The problem of Du and Sie in the German Language. An approach.

Essay, 1999

12 Pages, Grade: very good


The Problem of ‘Du‘ and ‘Sie’ in the German Language. An approach.

By Martin Stepanek

‘I by mistake addressed my biology teacher with Du, and he asked me if earlier we had been fattening the pigs in the pigsty together.’[1] (Informant Q)

‘There is a grey zone in which a speaker may not know whether to use du or Sie, and in that case it is always safer to use Sie. A young girl, very tall for her age, would probably feel flattered to be addressed as Sie, whereas a short, undersized young woman would be embarrassed at being addressed with du.’ (Hammond 1981: 190)

‘(...) you should not use du to a person with whom you are not familiar. A woman should not use du to a man she doesn’t know well, although she may, of course, deliberately use the du form to him, if she cares to. (...) The Germans have their problems with du and Sie. ’ (Strutz 1986: 84)

The Germans, or, to be more precise, German-speaking people do have problems indeed with choosing the appropriate form of address. In most cases, it is a question of politeness to use the more formal ‘Sie’ to people you do not know very well, especially if they are older than you. There are, however, many instances, where the ‘Sie’ is felt to be rather inappropriate and may even make the addressed feel very uncomfortable. Especially younger people can find it rather irritating to be addressed with ‘Sie’, in particular when the addresser is about the same age or an acquaintance. To switch from polite ‘Sie’ to more casual Du’ is most of the time a daring enterprise for the speakers involved, whereas to switch from ‘Du’ to ‘Sie’ almost seems impossible, at least without causing major irritation.

Brown and Gilman’s (1960) remarks about the T/V distinction in most Indo-European and many other languages in the world were eagerly received. Most later publications followed their notion of power and solidarity, which Brown and Gilman used to describe social relationships and explain a speaker’s pronominal choice of either T or V in a certain situation. Despite the considerable amount of treaties on the topic, there is, however, only little reference to the problem of T/V choice in German. Mühlhäusler and Harré (1990) already seems to be out of print. Essays like Ammon’s (1972) or Kempf’s (1985) provide with interesting

aspects of the use of ‘Du’ and ‘Sie’ in German and the social relationships behind it, but they are not very reliable in matters of present ‘Du’/’Sie’ usage, for patterns of address are subject to change so quickly due to the radical and rapid change of society and its fashions that even a 10-year-old survey appears outdated.

As a starting point, I therefore decided to rely on my intuition as a native speaker of German and tried to recall as many instances as I could from the past where I personally was faced with the problem of choosing the appropriate form of address. In matters of historical usage of address forms in my home province Vorarlberg in the most Western part of Austria, I used my mother and my grandmother as informants, who collected relevant information about former T/V usage by speaking to local villagers, who appeared very eager to talk about past and present usage of address forms. Finally, I put a questionnaire (see: appendix) together, aiming at German-speaking university students of my age who were asked about past experiences and their usage of ‘Du’ and ‘Sie’ in different situations and to different speakers. I collected 18 questionnaires from students between 19 and 25 years of age, many of them currently studying at the University of Nottingham. 13 of my informants were from Germany, including 5 students from former Eastern Germany; 4 were from Austria; and 1 was German, but has been living in Switzerland for the last 15 years. All declared German as their mother tongue.

Kempf (1985: 223) critically points out that the sample Brown and Gilman used for their treaties ‘was not representative of the speakers of the language, and, more importantly, intuition about language behavior in certain situations has been shown to differ widely from actual behavior.’ The 18 people who participated in my study are of course also not representative of all speakers of the German language. Their given answers in the questionnaires do, nevertheless, give an interesting insight into actual ‘Du’/’Sie’ use amongst young German-speaking university students. I am fully aware of the problem that a questionnaire, like mine, is based on the speakers’ intuition about language behaviour, which can be very different from actual language usage, as a closer look at one of my questionnaires reveals:

Question 15: Has there ever been a situation in which you felt uncomfortable being addressed with ‘Du’?[2]

Informant Q: Never .

Question 23: Do you find it OK to be addressed with ‘Du’ by professors at university?

Informant Q: No .

Question 38: How are you usually addressed by professors at university?

Informant Q: Both, ‘Du’ and ‘Sie’.

Q first denies that he ever felt uncomfortable when someone addressed him with ‘Du’, and even emphasises his answer with a strong ‘never’ (niemals) instead of the simple ‘no’. We then find out that he actually does not really like to be addressed with ‘Du’ by professors at university, as well as in advertisements (q 19) and on election posters (q 20, 21), although he actually is, as q 38 reveals. Is there a difference between ‘feeling uncomfortable in a situation’, and ‘finding something not OK’? Maybe my questions were not worded carefully enough. It seems, however, that Q was at first not aware of the fact that in some situations, like at university, he actually prefers not to be addressed with ‘Du’, finding the ‘Du’ quite inappropriate there.


[1] Q: ‚Ich habe meinen Bio-Lehrer aus Versehen mit ‚Du‘ angeredet und er hat mich gefragt ob wir früher schon mal im Stall gemeinsam Schweine gemästet hätten.

[2] My questionnaire was originally designed in German. It can be found in the appendix.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The problem of Du and Sie in the German Language. An approach.
University of Nottingham  (English Studies)
very good
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
480 KB
Anredepronomen du Sie, formality, formal language
Quote paper
Martin Stepanek (Author), 1999, The problem of Du and Sie in the German Language. An approach., Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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