German Pronouns: It’s Not Just You And Me
You know what they say – mastery is mastering the basics.
Without a solid knowledge of how to accurately use even the simplest of things in your German repertoire, you’ll find yourself held back more and more on your journey to fluency.
That’s why today I’ve prepared a review of something truly fundamental: German pronouns. Read on – you might be surprised at how much can go into a concept as seemingly simple as this.
A Familiar Face
What were those German pronouns again?
Du You (informal)
Ihr You (plural)
Sie/sie You (formal)/they
That’s a lot of sie floating around! The last two are grouped together because they get the same verb conjugation, which also happens to be the same as wir. Remind you of anything?
You and they in English also take the same conjugation! We used to make a distinction between formal you and informal thou. That fell out of use a few hundred years ago in English-speaking areas, but it’s alive and well in many European languages today.
So if these German pronouns have been giving you a hard time, just remember that they come from the same root as English ones.
Something else that should be vaguely familiar to English speakers is the cases. As I’ve written before, the only place you can find cases in English is in our pronoun system.
I won’t go too far into the case system in today’s article, but this is definitely something you should learn well in order to be a fluent and correct German speaker. Instead, I’d like to focus on some subtleties that tend to escape most learners.
German Pronouns for a More Formal Register
Whether it’s Spanish, French, Vietnamese, or German, English-speakers tend to have a hard time grasping the subtleties of using formal and informal pronouns. What’s wrong with just using one catch-all second-person pronoun?
In short, it’s simply a quirk of how the language and culture evolved. Native speakers of languages with different registers know that there’s not a whole lot of linguistic information being carried by these pronouns – but good luck trying to get them to drop it.
It’s so tightly connected with their culture that native speakers virtually never make mistakes. All of the sociocultural information that comes with formal and informal pronouns comes from a lifetime of immersion. The best way to learn it is to understand a few basic rules first, and then pay close attention to pronoun usage in your favorite books and movies.
When to duzen (use Du) and when to siezen (use Sie)? As a general rule, use Sie with adults older than you, and Du with people around your age (if you’re a young adult) or younger. You might get addressed with Du in some stores or restaurants, since more and more young adults use Du with each other by default.
It’s better to err on the side of being more formal, though. If you overuse Sie, the worst that happens is a laugh and an invitation to duzen. Overusing Du, however, can actually cause offense with some people that are used to keeping a longer distance with acquaintances.
To make things a little bit more complicated, there are a couple of “mixed” usages of Du and Sie going around too. This is the kind of thing you can pick up just from paying attention. It’s sure to be different in different cities, companies, schools, or really any social groups at all.
But as a foreigner or a learner, you won’t be expected to pull this off flawlessly, and you’ll get a lot of leeway with whatever you decide to use.
The Munich Du: Using somebody’s title and last name along with du. “Herr Schultz, kannst du mir ein Stück Papier geben?” Mr. Schultz, could you give me a piece of paper? This puts you a little bit closer with someone you don’t quite know very well – like a friendly professor.
The Hamburg Sie: In contrast, this is the use of Sie along with someone’s first name. “Thomas, werden Sie bitte hier kommen?” Thomas, would you please come here? This usage keeps a polite professional distance without sounding too cold or standoffish.
Interestingly, the Hamburg Sie is used a lot in German dubs of American films or TV. The translators want to suggest that the characters – fellow policemen, maybe, or work colleagues – are close enough to be on a first-name basis but still want to sound professional when on the job.
Again, it’s best to stick with Sie when you don’t know what to do. Follow your conversation partner’s lead and everything will go smoothly.
Here’s something that might throw you off when you first hear it:
“Der Matthias ist heute von Berlin gefahren.” (The) Matthias drove from Berlin today.
“Ich bin mir nicht sicher, wo die Heidi ist.” I’m not sure where (the) Heidi is.
This usage of the article plus first name is used all the time in Austria and the south of Germany. Further north it starts getting less common, and by the time you reach the northern coast it should probably exit your vocabulary.
I think this is a fascinating example of the variety between different German accents and dialects. For many speakers, this usage sounds a little distanced or even rude. Some say it sounds like you’re calling a dog!
But for many others, it’s used without a thought. If you don’t use the article, they say, it sounds too impersonal and there’s a feeling of something missing.
By the way, in English we can use the article in order to stress someone’s individuality or some special characteristic:
“I saw Lee at the store this morning.” “The Lee? The one that’s been all over the news?”
This usage works in German too, even for more traditional speakers in northern Germany!
As you can see, German pronouns have a lot of subtlety that definitely won’t be covered in any introductory textbooks. That’s why it’s so important to never stop learning.
LingQ is a perfect way to find content from all over the German-speaking world that will put you in the middle of all kinds of different social situations. Read, listen, watch, and learn – and you’ll master those German pronouns in no time.
Alex Thomas has studied and spoken German for several years and still learns new things all the time. He lives in Southeast Asia but still manages to use German every day.
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