Friday, January 11, 2008

I love you . . . but in a completely formal and distanced manner

My students tell me all the time about how difficult English is. Now I admit that learning a foreign language is not the easiest thing to do. However, when it comes to idiosyncrasies in a language, which make it difficult to learn, I definitely think German is tougher.

Let's first take a look at the "der, die, das" problem. All nouns in German have a gender and a corresponding definite article (i.e. "the"): masculine (der), feminine (die) or neutral (das). When learning new nouns in German it is important to learn the gender that goes with it, because the definite article is almost always used. This is where the difficulty begins. The form of the "der, die, das" changes with the case of the noun. For example, a "der" noun is only "der" in the nominative case but "den" in the accusative case and "dem" in the dative case. Ugh!!!

I was too lazy to learn this is in high school and college, which has made my language skills a bit shaky at times and "der, die, das" is my biggest problem. Most Germans will over look the misuse of the definite article, except of course for my niece who just loves to correct my German.

The second example of German language craziness is the two forms of the word "you." In German the form "du" is informal and used with friends and family. The "Sie" form is formal and used with colleagues, doctors, strangers and basically anyone who is of a higher social rank than you. It is also used with your neighbors when your first meet them. The problem with these two forms is not necessarily the grammar, but rather the social implications and awkwardness that goes with them.

The problem with the formal and informal "you" is that you can never be 100% sure who you should use what with. For example, I have some really friendly neighbors. However, one was quick to say, "Let's use the 'du' form." The other neighbor seems to insist on the "Sie" form. Because this neighbor is older, I must wait for that person to offer the "du" form. This could take years as has been the case in some other blogger posts.

So to summarize, you have to be formal with people especially those who are "above" you. Only when the "higher" person offers the informal can you switch. To use the informal form with someone who has not offered it is a social sin equivalent to burning a church. I accidentally used the informal form with my German thesis advisor. He was shocked speechless and I quickly tried to cover my mistake.

The other day I was watching one of my favorite shows, Grey's Anatomy, in German. At the end of the 3rd season one of the doctor's has fallen in love with one of his patients. Finally, after several episodes of agony. The woman confesses her love to her doctor. Which form of "you" did she use? The "Sie" form?! I know that relationships in Germany tend to be more formal, but give me a break. If ever there was a time to be a bit informal, then I think it is when your are telling someone you are in love with them. I asked the German if I was right. He just smirked.

"Hey, he is the doctor and she is the patient. He did not offer the "du" form. What are you going to do?"


Matt said...

First of all you need to remember that this usage of the "Sie" form is just an "interpretation" of the translators, i.e. the dubbing guys. They might as well have chosen the "du" form but for some reason they decided it to be inappropriate. I didn't watch the episode, so I cannot tell whether the dialog sounds "too formal" to German ears in that particular situation. (I am German, btw.) It might be possible that the translators made a mistake here. For Germans, dubbed shows are notorious for overuse of the "Sie" form. Usually, translators don't want (or don't have the time) to think about the correct form of address ("du" vs. "Sie") in every sentence, so they stick to the rough rule-of-thumb that people use the "Sie" form until they are officially lovers.

Generally, if you have fallen in love with your doctor and decide to tell him about your feelings, and you know that he still doesn't have a clue, then it might indeed be appropriate to use the "Sie" form. If you use the "du" form and the doctor doesn't reciprocate your feelings, he might be annoyed by your "lack of distance". And you wouldn't want to annoy someone you love, would you? But then again, especially younger Germans would laugh about such concerns and use the "du" form anyway.

chicagokarl said...

Hi Claire,

I've noticed the "Ich liebe Sie" phenomena myself too. The translation of American shows comes off a little stiff. German programming doesn't have this problem and I'd say Germans are experts at avoiding addressing others with either Du/Sie. Something I find somewhat difficult. Be that as it may, I still address my parents' friends as Mr. and Mrs. - something that we don't do in our village - where everyone uses Du.

Anonymous said...

There must be some kind of a lesson to be learned here. The problem is-- what is it??? First we have to figure out why differant people have differant languages. Could it be that it all goes back to the Tower of Babel??

Think about it!!!

Love, Grandpa

redsimon said...

Like my English teacher in school said (he was from England): "Der Grammatik ist die wichtigste." ;)

Diane Mandy said...

I really enjoyed this post--especially since I just took my first weeklong intensive German class. The der, die, das gave me fits. I just hope that in t ime, it sinks in eventually. Found you via expats directory!