There is no evidence that “you” has disappeared.

How has the form of German literature developed historically?

Unfortunately, there are very few texts left from the beginnings of the German language in the ninth century—and if they do exist, they are almost exclusively prayers or theological treatises. But even then, you can see that there is a kind of politeness involved—namely, “to you,” the second person plural. By the way, at least a third of the world’s languages ​​define the polite form of addresses in this way. Usage in German at the time followed strict hierarchical criteria. Those who were better off were dubbed, peasants were to be called nobles, but on the contrary they were dubbed. But since the sixteenth century, there has been a sort of courtesy swell. More and more people have been waving or want to be waved. However, once it became the standard form, it could no longer be used to express literature.

So something new was needed.

You may know it from old novels: nominal constructions followed by the third person singular. Something like: “Would you like to drink something else, mister?” or “Does the lady have another wish?” For a while, there were many variants side by side, until around the middle of the 19th century, ‘Du’ and ‘Sie’ prevailed.

Today you have to choose one of the two formats in each situation.

exactly! It is always either or. We’re both on “you” now. This can remain so until the end of our lives. But once we’ve moved on to “you,” there’s no turning back. It’s virtually impossible to pull a ‘Du’ out of someone ever again. This was not the case with such strictness until the late eighteenth century. You can use pronouns strategically – to create distance or closeness. Already in the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, two characters addressing each other—as might be expected given their social status—address each other using the polite pronoun, i.e. changing to “you” within a dialogue. The function of the temporary “du” is to create a particularly discreet atmosphere on the occasion of an embarrassing message.

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What are common strategies for introducing a “Du” to someone these days?

You can make it upfront and just say, “Man, we’ve known each other for a long time. Shouldn’t we tell you to each other? My name is Horst.” Depending on the situation, this may be totally inappropriate because the other person isn’t ready yet. The problem with this is that anyone who’s been offered it ‘can’t actually turn it down. So you can prepare the move more subtly by using non-obvious forms like “Will you be there tomorrow too?” And wait for the reaction. In written communication, there is also a strategy of signing your first name and seeing if the other person agrees. Most often this is done in English.

“There is no language I know of that stands for hair color or shoe size. Language expresses what is important to society.”

Can you identify the most polite language?

Any (laughs). Just in a different way. But I think what you get is the language that has the most elements of grammatical grace. There are languages ​​like Japanese and Korean, but there is also the ancient Aztec language, in which literature is grammatically distinct in many places. In German, for example, I only do this when I’m directly referring to someone. For example, if you say “The sun is shining today,” the sentence is always the same. In Japanese, you add a suffix to “it seems” to indicate that you are polite. The end has no other intrinsic function. And what makes a language like Japanese particularly complex for us is that there are not only these suffixes, but a number of different grammatical patterns that express politeness. There are special sentence constructions, negative constructions, the possessive is formed differently and much more. I don’t know if this means the most polite language, but at least a Japanese person constantly expresses the social relationship they have with their counterpart.

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What does that say about society when literature is so important?

It constantly challenges Japanese speakers to think about their social status and relationships. I must immediately consider whether my counterpart is greater or lesser, above or below me, belonging to my group or another. It is an important social marker. Just as the supposed gender of the person or other person being referred to has an influence on many languages. On the other hand, there is no language I know of that stands for hair color or shoe size. Language expresses what is important to society.

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