In most of the Indo-European languages that I know of, The T-V distinction applies, that the second plural form (referring to many people, vous, , and you in English) is used in the singular as a formal way of addressing another person. In German however, we use the third person plural for constructing formal sentences (sie-Sie.) How can this be explained and in what other languages can this be seen?

I can think of the possibility that formal Er (as described here: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%B6flichkeitsform#Pronomen) might have had an influence. I can imagine that when addressing a woman, a formal Sie could have been used. But this doesn't explain the verb conjugation.

The most useful information I could gather on the subject so far was that "Ihr" was indeed used to formally address a person, but was replaced by "Sie" in about 19th, 20th century, no clue why. Also, the Dative form of "Ihnen" and the Possessive form "Ihr" still derive from the old pronoun.

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    Als Randnotiz: Weder für Polnisch noch Italienisch.
    – c.p.
    Commented May 6, 2016 at 19:45
  • In Portuguese, at least in the European variant, one formally speaks in the third person singular to someone. If one where to ask: "Are you looking for something?", that could be translated to "O senhor procura alguma coisa?", i.e. literally "Is the (gentle)man looking for something?", or when speaking to a woman, "A senhora procura alguma coisa?".
    – Bib-lost
    Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 12:24

1 Answer 1


Interesting site here on courtesy in 18th century German.

18. Jahrhundert Anreden

Of special interest to you perhaps:

Plural und Indirektion

Eine Plural-Anrede gilt als höflicher als eine Singular-Anrede. Daher ist "Ihr" höflicher als "Du". Noch höflicher ist es, jemanden nicht direkt anzusprechen. In asiatischen Kulturen wird das noch heute sehr deutlich: Egal, ob es um die direkte Anrede oder um direkten Augenkontakt geht, beide stellen eine Durchbrechung der Individualdistanz und mithin einen Einbruch in die persönliche Sphäre dar. Im Japanischen z.B. sagt man, wenn man besonders höflich sein will, nicht "Du gehst" sondern man benutzt die Passivform, "Du wirst gegangen". Das erscheint einem Deutsch-Muttersprachler in der Übersetzung seltsam, aber der wichtige Aspekt ist: Das Passiv wirkt nicht direkt auf den Gesprächspartner, sondern macht einen Umweg, und darin besteht die Höflichkeit. Ein ähnliches Prinzip wirkt im Deutschen, nur daß uns das heute nicht mehr so klar ist: Jemanden in der 3. Person anzusprechen bedeutet eigentlich, ihn eben nicht anzusprechen, sondern quasi mit einer imaginären anderen Person über ihn zu sprechen. Mithin ist "Geht es Ihm gut?" höflicher als "Geht es Euch gut?". Daraus ergibt sich folgende Hierarchie der Höflichkeitsstufen:

  1. Pers. sg. (Du) -> 2. Pers. pl. (Ihr) -> 3. Pers. sg. (Sie/Er) -> 3. Pers. pl. (Sie)

Wer extrem höflich sein will, z.B. einem Fürsten gegenüber, spricht den Anderen nicht einmal in der dritten Person an, sondern baut eine weitere Stufe der Indirektion ein. In diesem Fall kommen Worte wie "dero" oder "derselbe" ins Spiel, die eine besondere, noch indirektere Form der dritten Person darstellen: "Darf ich bei Dero Gnaden um Audienz ersuchen?"


A plural form of address is considered more polite than the singular form. That's why "Ihr" is more polite than "Du". It's even more polite to not address someone directly at all. In Asian cultures that is still pronounced to this day: No matter whether it's a matter of direct address or of edye contact, both constitute a breech of distance between individuals and thus a breech of personal space. In Japanese, for example, when trying to be polite, you don't say "you go/are going". Instead you use the passive form, essentially "you will be went". This sounds strange to a German [or English] native speaker, but the point is: the passive form does not act directly upon the other side of the conversation. Rather, it detours, and that is what makes is polite. There is a similar principle in German, though we aren't even aware of it nowadays: To address somebody in the third person means that you are specifically not addressing them directly, but rather speaking to an imaginary third person about them. As a result, "Geht es Ihm gut?" [How is he?] is more polite than "Geht es Euch gut?" [How are you? (*)]. This results in the following hierarchy of courtesy levels:

  1. pers. sing. (Du) -> 2. pers. pl. (Ihr) -> 3. pers. sg. (Sie/Er) -> 3. pers. pl (Sie)

Some who wants to be extremely polite, e.g. when addressing a lord, won't even use the third person form, but use another level of indirection. In this case, words like "dero" or "derselbe" enter the picture, which form a special, even more indirect form of third person address: "Darf ich bei Dero Gnaden um Audienz ersuchen?" [May I beseech His Eminenz for an audience?]

One other note: the 2. pers. pl. form of address isn't unheard of in some areas with their own dialects. Years ago, I worked in Coburg in Upper Franconia and was taken aback/amused when they asked me a local Gasthaus "Wollt Ihr ein Bier?" and "Was wollt Ihr denn essen?"

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    I would vote for an English translation of this German text-piece.
    – Eunice
    Commented May 5, 2016 at 1:51
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    On your last note: That ("Ihr") would typically be used to evade the decision on whether to address someone as "Sie" or "Du" and sometimes is an indirect hint to tell them.
    – tofro
    Commented May 5, 2016 at 19:35
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    @tofro in that form I know it from upper and lower Bavarian, but in upper Franconian it seemed to be the formal form of address - even among people who knew each other but were still using formal address with each other. It's been quite a while, though.
    – user21173
    Commented May 5, 2016 at 20:51
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    Very well explained! I like that germans always try to be polite. The answer has something to do with addressing with "Er/Sie" as I guessed. Commented May 7, 2016 at 7:33
  • Yes, essentially, as the transition shows, third person (er/sie) is even more polite than ihr, so it became established.
    – user21173
    Commented May 7, 2016 at 7:34

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