Addressing variation: Second-person pronouns in Modern Standard German

Jennifer Lynne Gerndt, Purdue University


The purpose of this research was to determine the regular usage patterns for address pronouns in Modern Standard German (MSG). In German there are three second person address pronouns (du, ihr, Sie) which translate into English as you, but they are each used in distinct situations. Most German grammars and scholars of the language have characterized du as the singular informal pronoun and ihr as its plural counterpart. Sie, which can be both singular and plural, is used in formal address situations. In most research, scholars refer to the German pronoun address system as “binary”, thus excluding the distinct use of ihr as a legitimate, intermediate choice between formal and informal. I pose the question in this study whether native speakers of German use and perceive ihr as a transitional pronoun between du and Sie. I also examined the use of du among adults age 19-75. Previous research has identified an increase in the use of du by young native speakers for first encounters and in traditionally formal situations when one would expect to receive Sie. I also set out to identify which rules, if any, are employed by native speakers of MSG when selecting either du, ihr or Sie. Based on data collected from a self-administered online survey among native speakers in Northern Hesse, my findings confirm that ihr does indeed have a greater significance in the address pronominal system than has been previously documented. My preliminary conclusion is that when a speaker is unsure of his/her relationship to the hearer, ihr can be used as both a friendly alternative to Sie and a polite alternative to du. Du, furthermore, is especially common among native speakers age 18-29 for first encounters, without any accompanying meaning of disrespect. Lastly, this study found that few agreed-upon rules dictate the appropriate pronoun for a given situation. Native speakers of MSG in the northern region of Hesse have conflicting views about the use of du, ihr and Sie.^




John Sundquist, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Language, Linguistics|Language, Modern

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