Why does German use the third person plural for the second person polite?
German has three sets of pronouns for the second person: the familiar singular (du), the familiar plural (ihr), and the polite singular or plural (Sie). The polite form is identical with the third person plural, except that the pronouns are capitalized. It's different from the third person feminine singular, which is also "sie" in the nominative but differs in the other cases.
This is a relatively recent development; as far as I can pin it down, it started in the 19th century. In earlier times the second person plural was used for polite address, as in French. My question is how it came to be the way it is now.
Addressing a person with a third-person pronoun seems impersonal and rude to me. In fact, at one time German used the third person singular (er) as the second person for addressing underlings. This occurs, for example, in Hofmannsthal's libretto for the opera Der Rosenkavalier, where it may be an intentional anachronism.
It's also confusing; I've found in my personal experience that it's sometimes hard in conversation to tell whether "Sie" means "you" or "they." Yet the "Sie" form somehow became the preferred form of polite address. What process led to this?
It is tempting for a foreigner, but perhaps not accurate to identify "Sie" as the polite (respectful) pronoun and to identify "du" as the impolite (less respectful) one, and it could be more accurate to describe the distinction as one of distance ("Sie" indicates a more distant relationship than "du"), whereas the use of the unexpected pronoun can be grossly impolite (offending, disrespectful) either way, unless you can play the cute language learner card.
This page suggests that "Siezen" came into some limited use prior to 1700 in the courts of some German-speaking countries. The spoken direct salutations aren't well recorded, so we don't have a good understanding of the regional and temporal spread. During the 18th century, correspondence between mutually respected gentlemen would often be mixing "Ihrzen" and "Siezen" rather freely even in the same letter (along with gradually simplifying styles over the time). Nobility thus started this. The 19th century is the time when the usage started to trickle down to the bourgeoisie, and later to the peasants. Some niche social groups such as students of particular universities maintained the universal in-group use of "du" (i.e., even between complete strangers) until the early 20th century.
So nobility started this. You have mentioned that usage of 3rd person strikes you as rude. Let's look at the modern ways of addressing a monarch in English. The least rude way to start your letter would reportedly be like this: "Unto Her Majesty, the Queen of Canada, gmcgath sends his greetings." Not only you would be referring yourself in the 3rd grammatical person, but the 2nd person is avoided even when addressing the recipient of your letter as a "majesty" (a noun). My interpretation is that following this tradition shows not only unidirectional respect, but also mutual distance (through indirectness). On the other hand, if the same indirectness of addressing is taken to another social context, it may become depersonalizing and exceptionally rude.
It used to be so even in English, in my opinion. I believe that the somewhat recently persisting usage of "thou" when speaking to God, or in marriage ceremonies (e.g., by the priest talking to the bride and groom), was never meant to show disrespect or to be an intentional linguistic anachronism, but rather to express closeness of the long term relationship and intimacy of the present occasion. ↩︎
Some speakers will consequently avoid using either personal pronoun (I mean "ihr" or "Sie") when speaking to a group of people when they are on "du" terms with some of them and on "Sie" terms with others. Such speakers will rather express themselves in imperative infinitive for requests, in passive voice for statements, and in any other ways which can fully neutralize the distinction while remaining grammatical. ↩︎
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You may be interested in Head, Brian F. (1978). 'Respect Degrees in Pronominal Reference', in Joseph H. Greenberg, Charles A. Ferguson, and Edith A. Moravcsik (eds.), Universals of Human Language, vol. 3: Word Structure. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
On pages 167–171 he discusses use of the third person for address in Amharic, Bemba, Danish, Eastern Pomo, Efatese, German, Harari, Italian, Janger, Kashmiri, Kefa, Lala, Lamba, Norwegian, Nsenga, Sotho, Swedish, Tagalog, and Welamo. Not all of these are like German in that they use a non-singular pronoun; some use a third person singular.
Head also suggests a distinction between languages that only allow the third person when it is endophoric (discourse-bound), as in French Monsieur veut-il?, and languages like German, where the third person can be used in exophoric (discourse-free) contexts as well. In at least German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Italian, the exophoric use would be derived from the endophoric use. This was at a time that these languages used a third person singular for address. The shift to plural occurred only later in German, Danish, and Norwegian, and did not happen at all in Italian and some forms of Swedish.
So the development would have been:
- Mein Herr, möchtest du ...
- Mein Herr, möchte er ... (endophoric; cf. French Monsieur veut-il)
- Mein Herr, möchten sie ... (shift to plural like in the second person in many other languages)
- Möchten Sie ... (reanalysis of 3PL as polite 2SG leads to exophoric use)
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