political correctness: das "Du" deutscher Politiker

VON Dr. Wolf SiegertZUM Donnerstag Letzte Bearbeitung: 16. Januar 2015 um 00 Uhr 00 Minuten


Heute "klauen" wir mal einen Text aus der Druckausgabe des "Economist" vom 26. November 2009: [1]

Es wird so viel über die Zukunft des Journalismus und der Partizipation des Lesers geredet, dass es an der Zeit ist, endlich mal ein Beispiel in voller Länge zu zitieren, das in gewisser Weise durchaus verdient, "typisch" genannt zu werden - genauso wie in diesem Text und den darauf folgenden Kommentaren darüber diskutiert wird, was denn nun "typisch deutsch" sei. Und das im Grunde auch immer als eine Art der Selbstreflektion darüber ist, wie man sich selber als Bürger im Vereinigten Königreich sieht: Typisch brittisch eben.

German linguistic correctness

The du und du waltz

The complex etiquette of du and Sie in Germany

AT 2.12 our work was finished. At 2.15 we called each other Horst and Guido. This is the beginning of a great friendship.” That is how Guido Westerwelle, the Free Democratic leader in Germany’s coalition government, broke the news that he and Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union would henceforth address each other by the familiar du rather than the formal Sie. Since Mr Seehofer had called Mr Westerwelle a crybaby just weeks earlier, it was a touching reconciliation. But how much warmth does the intimate du convey?

It used to be so simple. Relatives, friends, children and dogs were du; everyone else was Sie. The offer of du, usually by an older interlocutor, was not made lightly. But this formula has become scrambled during the past 40 years. Germany is not America, where everyone is on first-name terms except in the doctor’s surgery. The rules are now confusing, so that instead of guarding the borders between friendship and acquaintance, Sie and du often now smuggle coded messages across them.

It started with 1968ers who impudently called their professors du. Later generations of students reverted to Sie. But with each other, indeed with everyone of student age, du predominates. Bouncers at Berlin’s clubs are gesiezt but bartenders are geduzt. Shoppers at upmarket KaDeWe are Sie but in shops packed with young Germans even those not so youthful may be called du. Annett Louisan, a pop singer, laments the passing of Sie: “This distance adds a little more/to something that would be a bore/‘What can I do for Sie?’/stimulates wild fantasy.”

In less erotically charged settings Sie holds sway. Banks, law firms and ministries remain bastions of Sie, though egalitarian companies like Sweden’s IKEA have converted to du. It is easier to sack a Sie than a du. Sometimes du can even be dangerous: try it on a policeman and you may end up paying a fine for insulting an officer.

Politics has its own rules. In the Social Democratic Party (SPD) it would be an insult to siezen a “comrade”. Communists in East Germany were du to each other, which gives it a sinister ring to some Ossis. In conservative circles and across party lines du is not yet automatic. Angela Merkel, the Christian Democratic chancellor, never said du to Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her SPD foreign minister, though she apparently already does so to his successor, Mr Westerwelle.

In Mr Seehofer’s case, as the older man, he almost certainly made the first move with Mr Westerwelle. But that has not stopped him repeatedly sniping at the new foreign minister. In this case du seems less a profession of friendship than a screen for hostility.

Der eigentliche Grund für die Übernahme dieses Textes sind aber die Kommentare, die in der Zeit bis zum Ende des Monats nachgefolgt sind und bis zu diesem Zeitpunkt noch an diesen Text angehängt wurden:

jgunnc wrote: Nov 26th 2009 6:13 GMT

Americans may be on a first-name basis with one another in most settings, but our "you" is actually the formal form of address. What we lost was the informal "thou" (which sounds formal to our ears just because we see it in the King James Bible and hear it in Shakespeare). Go figure!

generated2206539 wrote: Nov 26th 2009 8:05 GMT

It’s ’Du’ not ’du’.

generated3447610 wrote: Nov 26th 2009 9:18 GMT generated2206539:

Both is possible; there was a spelling reform some years ago. The "old" rule was to spell "Du" with a capital letter, now, after the reform, you use a lower case letter and it’s "du".

Robert Buss wrote: Nov 26th 2009 10:09 GMT

After ten years in Germany, I still have trouble with du and Sie. Fortunately, they give me a little more leeway as an American.
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Epode wrote: Nov 26th 2009 11:09 GMT This is a fun article, which clearly demonstrates Germany’s complex and oftentimes confusing social structure. The equivalent of "du" and "Sie" of course exist in other languages as well - but wouldn’t it be much simpler if everyone could adopt the English straightforward "you"?

Ioan wrote: Nov 27th 2009 6:47 GMT

The Du/Sie issue may look complex to non-Germans, but I am not so sure it is so peculiar.

In Romanian, for example, we have endless varieties, carryings all sort of nouances for all situations your soul may like. Such as:

— "tu" (you singular),
— "voi" (you plural),
— "Dumneata"/"Matale"/"Mata" (a sort of saying the relaxed "Du" but still meaning "Sie", in either friendly or irronically speaches),
— "Dumneavoastra" / "Domniile Voastre" (the very respectuous "Sie" / "Sir/Sirs")

(I refrain from also mentioning the equivalents indicating the correspondents to "Herr", “Frau”, “Jungfrau”, etc).

And the list can continue very long.

If one wants to really play language expression (in order to have a, say Prussian–rich, varieties of tools at hand to tackle European inter-personal addresses and never be surprised), I suggest one may find it practical to learn some … Romanian.

John1958 wrote: Nov 27th 2009 10:55 GMT

The German "Sie" and "du" may seem strange to native English-speakers, but if you’ve lived here for a while the distinction becomes clear, and I personally am glad that the distinction exists. There are some people you just would never offer the "du".

rfq wrote: Nov 27th 2009 1:23 GMT @ Ioan

Jungfrau means virgin or Virgo in German. It really isn’t a good idea to address someone like that. ;-)

I guess you really wanted to say Fräulein. It is an out-dated way to address young unmarried women. You shouldn’t use it anymore today. In the course of better gender equality, it was considered as sexist to differentiate between unmarried and married women in a form of address. A male equivalent of Fräulein wasn’t in use.

You can still hear sometimes that someone in using Fräulein, but usually in less formal environments and independent from the married status of a woman. Sometimes it is used in a ironic way. But it isn’t really political correct anymore to use it and some women will find it offensive. My advice is to just address every adult woman as Frau, even if they are still very jung (= young). That won’t offend anyone.
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Stebillan wrote: Nov 27th 2009 2:28 GMT Epode, wouldn’t it just be much simpler if everyone drops their native language and begins to speak English?

Ioan wrote: Nov 27th 2009 2:55 GMT to Rfq:

Thanks! In deed, I have meant "Fräulein". I dont’ really use these terms, so I guess I have use a speed-translation from the Romanian equivalent.

Yes, I was surprised at the beginning in Germany to see every female kid between 13 and 16-18 being addressed with "Frau".... For such kids we never use Frau (in Romanian “femeie”, alternatively in the countryside “muiere”), it would sound ridiculous in specifically Romanian. Except for the kid aged 16-18 and married (can marry at 16).

The same discussion with how to address “unmarried women” we have in Romania. Since the discussion on virginity parasitizes the discussion on the marital status, “less risky” solution is to use “Domnisoara” (Young Woman, “Jung Frau”) for young female persons, and does not really mean virgin (not anymore).

A virgo we call simply “virgina” or “fecioara” (for female, irrespective of age) or “virgin” or “fecior” for males.

For women, we also use the distinction: “femeie maritata” (married woman) and “femeie” (woman).

As a consequence those terms which can produce confusion in the modern society because they mean both young and virgin, are not used so frequently anymore, at least not in the cities. These were separate words: “fata mare/flacau” (1. “Grown up female/male kid”; 2. virgin female/male).

For just kids, irrespective of family kinship, we have: fata/baiat (girl/boy).

It seems complicated, but in fact there just very many specific denominations, and once you learned them, you use them according to the context. The biggest harm to be produced is just … involuntary jokes, and laughs. Oh, if you are VERY unlucky, you will stumble upon an old lady which has never been married, hates the idea of being married, and gets furious you address her with anything else than the word acceptable from her “Domnisoara”. In that case you better make an effort not to laugh, four your own safety …

We call them “Fata batrana” (“old girl”), and the meaning is not as relaxes as in English. (It rather means something about their psychological status … By no means should you call her like that.)

As a final remark, I admit that I personally tend to stick with my "Romanian bias", probably because I fill more comfortable with the Romanian-like split of meaning between meaning-neighbouring words.

So much for the language “lesson” …
EU wants us all to learn to speak at least 3 languages. So, I just help you with the Romanian … just in case you had fun with it (and not got already completely discouraged …).

Ioan wrote: Nov 27th 2009 3:08 GMT

If I may offer a response to Stebillan:

English is easy to learn for (at least) Europeans of other native languages, because it is very simple, perhaps the simplest.

However, more complex languages are richer, and offer finer possibilities of expression. Dropping German or Romanian or French for English would be a clear LOSS.

In addition, speaking more than only one language helps develop intellectual abilities, and also fuels contact with other countries and nourishes open-mindedness.

I think the alternative is preferable: monolingual English speakers should better learn some foreign languages, for their own good included.

deanrog wrote: Nov 27th 2009 5:19 GMT

It’s nice to know that Americans still use formal modes of address in the doctor’s surgery. On returning to the UK, I was amazed that the practice nurse indicated that my turn had come by shouting my first name across the waiting-room. My confidence in her declined from that moment.

Peter F. wrote: Nov 27th 2009 7:50 GMT

Just for good order’s sake it should be mentioned that the Du/Sie distinction exists also in Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese as well as the already mentioned Rumanian language. However the criteria for their use might differ from country to country.

la.výritý wrote: Nov 27th 2009 8:06 GMT

In the movie Tron programs became personalities, resembling the forms of their creators. If personalities resemble "programs", as the cyberspace warriors “generated2206XXX” and “generated3447XXX” do, how then should we call the result? - NORT . . . or TORT maybe?

We’re all living in the Brave New World . . . but only few know it.

legen wrote: Nov 27th 2009 8:14 GMT

English must be the only European language that has a single form of address to persons of all ages and ranks (English also has the advantage of no genders for nouns) This informal/formal system of address presents problems for English speakers anxious not to offend. But I was surprised to find there were anxieties also for the native speakers of these languages. It does not surprise me that Swedish Ikea has moved to "du" in Germany because there is a strong move to the universal use of "du" in the Scandinavian languages. Indeed last time I worked in Norway I informally polled a half dozen of my medical colleagues about the use of "du". Only one avoided the use of "du" to very elderly patients (I have used "du" to patients for the last 20 years seemingly without offense - at least they respond with "du" without a blink) With the widespread use of English by the younger generation I think there is going to be the gradual adoption of a single form of address in their various native languages (too bad there isn’t parallel adoption of a neutral gender form of nouns)
We do have a relic of formality in English namely in the use of Mrs and Miss (to some extent I have moved to Ms but I find that married women are often proud of their title)

la.výritý wrote: Nov 27th 2009 9:24 GMT

Ion, You might have a point. Here is the “European IQ League” according to the findings of a several years lasting study by the University of Ulster under supervision of Professor Richard Lynn.

His team had thousands of individuals tested from all over Europe. The Times http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2105519,00.html and several Science magazines ran articles on this study in 2006. This study caused controversy, especially in trying to explain where the grave differences in the “average” IQ score resulted from. It was then also intensely discussed among psychologists and social scientists, if climate, language or language skills might have something to do with a “homogeneous” society’s average score.

Here is the list of the

107 Germany | 107 Netherlands | 106 Poland |
104 Sweden |
102 Italy |
101 Austria |
101 Switzerland |
100 British Isles |
100 Norway |
99 Belgium |
99 Denmark |
99 Finland |
98 Czech Republic |
98 Hungary |
98 Spain |
97 Ireland |
96 Russia |
95 Greece |
94 France |
94 Bulgaria |
94 Romania |
90 Turkey |
89 Serbia

Ioan wrote: Nov 27th 2009 10:40 GMT

La.výritý, If I have a point, that is not your list. IQ is relevant for the country in which it was developped, not for all Europe, let alone entire world.

There are several types of intelligence, and IQ it measuring only one, or may not even an entire one.

It is nice to have numbers measurings things. But when you play with number of which you don’t understand the meaning ... it does not help to be in any "top" ...

Or maybe you have given this just for the fun of controversy. Have fun then ...

Tomas Marny wrote: Nov 27th 2009 11:39 GMT

Well, every language is a living entity evolution of which reflects changes in the society.

Notice that the German polite expression for “du” is “Sie” which is 3rd plural (“they”), not a 2nd plural (“you”) which would be “Ihr”. In Czech, the 3rd plural (“Oni”) had been used as a polite alternative for 2nd singular (“Ty”) until about the end of 19th century but it was then gradually replaced with more natural 2nd plural (“Vy”) in later decades.

21st century is characteristic by two aspects: it brings many opportunities which result in fast-paced living – environments come and go, people often meet and immediately act as if they’ve known each other for ages but then also part without any long emotional ceremonies. So there’s no time to bother with keeping long initial distance and / or prefer form to content.

The other phenomenon is Internet(working) which some studies compare to the return of the society to primitive communal system in social stratification. See e.g. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/11/02/internet_hunter_gatherer/. People of different ethnical, national and geographical origins, age, social status, etc. can meet and discuss as equals even though in the “real world” they would have never met (or even had opportunity to meet because of different backgrounds) and all people have access to the same knowledge base which reduces privileges of “rich” or “older / experienced” people or people from "developed" countries and everyone has similar opportunities.

This fact again supports the trend of reducing usage of the colloquial formal language that emphasizes differences among people. Therefore I’m not surprised with the article and I guess that all languages will be slowly but surely abandoning practical usage of the colloquial polite language like English did in the distant past. And politeness in written language can be expressed by simply writing a capital latter in the personal pronoun.

klbruenn wrote: Nov 28th 2009 2:53 GMT

It was the English (and their North American colonists) who dropped the informal ’thou’ because it was not polite enough (and Free Thinkers who insisted upon continuing to use it were considered political threats to the Cavaliers who led this change). Politics...

mudmke wrote: Nov 28th 2009 5:48 GMT

i prefer the use of the formal sie. you can use it to avoid all the gender, tense, and numerical variations inherent in the german language.they may look at you, but understand.

Mike Martin wrote: Nov 28th 2009 8:48 GMT Deanrog,

"On returning to the UK, I was amazed that the practice nurse indicated that my turn had come by shouting my first name across the waiting-room."

Possibly the practice nurse is Australian. Everyone uses first names in our local medical practice, including for addressing the doctors.

I suspect it is at least in part a legacy of the large inflow to Australia of immigrants in the last 60 years from a variety of nations. This has produced an astonishing range of family names, some of which are complicated and difficult for a casual acquaintance to pronounce intelligibly. However most people modify their given name or adopt a new one that follows English pronunciation rules and is easy for everyone to use.

For instance a relative who is Polish and christened Tadeus calls himself Ted and a Turk I used to work with who was christened Hussein was universally called Harry.

I struck a more extreme case of given-name-itis while working in Thailand. Thais’ own family names are often forbiddingly complicated and they tend to avoid using family names unless absolutely necessary. When speaking English, it is standard practice to refer to everyone by given name preceded by honorific. Hence, I would be routinely addressed as Mr Mike by hotel staff, business associates and local people whom I met socially.

la.výritý wrote: Nov 28th 2009 5:10 GMT

I’ve heard a German lady once saying, " ’du arschloch’ slips the lips smoother than ’sie arschloch’ ", lol.