Thursday, 23 February 2017

On the diachronic development of German pronouns of address


The contentious topic of correct application of the German pronouns of address is one that will be familiar to any student of the German language. In the cocoon of the classroom, the mistakes and confusions that arise are either insignificant at best or humorous at worst; but, once in the German-speaking world, the ramifications for incorrect usage are somewhat more serious. As it says in Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage, “consciousness of the need to use the ‘right’ [pronoun of address] is still very strong”[1]. The current ‘model’ – put very simplistically, du for singular and ihr for plural informal address, with Sie expressing formal address whether singular or plural – has by no means always been the case, but has in fact changed several times over the centuries and remains in a state of, if not exactly flux, at the very least continued development. In examining what factors have led to the diachronic development of the German pronouns of address – from Old High German’s 8th century origins to the modern day – we will arrive at a fuller understanding of this curious sociolinguistic aspect of the German tongue and gain an insight, in turn, to a “Spiegel der Sozialgeschichte”[2].

It goes without saying that our knowledge of how German-speakers addressed each other more than a thousand years ago can only ever be patchy at best, and more or less entirely based on the extant documents and sources. These must necessarily be read in light of the fact that, clearly, there can be stark differences between how a priest addresses his patron and how ordinary people would have spoken to one another. Some details, however, can be gleaned from extant texts. Besch and Wolf identify that “am Anfang der Entwicklung deutscher Anredeformen erst und allein du steht”[3]: that is to say, the basic word for ‘you’ that enabled communication between two people. Salmons notes[4] the Germanic dichotomy that predates Old High German is essentially a singular and plural split between du and ir, a surprisingly uncomplicated binary that resembles modern usage for the most part; the key difference is that Sie is now used for formal address. In OHG and through into Middle High German, however, a different dual model soon developed – between the informal du and a more formal ir – which owed its existence by and large to OHG’s debt to classical Latin, in this specific instance the tu/vos distinction, although French influence (whilst bearing in mind how similar the tu/vous forms in French are to their Latin precedents) can also be detected. We might here take the opportunity to note the different forms of ‘you’ in classical Latin which, along with much of the rest of the language, have exerted a long reach over the development of German: namely, pluralis modestiae (aimed at one person), pluralis societatis (the equivalent of we, wir or nous), as well as pluralis majestatis (which in English has been nicknamed the “Royal We”), and pluralis reverentiae (meant to express respect).
The usually agreed-upon (Salmons: 325, Besch et al.: 2599; Simon: 94) first instance of ir being used in the more formal sense – i.e. with some politesse behind it rather than as a straightforward plural – can be found in Otfrid’s letter to Salomo, Bishop of Constance, in which he writes:
oba ir hiar findet iawiht thés thaz wirdhig ist dhes lésannes
(‘whether you find something here worthy of reading’)

Otfrid is clearly writing to only one individual, so this can only be ir in the polite, formal sense. The usage of du and ir in this manner continues into MHG, where the main thing to note is inconsistent application depending on source and subject matter. Besch and Wolf identify Geistliche Erzählliteratur and Spielmannsepen” as retaining the ubiquity of du to a greater extent than more classical forms and Erzählstoffe aus lat. oder französischen Vorlagen”, the latter having possessed “eine starke Hinwendung zum Höflichkeitspronomen ir[5].
In other words, the more courtly society that was developing in German-speaking areas – again, predominantly due to French influence – lent itself to a certain formality and social hierarchy which could be promoted through the judicious use of pronouns of address. We might note the link between Hof ‘court’ and höv-esch (later höflich) ‘courtly’, later ‘polite, courteous’; appropriately the word was taken from the French adjective curt-eisie, itself a reflection of the Francophile nature of the German courtly world. This is so particularly during the period of the ‘höfische Dichtersprache’, during which the du/ir model is a division between gentry and commoners. Ir was meant for “Adel, Geistlichkeit, Regierende, überhaupt für alles Herausgehobene” whilst du was for “das Volk”[6]; two nobles would therefore address one another as ir and a peasant as du, while the peasant would address the nobles as ir but any fellow peasant as du. To call someone else du when it was commonly assumed that they were owed the respect of being addressed as ir seems to have been an aggressively offensive act, as with the dying Hagen to Kriemhild (shortly before he calls her a ‘she-devil’) in the Nibelungenlied, strophe 2370: du hâst iz nâch dînem willen z’einem ende brâht [my emphasis]. The link between formality/informality and familial/workplace situations that we know today is a later development of this nobility/serf distinction, although even as early as Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (the first quarter of the 13th century) we can find an instance of Feirefiz inviting Parzival to call him du because they are half-brothers (i.e. they are family and so can address each other in a more familiar manner): du solt niht mêre irzen mich, he says, also clearly indicating that irzen and presumably duzen were in use as verbs by this time. But Parzival refuses until he is of the same station as Feirefiz, indicating that social position held immense sway.
As Nübling observes, viele Sprachen machen innerhalb der Anrede eine Unterscheidung zwischen höflich-respektvollen und normalen Anredemitteln[7]. Yet of all the European languages, it was German in particular which went through quite the subtle variations in form of address – especially during the Early New High German. In the 16th and 17th centuries, distinguishing people by personal pronoun reached its height, most notably in the form of er and sie – traditionally third person pronouns – being repurposed as second person pronouns of greater respect in the manner of the Spanish usted stemming from vuestra merced, ‘Your Grace’[8] (where the er or sie would be anaphorical for a title: ‘Gebe der Herr mir den Rock’, for instance[9]). This has its parallel in English ‘Would His Grace like to step this way’ etc. but was much more widespread; as C.J. Wells explains, this was most brilliantly portrayed by Andreas Gryphius
in his remarkable comedy Verlibtes Gespenste/Die gelibte Dornrose (1660). The main HG-speaking characters of the Verlibtes Gespenste address each other in the third person singular, reserving Du for servants or informality. But servants among themselves and the peasants in the Silesian dialect play Die gelibte Dornrose use Ihr for politeness and Du otherwise; only the self-opinionated local magistrate Wilhelm von hohen Sinnen addresses everyone as Du. So Gryphius’ cleverly constructed double play shows polite pronouns of address in complementary social distribution – Er and Sie sg. in the bourgeois setting vs. Ihr in the peasant world[10].

Combined with the predilection for social hierarchy and titles, this ensured the 16th and 17th centuries hit the height of expressing respect for one’s social betters. Brown and Gilman refer to the distinction between polite pronouns of address and familiar pronouns of address as one of “the power semantic”[11] and “the solidarity semantic”[12]. The important thing to note about the power semantic – whether ir in MHG, or er/sie in ENHG, or in many instances Sie as it is used today – is that it expresses a fundamental asymmetry between the two people: if A is older than, or superior to, B, then it follows that B cannot be older than, or superior to, A, but must in fact be younger or of an inferior social standing. This is also known as the principle of non-reciprocity or Nicht-Reziprozität[13] and to some extent still applies between children and adults, or in other workplace situations.

In the ENHG era, however, these social categories were stronger than ever. The third person plural Sie soon came to be in use alongside its singular counterparts er/sie, adding yet another layer of complexity on top of the pre-existing ones (Ihr, meanwhile, was weakening in meaning, since it was more and more used for people of a lower social standing, though it would be retained as the second person plural). Besch reports[14] children of the 18th century having to call their parents Sie – which seems unimaginable in today’s Germany – whilst Adelung, in 1782, drew up a classification of different forms of address ordered in degrees of politeness, placing Sie in the highest position[15]. This was no doubt due to the plural form behind it expressing a particular sort of distance and respect that served as politeness. Gottsched in 1762, however, listed an even more remarkable aspect: from natürlich (du) to althöflich (ihr), he then discusses mittelhöflich (er/sie), offers up the latest fashion neuhöflich (Sie), and in first place comes überhöflich (dieselben), about as flowery and short-lived as a German personal pronoun has ever been (the pinnacle of respect-inflation in Salmons words)[16].
In 1789 the French Revolution fundamentally alters the courtly prevalence of vous that had remained in the French language since its early medieval days: suddenly vous is a filthy aristocratic word, expressing all manner of decadence, and to be avoided utterly; a 1793 decree insisted that everyone must “tutoyer sans distinction”[17]. Other levelling revolutionary movements, in which the principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité are embraced – or Brüderschaft, for instance, or the English comrades-in-arms – include the 1848 revolutions, and, albeit much later and in living memory, the 1968 student movements, far more marked in Germany and France than they were in the UK. The net result of each of these generational movements, in their day, was as levellers that helped erode social distinctions and hierarchies (much as the two World Wars, in particular, also did in the UK); the emphasis on equality and justice made it much more acceptable to address one another as du, especially among young people of the same age: it has the ring of solidarity to it.
The pronoun Sie, however, has proved resilient since the ENHG years: until the latter half of the 20th century, it was “zwingend erforderlich, und unabgesprochenes Duzen von Erwachsenen konnte (mindestens bis zu den 1968er Jahren) mit Geldstrafen gerichtlich geahndet werden”[18]. In modern usage, Sie is used to express what Nübling calls “negative Höflichkeit”, in which negativ does not have a pejorative meaning; rather, the distinction is made between politeness which grants another person space, respect and distance, and positive Höflichkeit”, which is more focussed on compliments and familiarity[19]. Thus we would do better to refer to respect rather than politeness, since it is not as though du is an impolite word (though it can have an undertone of that in the modern era if used as a deliberately provocative word to people of a lower social station or as a non-discriminate catch-all for all non-Europeans[20]). Besch and Wolf’s four variables for distinguishing between people in terms of pronouns of address – age, gender, social position and situation – have been relevant to varying degrees throughout German’s history[21]. In more class-conscious centuries gone by, for instance, social position might have been more important than today, though its relevance is not completely gone; whereas situation is of more importance in the modern world of consumerism and “customer is king”, in which a waiter or waitress will reliably use Sie to any customer over the age of 16. The Kinder-Du and the Erwachsenen-Sie remain in place, whilst MHG honorifics like herre and frôuwe have become the everyday words Herr and Frau, much as the English gentleman has come to mean a man who behaves in a chivalrous manner (though we might see that, too, as an outdated term!) rather than a descriptive word for a man with estates and a title to his name. The fact remains, however, that there are times and occasions when the pronoun of address one chooses in German is immensely important: “je formeller eine Situation, umso strikter die Regeln der Anrede”[22]. The Du-Expansion since the infamous days of 1968 may seem ongoing and irrevocable, but we are not quite in the “Zeitalter des Duzens”[23] just yet.
Bibliography.

1.       Besch, Werner et al. (eds), Sprachgeschichte: Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung Vol 3, de Gruyter, 1998-2004.

2.       Besch, Werner & Wolf, Norbert Richard, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache: Längscchnitte – Zeitstufen – Linguistische Studien, Erich Schmidt, 2009.

3.       Brown, P. and Levinson, S.C., Politeness: Some universals in language usage, Cambridge, 1987.

4.       Brown, Roger W., and Gilman, Albert, The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity,” in Style in Language (ed. T.A. Sebeok), MIT Press, 1960.

5.       Durrell, Martin, Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage (5th edition), Routledge, 2011.

6.       Nübling, Damaris et al., Historische Sprachwissenschaft des Deutschen – Eine Erführung in die Prinzipien des Sprachwandels (4. Auflage), Narr, 2013.

7.       Nübling, Damaris, “Von der ‘Jungfrau’ zur ‘Magd’, vom ‘Mädchen’ zum ‘Prostituierten’: Die Pejorisierung der Frauenbezeichnungen als Zerrspiegel der Kultur und als Effekt männlicher Galanterie?”, in Jahrbuch für Germanistische Sprachgeschichte, Bd. 1, de Gruyter, 2011.

8.       Salmons, Joseph, A History of German, Oxford University Press, 2012.

9.       Schmidt, Wilhelm, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, S. Hirzel, 2000.

10.   Simon, Horst J., Für eine grammatische Kategorie „Respekt“ im Deutschen: Synchronie, Diachronie und Typologie der deutschen Anredepronomina, Max Niemeyer, 2003.

11.   Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987.



[1]Durrell, Martin, Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage (5th edition), Routledge, 2011, p.52.
[2]Besch, Werner and Wolf, Norbert Richard, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache: Längscchnitte – Zeitstufen – Linguistische Studien, Erich Schmidt, 2009, p117.
[3]Ibid.
[4]Salmons, Joseph, A History of German, Oxford University Press, 2012, p325.
[5]Besch, Werner and Wolf, Norbert Richard, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache: Längscchnitte – Zeitstufen – Linguistische Studien, Erich Schmidt, 2009, p120.
[6]Ibid, p119.
[7]Nübling, Damaris et al., Historische Sprachwissenschaft des Deutschen – Eine Erführung in die Prinzipien des Sprachwandels (4. Auflage), Narr, 2013, p176.
[8]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p274.
[9]Salmons, Joseph, A History of German, Oxford University Press, 2012, p325.
[10]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p274-5.
[11]Brown, Roger W., and Gilman, Albert, “The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity,” in Style in Language (ed. T.A. Sebeok), MIT Press, 1960, p255.
[12]Ibid, p257.
[13]Besch, Werner, “Anredeformen des Deutschen im geschichtlichen Wandel”, in: Besch, Werner et al. (eds), Sprachgeschichte: Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung Vol 3, de Gruyter, 1998-2004, p2601.
[14]Ibid, p2602.
[15]Besch, Werner & Wolf, Norbert Richard, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache: Längscchnitte – Zeitstufen – Linguistische Studien, Erich Schmidt, 2009, p126.
[16]Salmons, Joseph, A History of German, Oxford University Press, 2012, p325.
[17]Besch, Werner & Wolf, Norbert Richard, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache: Längscchnitte – Zeitstufen – Linguistische Studien, Erich Schmidt, 2009, p124.
[18]Ibid, p126.
[19]Nübling, Damaris et al., Historische Sprachwissenschaft des Deutschen – Eine Erführung in die Prinzipien des Sprachwandels (4. Auflage), Narr, 2013, p177.
[20]Durrell, Martin, Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage (5th edition), Routledge, 2011, p53.
[21]Besch, Werner & Wolf, Norbert Richard, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache: Längscchnitte – Zeitstufen – Linguistische Studien, Erich Schmidt, 2009, p121.
[22]Ibid, p122.
[23]Ibid, p130.

No comments:

Post a Comment