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].