The name

Two businesspeople in office with a handshake.

At times, the smallest word can make a world of difference. We’ve looked at the indefinite article before (‘Ich bin ein Berliner’). Today, let’s look at the power of the definite article. Not thrilled? Wait ‘till you meet Birgit!

Imagine you’re a Brit who’s just moved to Germany. On your first day at work, you meet the colleague with whom you’re going to share an office. She smiles at you, extends her right hand and says, ‘Ich bin die Birgit.’ The Birgit??? What Birgit? ‘If she’s the Birgit, why have I never heard of her before,’ you will rightly wonder.

To all other readers, whose native language is not English, it’s helpful to know that, in certain contexts, the definite article can equal a label of universal significance. It denotes something or someone of which or whom there is only one at a time in the world. Like the Dalai Lama, the Pope or the Pommes Buddha.

In colloquial German, however, it is rather common to place the definite article in front of a name. This conveys an air of, often anticipated, familiarity. It makes the situation more casual and the other person feel more at ease. You would never siezen die Birigt. (Compare the once-popular song Ich bin der Martin ‘ne.)

It’s not compulsory, of course. Many Germans use their name without an article. This can be confusing if the name of the person introducing herself sounds like it starts with a definite article. If you hear, ‘Ich bin Dilara,’ you may identify it as die Lara. The same is true for Diana (die Jana).

By the way, the pronunciation of the in English (/ðə/ vs /ði/) is largely a matter of emphasis. To lend special weight to a word, say /ði/ (‘thee’), otherwise /ðə/ (‘tha’).

The variant /ði/, however, is also used whenever the subsequent noun starts with a vowel sound (ocean, end, internet ‒ but not year, ewe or Europe because the starting sound in all these cases is /j/).

In these cases, the indefinite article, too, changes from a to an. In this respect, I love the grammatical consistency of Cockney, the London accent. Londoners drop the letter h at the beginning of virtually every word, turning words such as history, hotel, house etc. into words beginning with a vowel sound. Consequently, they say an ‘ouse instead of a house. That’s just brilliant!

So, here’s a new entry for your book of the most German phrases ever. Next time you want to come across particularly German, just say, ‘Aber der Dieter hat gesagt, ich soll das so machen!’

Next week let’s meet a very special Australian bus driver.

The Pommes Buddha says: My favourite band? The The. The who? No, The The.

> Audioversion

  

You can say ‘you’ to me

question sprechen sie deutsch? do you speak german?

When my English husband first learned German, he told me time and again of his dilemma to choose between the formal Sie and the informal du when addressing someone. To his great disappointment, I was unable to offer him a clear-cut set of rules. Let’s look at some examples and try to find out more …

In Germany, the default, I think is fair to say, is siezen while using Herr/Frau and the person’s last name. Children and youngsters should address most people older than themselves using Sie. As an adult, you use Sie with most other adults, unless you know them better or if you are among a group of people which make a point of being laid-back, such as TV producers, PR managers and almost everyone in Cologne, or comradely, such as metal workers’ unionists. It may suffice simply being in the same place as those people, for example at a hip bar, Brauhaus, trendy shop etc.

If you do your grocery shopping at a large supermarket, even in Cologne, you would normally siezen the person at the till, and he would siezen you back, unless you are a minor.

Let’s look at some examples of the most common usage of formal and informal address in British English and German. (Note that there are, of course, regional, local and even individual varieties.)

Person British English German
Boss You + first name Sie (Herr/Frau + last name) / in some cases: Du (first name)
Colleague You + first name Sie (Herr/Frau + last name) / Du (first name)
Judge in court You + My Lord / My Lady Sie (Herr/Frau Vorsitzende(r))
Shop assistant You (+ first name if known) Sie (Varies according to region and trendiness of venue!)
Waiter/waitress You (+ first name if known) Sie (Varies according to region and trendiness of venue!)
A friend’s parents whom you meet for the first time You + Mr/Mrs + last name Sie (Herr/Frau + last name)
School teacher addressing you (age 16+) You + first name Sie (to be agreed between teacher and students: either ‘first name’ or ‘Herr/Frau + last name’)

 

Dear Germans, may I please point out that the fact that English businesspeople are on first-name terms with each other does not mean that you would automatically duzen them in German.

What the German Sie and the English you have in common is that they have no grammatically correct plural form. If you wish to formally address several people in German, you have to say something along the lines of Sie alle. Speakers of the English language in some regions of the world have come up with colloquial varieties of you to mark the plural, such as y’all (regional US American), youse (Ireland, Australia), you guys (originally US American but now widely used elsewhere too).

When one is on Sie terms with a German, as a rule, the older person would normally offer to change over to the informal address at some point. This may be accompanied by some type of ritual. It used to be common to go through the motions of Bruderschafttrinken, consisting of the following steps:

  1. Linking arms with, while sitting opposite, each other and taking a sip from your own glass;
  2. Kissing (yes, smack on the lips!);
  3. ‘Introducing’ yourself formally by your first name.

These days, this custom is pretty out-dated, at least in standard situations. The normal thing would be for the person offering the changeover to say something like, ‘Wir können ruhig ‘du’ sagen,’ and then to introduce herself again, even if you know her first name already, and even if she knows you know it. She may say, ‘Ich bin (die) / Ich heiße + first name’ or simply say just her first name.

There is an intermediate step between formal and informal in German, but it is not very widely used, i.e. using Sie in combination with a person’s first name. I’m sure the Knigge has rules for this.

If in doubt, use the formal address and let the other person initiate any changeovers. If nothing else, Sie is way easier to use, as the 3rd-person plural verb is identical with the infinitive, e.g. gehen: ‘Gehen Sie schon?’

Read more on this topic here.

Next week we’ll indulge in some easy listening.

The Pommes Buddha says: One for du and one for Sie.

> Audioversion