Learning German – You Can Say You to Me

“You can say you to me.”

Thorsten would make this joke on occasion.  The joke makes perfect sense in German but not at all in English (that’s actually part of the joke – the impossibility of translation).  This has to do with the lack of the Formal ‘You.’

Du kannst auch ‘Du’ zu mir sagen.

In most languages there is second person singular formal and informal.  What does that even mean? Here’s a nice table I made for you:

Pronouns: German and English
Pronouns: German and English

As you can see, in English we no longer have the ‘formal you.’  We used to.  Do you know what it is? Take a guess.

It’s ‘You.’


The informal you was ‘thou,’ which is a word most of you recognize from your high school English class (or college Shakespeare class).  That ‘wherefore art thou Romeo?’ spiel was all informal.  English speakers today see ‘thou’ as archaic and therefore ‘formal.’ But it’s not.

I will admit, after having studied German, I have gained a whole new perspective of Elizabethan English.  When you look back to how they spoke to each other in reference to ‘thou’ and the verb conjugations.  Here’s a quote from “King Lear:”

“Have more than thou showest, speak less than thou knowest, lend less than thou owest”. – (Act I, Scene IV).

In English today we would say ‘you show….you know…..you owe.’  But for the ‘thou’ form it ends with -st.  Guess what? In German, the ‘du’ form also ends with -st! How cool is that?

I have mentioned this to some of my more literature-ly inclined friends and they mentioned going back to older English.  Let’s look at some Chaucer:

A cook they hadde with hem for the nones
To boille the chiknes with the marybones,
And poudre-marchant tart and galyngale.
Wel koude he knowe a draughte of londoun ale.
He koude rooste, and sethe, and broille, and frye,
Maken mortreux, and wel bake a pye.
But greet harm was it, as it thoughte me,
That on his shyne a mormal hadde he.
For blankmanger, that made he with the beste.

and then some good ol’ Beowolf in Old English:

Hwæt! We Gar-Dena   in gear-dagum
þeod-cyninga,   þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas   ellen fremedon!
Oft Scyld Scefing   sceaþena þreatum

monegum mægþum   meodo-setla ofteah;
egsode eorl[as]   syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden;   he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum,   weorð-myndum þah,
oðæt him æghwylc   þara ymb-sittendra
ofer hron-rade   hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan.   Þæt wæs god cyning!

Ok….well, maybe we can’t see any connection there but maybe we would have to also look into older versions of German.  But I believe it is safe to say that German has actually helped my understand of Shakespeare.

What about the rest of you? For those of you with experience with both German and Shakespeare, have you seen the corelation?

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