform in the late 60s/early 70s. The result was Du everywhere and no titles, with the exception of the Royal Family.

I actually find it a bit sad that there's no way to show someone respect or polite distance in our language any more. With people who are old enough to remember the war, I can address them with a title in third person but it's terribly old-fashioned and doesn't seem at all genuine coming from a 25 year old.

Jessica said...

Hello Emma! Thank you for the comment. You have a good point, and I mentioned that, too, that the formal language is great when you want to show respect for your elders or important people...

Does it make Swedish easier to learn though, without the formal form? I have heard Swedish is impossible regardless though. :)

Nathan E. Hammer said...

Although we are informal in english today, isn't what we currently speak based on 'Sie'? I believe the remnants of the old 'du sprache' are visible historically or in the way english speakers pray, using phrases such as "thou hast"...Just a thought? German speaking prayers are (thankfully) offered in 'du sprache'.

Jessica said...


Sorry, Nathan. Let me start again.

Thanks for your comment. That is endlessly fascinating to me. As you are right - we did have a formal form of English in the past, and we GOT RID OF IT! Hmmm... interesting developments there. :)

But what I cannot believe is that the Germans speak to God in 'du'!!! I mean, they have never met him and don't see him on a regular basis, but he/she is DU!!! That just blows my mind for some reason. I suppose many want to have a personal connection to God, so du is in order... very interesting indeed! Thanks for sharing.

M'dame Jo said...

Actually, it's more English that's the exception... French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese also have two formal/informal forms...

Kathy said...

I have really mixed feelings about this. I don't want to bring back archaic forms in English, but I kinda miss having a last name. When I was young, the bank teller, the repairman, and salespeople called you by your last name and so did everyone outside family and close friends. This didn't change until you told someone to call you by your first name. (As seen in the old B&W movies.) In the south we also had ma'am and sir, which was a nice way to mark social distance and show respect. I love the NYT for clinging to last names.

So I sort of like the formal you in European languages. But the rules on using it get pretty confusing.

I also automatically want to use the formal 'you' with the all-powerful deity. I still remember my teacher looking at me like I had a screw loose when I did this Russian, which I guess means that this whole topic gets me into murky personal and theological waters.

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Chantal said...

I mix up my dus and Sies too. Hopefully, most native speakers are forgiving when they hear my accent. It's a hard thing to get right, no matter how good your German gets because it's still a very foreign concept for English speakers.

Emma O W said...

I'd say that for English speakers Swedish is probably one of easier languages to learn. Basic grammar and structure is near-identical to English, and aside from lacking formal and poetic forms the language also lacks verb conjugations (i.e. German gehe, gehst, geht, and gehen are all går in Swedish).

Jessica said...

thanks, Emmma... sounds like I should have learned Swedish! :)

Ioana said...

Having different levels of formality in a language is very common; so is a distinction between 'you' singular and 'you' plural. It can be found in french, spanish, portuguese, romanian, japanese, magyar and so on, not only german.
In fact, in this respect I find that English is similar to Brazilian Portuguese in that it uses 'you' both for plural and singular, (the Brazilian counterpart being 'voce')expressing in fact a certain formality when addressing the other.
Many people might in fact complain of the fact that English does not allow for the closeness a 'per tu' does (the famous 'per du').


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