One of the great irritations of German, apart from having genders and weird pluralising and everything else that goes on… is formal speech. You could say it is a little similar to English… but only in a very subtle way. In English, it’s normal to refer to someone older than you as Mrs or Mr so-and-so… until there comes a time where they tell you it’s fine to call them by their first name. But come on, that’s simple!
Let’s delve into German. Because for German it’s not only the Mr and Mrs thing that you have to be respectful of. In German, the way you refer to a friend is different to the way you refer to a stranger. But not just strangers, anyone you don’t know very well, or that you haven’t officially decided to be ‘casual’ with… or old people. Australians tend to skip the formal and go straight to nicknames (of course that’s not entirely true but you get what I mean). In German, children and friends you can speak to informally, that much I know for sure. Everyone else starts with formal, until a time where you have a conversation together deciding to become informal.
The most obvious difference related to formal/informal is the different ways of saying you. Now, let me make a list so you can see exactly what my problem is:
- du: if you’re talking to a friend
- ihr: if you’re talking to more than one friend
- Sie: if you’re talking to a person or persons you don’t know
But it doesn’t stop there, because these you words change depending on if you’re talking in nominative, accusative, dative or genitive. And if you don’t know what those words mean, then I’m not going to try to explain, because these are grammar rules that the average person generally does not need to know (and also, I will probably get the explanation wrong).
But the average German speaker apparently does need to know these things.
I still haven’t quite got my head around it. Not only do I not really know the rules about who I need to refer to as formal and informal, but the German still gets mixed up in my head. So I tend to use the one that just comes out. This could mean I speak casually to a stranger over the phone… which is not ok. Or it could mean that I speak formally to my friends… which is just weird.
In any case, most of the time what happens is I just mix it up. Formal/informal, dative/accusative… And it does work – I get my point across. I do really try to say the right thing at the right time. But I just hope that people hear my ridiculous accent and realise that I’m not being impolite on purpose.