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I am a native Sinhalese Speaker. Currently, I am learning German at the University. I am much obliged if a native German-speaking person can answer my problem, please.

My problem:

  • In the English language when addressing a woman with higher social status (sometimes for veteran teachers), we use to address 'Madam' (Ex: Hello Madam).
  • When we mention such a person we use to say 'Mrs' (Ex: Mrs. Wilson is the new head of department).

When I try to find the relevant phrases in German, I came up with different answers.

As synonyms for 'madam' : Frau, Madam, gnädige Frau, Puffmutter, Bordellwirtin, kleine Prinzessin.

Out of them, I would like to mention the confusing results I get when searching in google translator. (In different sources, I get different addressing methods)

German word for madam


enter image description here

On the above two occasions, getting German meaning for madam as 'gnädige Frau' and when translating 'hello madam' as 'Halo Frau' is confusing. What more confusing is sometimes I noticed that to identify 'wife', the word 'Frau' has been used.

This is not usual for me since I am not a German Speaker. In English, one and the only phrase to address a lady with high social rank is 'Madam', a gentleman as 'Sir'. So. the availability of such multiple phrases confuses me.

Hence, can somebody explain which phrases out the words I mentioned (Frau, Madam, gnädige Frau, Puffmutter, Bordellwirtin, kleine Prinzessin), which phrase I should use when addressing a lady with higher social rank (Ex: when I need to say "Excuse me, madam" Or "Dear madam" (in a letter) - in a formal/polite manner)?

Vielen Dank!

(If my question should be modified I kindly request you to add the modification)

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  • 16
    You got my upvote for Puffmutter, that was funny. You could have looked up that word (and others) in a dictionary, though. A good dictionary will not just give a one word translation. Even if you use Google translate as a dictionary, it will also give you "bawd". You have to look at the list of words, of course.
    – Carsten S
    Mar 20 at 12:35
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    That list of synonyms has to be one of the best reasons I've seen to never, ever pick words from a thesaurus without verifying their actual meaning.
    – ilkkachu
    Mar 20 at 14:02
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    Well, don't know too much of the deutsch, but you should probably avoid "Bordellwirtin" :) Mar 21 at 18:50
  • 3
    One thing I didn't see mentioned in the answers: statistics-based tools such as Google Translate tend to work better with more context. For translating single words you will be much better off with a proper dictionary, which would (hopefully!) also have explained the distinctions between the words you mentioned.
    – Sixtyfive
    Mar 21 at 20:08
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    One comment about English: you don't use "madam" to address a lady with higher social rank; in fact, you rarely hear "madam" at all. You use "ma'am" as a term of polite respect, equivalent to "sir", as is "Excuse me, ma'am", or "Ma'am, would you come this way please?". And it doesn't necessarily imply high social standing; for example, a police officer might say "Ma'am, please turn around so that I can put these handcuffs on you"
    – user48163
    Mar 22 at 16:37
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Other than the distinction between "Du" and "Sie", German forms of addressing people don't reflect social standing nearly as detailed other languages do (and the distinction between "Du" and "Sie" is more about familiarity than about social standing).

In most cases, just go with "Frau" (or "Herr"), for example:

Ich habe darüber schon mit Frau Müller gesprochen.

Occasionally, you'll see people addressed by their profession, their function or the like. But even in this case, you'd use "Frau" or "Herr":

Ich habe die Frau Ministerin darüber schon informiert.

There are also cases where the title or function is used plus the person's name, still with "Frau":

Frau Professor Müller leitet dieses Projekt.

Frau Doktor Schmidt ist unsere Spezialistin für solche Fragen.

There are some other forms, but those are mostly only used with very specific organisations or functions. For example, there are specific forms to address ambassadors, upper-level clerics like bishops, (foreign) nobility and the like. But if you happen to run into them, there will probably be some kind of protocol official you can ask ;)

Regarding your examples:

  • "Madame" may be used by a butler adressing his employer, or by a waiter in a higher-end restaurant, or something similar. It's not an everyday form of address, regardless of who you're addressing.

  • "gnädige Frau" is similar to "Madame", but has a more outdated feel to it.

  • Don't ever use "Puffmutter" or "Bordellwirtin" to adress a woman! Those two terms refer to the "madam", the boss of a brothel.

  • "Kleine Prinzessin" isn't necessarily a form of address, it just means "little princess". It can be fine to use it with little girls you're familiar with. It can also be used for older girls or women to insult them, like an ironic "Is everything to the little princess' satisfaction?"

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    Don't ever use "Puffmutter" or "Bordellwirtin" to adress a woman! +100 Mar 20 at 1:00
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    Immer diese pauschalen Vorschriften. Für eine Puffmutter ist Puffmutter nicht die schlechteste Anrede, und wenn man eine Frau beleidigen will ist "Puffmutter" auch keine schlechte Wahl. Sicherlich besser als Bordellwirtin. Mar 20 at 23:26
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    @userunknown Mir ist einmal gesagt worden, ich solle hier auf Stackexchange in Kommentaren keinen Spott verbreiten. Eigentlich wollte ich empfehlen eine Vorgesetzte exakt einmal nur so zu nennen! ;) Mar 21 at 0:14
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    @nick012000 Yes, they are appropriate to refer to such a woman (the latter being more formal). However, they are not appropriate to address such a woman.
    – Roland
    Mar 22 at 7:26
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    @nick012000 if you want to address a brothel manager, you should call her "madam(e)" - that's the reason why it shows up in the list of synonyms...
    – rob74
    Mar 22 at 8:08
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As synonyms for 'madam' : Frau, Madam, gnädige Frau, Puffmutter, Bordellwirtin, kleine Prinzessin.

You are making a very dangerous assumption here: namely that one word can mean only one thing. That is most definitely not true.

The word "madam" in English has at least two very distinct meanings:

  1. A way of formally addressing a female person of high status in a polite way.
  2. A woman who runs a brothel / whore house / sex club

Two of the words in your list pertain to the second meaning, which is very much not what you want to call a senior professor! ("Puffmutter", literally "whorehouse mother" and "Bordellwirtin", meaning roughly "brothel proprietor".)

Also, the first meaning can be used in a sarcastic way to address someone who thinks they are better than others, who are arrogant, entitled, or bratty. This is how you could use "kleine Prinzessin" ("little princess"), especially when addressing a young girl.

"Madam" is not used in German, except also in a sarcastic manner. "Gnädige Frau" is outdated, at least in Germany. You might hear it in parts of Austria, for example.

Really, the only one of those that is correct is "Frau". If she has an academic title, you could additionally use that title, e.g.

  • Frau Surname
  • Frau Professorin Surname
  • Frau Professorin

Note that you should only use an academic title if she actually has that title. In some countries, everybody who teaches at a university is called "professor", but in Germany, depending on the state and the university, you could have university lecturers / teachers who aren't professors. Conversely, in some countries, only people who practice medicine are addressed as "doctor" and they are addressed as that regardless of whether they actually have a doctorate degree. In Germany, everybody who has a doctorate degree is addressed as "Doktor", regardless of profession.

On the above two occasions, getting German meaning for madam as 'gnädige Frau' and when translating 'hello madam' as 'Halo Frau' is confusing. What more confusing is sometimes I noticed that to identify 'wife', the word 'Frau' has been used.

That is not really confusing. It is a feature of many languages that the same word can mean different things in different contexts. For example, a hundred years ago, a "computer" was a human who computed things with pen, paper, and slide rule. It was a job description, a profession. Nowadays, a "computer" is a machine.

Likewise, it is normal that a single word in one language does not have a direct 1:1 translation into a different language, but rather is translated into different words depending on context and meaning. And vice versa, multiple words in one language can translate to the same word in a different language.

The word "Frau" in German has multiple different meanings:

  1. It can mean "woman",
  2. it can mean "wife" (short for "Ehefrau"), and
  3. it can be used to address a female person, where it is equivalent to both the English "Ms" and the English "Madam" (or "Ma'am").

This is not usual for me since I am not a German Speaker. In English, one and the only phrase to address a lady with high social rank is 'Madam', a gentleman as 'Sir'. So. the availability of such multiple phrases confuses me.

There are no multiple phrases. The one and only way to address a woman, regardless of rank is "Frau", and "Herr" for a man.

It might be surprising to you that there are no different forms of addressing someone based on their social status, but please remember that there are other ways to confer that difference. The most obvious one is the distinction between "Du" and "Sie", which is a distinction that does not exist in English. Also, word choice, and in case you are directly speaking to the person tone can make a difference.

Hence, can somebody explain which phrases out the words I mentioned (Frau, Madam, gnädige Frau, Puffmutter, Bordellwirtin, kleine Prinzessin), which phrase I should use when addressing a lady with higher social rank (Ex: when I need to say "Excuse me, madam" Or "Dear madam" (in a letter) - in a formal/polite manner)?

Definitely not the ones where you call her an entitled brat or imply that she works in prostitution, that's for sure! :-D

The one and only way is to use "Frau". Although in your first example, you wouldn't use that either, unless you add either a title or a name. You would either say "Entschuldigen Sie bitte" or "Entschuldigen Sie bitte, Frau Surname" / "Entschuldigen Sie bitte, Frau Professorin Surname" / "Entschuldigen Sie bitte, Frau Professorin".

For the second example, you would use "Sehr geehrte Frau Surname" or "Sehr geehrte Frau Professorin Surname". (In a letter, it is generally assumed that you know the name of the person you are addressing.)

Note that using the female form "Professorin" might sound slightly strange. It used to be the case that the term "Professor" was considered to both male and gender-neutral at the same time, and you would only use the explicit female form if you wanted to make an important distinction between male and female professors. However, this is is in the process of changing.

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  • Actually, those were not my own assumptions. They are the results I got as synonyms for 'Madam' from various sources. Thank you very much for the clear explanation BTW. Mar 20 at 11:42
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    Nitpick: A Puffmutter/Bordellwirtin runs a brothel, but is not necessarily currently a prostitute herself. Mar 20 at 15:04
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    @Pawara And those words really are correct translations for "Madam", they are just mostly not appropriate for your purposes. It's actually not even about German, because it's in English that Madam has multiple meanings, and you got several German words that could each fit an English meaning of Madam. If you tried to translate them back to English, you would get an even longer list because of German multiple meanings.
    – Nobody
    Mar 20 at 15:59
  • On the comparison with "Mrs.": A better translation would be "Ms.", as standard German no longer makes the distinction between married (Frau) and unmarried (Fräulein) (I didn't know parts of Austria still use "gnädige Frau", which I have only encountered in books taking place no later than 1935; maybe those parts stil use Fräulein too?).
    – gerrit
    Mar 20 at 16:21
  • Re the last paragraph: This has even been worse in the past with "Frau Professor" being used to address the wife of a male professor Mar 20 at 21:29
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You asked specifically about academic status. In addressing such a person you say “Frau Doktor” or “Frau Professor” with or without the person’s surname (“Frau Doktor Meier” etc.) When talking about the person you need to use both the title and the surname.

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no literal translation available

Other than in English, there is no common way in German to address a person without calling them by name.

"du" → address by first name; "Sie" → Address by "Herr" / "Frau" + last name

Usually one addresses exactly those persons by first name(s) (given name(s)) for whom one uses the familiar second person singular pronoun "du" and exactly those by last name (family name) for whom one uses the formal second person singular pronoun "Sie".

See the answers to these questions about for whom to use "du" and for whom "Sie":

When you are on first-name / "du" base with someone, you'd use only their first name to address them, e.g.,

Hallo Petra!

or

Petra, kann ich dich 'mal 'was fragen?

When you are on last-name / "Sie" base with someone, you'd use their last name together with "Herr" oder "Frau" prepended to address them, e.g.,

Hallo Frau Müller!

or

Guten Tag, Frau Müller!

or

Frau Müller, darf ich Sie etwas fragen?

Other than the "du" + frist name vs. "Sie" + last name distinction (which nowadays doesn't usually refer to relative social status but familiarity ("du") or lack thereof ("Sie") or whether you're addressing a child ("du")) there is no indication of relative or absolute social rank in this most usual way to address people in German.

Optional: add or substitute applicable titles

Adding titles

If you know someone's academic and/or aristocratic titles, you can (but usually don't have to) add that/those between "Herr" / "Frau" and the last name:

If Ms. Müller has a Dr. title:

Guten Tag, Frau Doktor Müller!

If Ms. Müller has a Prof. title:

Guten Tag, Frau Professor Müller!

If she has a Prof. title and two Dr. titles:

Guten Tag, Frau Professor Müller!

or

Guten Tag, Frau Professor Doktor Doktor Müller!

Chaining titles like this is unusual in spoken language. It could happen in a laudatory speech, though, when someone wants to emphasize the academic accomplishments of the person to be honored. Usually, you'd just use the highest title, if any at all. If in doubt, use only the highest title. Chaining them in situations where it's not customary can come off as very sarcastic.

When chaining academic titles, list them highest-to-lowest. ("Professor" before "Doktor".) Note that the usual Bachelor and Master degrees don't come with such a "Namenszusatz", i.e,. won't cause any title to be added to the name.

When using both academic and aristocratic titles, list the academic ones first:

Guten Tag, Frau Doktor Gräfin von Brühl!

Substituting titles

You can substitute either "Herr" / "Frau" or the last name (but not both) by an academic title:

Guten Tag, Frau Doktor!

or

Guten Tag, Doktor Müller!

but not

Guten Tag, Doktor!

You may however replace the whole name by an aristocratic title. Whether this requires some grade of familiarity with the person, I'm not sure:

Guten Tag, Frau Gräfin!

or

Guten Tag, Gräfin von Brühl!

or

Guten Tag, Gräfin!

What if you don't know their name nor their title(s)?

Default option: Apology

If you need to get their attention / make them aware that you're speaking to them, begin with a (pro-forma) apology:

Verzeihung, können Sie mir sagen, wie ...

or

Entschuldigung, darf ich Sie etwas fragen?

or

Entschuldigen Sie. Können Sie mir erklären, wie ...

When you don't need to get their attention, because they're already aware that you'll speak to them, you may put in the apology anyway (e.g. if you're aware that you've interrupted them in some other work) or just begin with what you want to ask or say:

Können Sie mir sagen, wie ...

or

Darf ich Sie etwas fragen?

or

Können Sie mir erklären, wie ...

Alternative: Use title-like positions

Some few (mostly political or administrative) positions can be used like academic or aristocratic titles:

  • Guten Tag, Frau Ministerin!
  • Guten Tag, Frau Direktorin!
In Switzerland
  • Guten Tag, Frau Bundesrätin!
  • Guten Tag, Frau Nationalrätin!
  • Guten Tag, Frau Ständerätin!
  • Guten Tag, Frau Kantonsrätin!
  • Guten Tag, Frau Landammann!
In Austria
  • Guten Tag, Frau Obenstudienrätin!

Do not use professions for addressing someone

In former times, it was usual to address people by their profession. (This might be how many last names like "Müller" (miller), "Maier" (tax collector, same etymology as English "Mayor"), "Schumacher" (shoe maker) etc. came to be back then.) This isn't common anymore and can come off as offensive, as it might be interpreted as reducing a person to their job.

Do not use spouse's title(s), unless you're sure it's OK

In former times, it was usual to address married women with the title or position of their husband.

A woman who was herself a director would often be "Frau Direktorin", while a director's wife who didn't hold that position herself would often be "Frau Direktor". This isn't common anymore in Switzerland and Germany and can come off as offensive, as it might be interpreted as defining a person by who they're married to. I'm unsure about the situation in Austria, it might or might not still be common there.

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  • Re your "du/Sie" section: As ecetptions, there are also the Hamburger Sie (Sie+Vorname) and the Münchner Du (du+Nachname) Mar 20 at 21:33
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    Yes, @HagenvonEitzen there are regional and situational exceptions. A foreign speaker wouldn't be expected to know about those and even less so to follow them. So sticking with the standard use should be fine, at least for the beginning.
    – das-g
    Mar 21 at 22:39
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Pretty much all are blatantly odd, except Frau. You usually know the name of the person you adress so, you can use

Sehr geehrte Frau Professor X,

or

Sehr geehrte Frau Professorin X,

I'd advise you to look for each word independently in the reverse search (doesn't Prinzessin suggest princess literally? This would be quite bad in a salutation, just bounded below by Bordellwirtin and Puffmutter, among the translations [not "synonyms"] you give.)

If you write a letter in paper (instead of e-mail) you would mention also the full list of titles, in the headings, see the example in Duden, which is of the following type:

Universität Dingenskirchen
Prof. Dr. habil. Musterfrau

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  • Yes, this is the answer I was looking for. I needed to know this sort of justification. Because I was to use the phrases available in search results. I was not so sure about them. Mar 19 at 19:13
  • Oh, were you asking about how to address someone in a letter, @PawaraSiriwardhane? I've assumed the question was about addressing someone in person to begin a conversation.
    – das-g
    Mar 31 at 20:01
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"Ma'am" and "Sir" have indeed no direct translation. We don't quite address other people in this anonymous way.

In an academic setting the correct way to address academic superiors depends a little on how old and conservative they are: You probably don't make a mistake when you address the department's eminence grise in formal dress with "Frau Professorin". On the other hand, the 30 year old post doc leading the lab team where you are pursuing your PhD in Jeans and T-Shirt can often be addressed with the peer-to-peer first name and "Du", no title attached. When unsure, it is safer to start with last "Herr/Frau lastname" plus "Sie" and watch the reaction. Typically the second sentence you'll hear in an informal group is "Übrigens, wir duzen uns hier alle. Ich bin der Thomas. Willkommen im Club" or the like. As a non-native speaker you have a lot of leeway in any case.

Other settings

In the military the equivalent in German is to use the officer grade: "Yes, Sir!" = "Jawoll, Herr Oberleutnant!" (and again, the text box is too small for the German translation...).

There is a near-equivalent in every-day settings where somebody in the function of a clerk or service person addresses a customer: We use the possessive pronoun, akin to "Mylord". "Can I help you, Sir?" = "Kann ich Ihnen helfen, mein Herr?" It is quite formal though and perhaps on the verge of becoming outdated, the way "gnädiger Herr" went. I have also been addressed with "Was darf ich Ihnen bringen, der Herr?" by waiters.

But I think it is more common to simply extend a greeting (I hope that's the right idiom) as a way to enter into the dialog: "Guten Tag, was darf ich Ihnen bringen/kann ich Ihnen behilflich sein?"

If there is a pronounced age difference it is also common to address a customer etc. as "junger Mann/Junge Frau": "Junger Mann, kann ich Ihnen helfen?" But that is sometimes bordering on the insolent, especially if the addressed person is not really a teenager any longer. And of course "Can I help you" means "go away" anyway ... ;-).

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  • Is there a female equivalent of mein Herr? To me meine Dame sounds more antiquated.
    – gerrit
    Mar 22 at 14:27
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    @gerrit No, "meine Dame" is the exact female equivalent. Mar 22 at 16:33
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Not a complete answer, but a subtle remark to the answers of fdb and HenningKockerbeck.

In Austria, where especially elder people are very keen on being addressed with their academic degree, there is the following subtlety:

If you call a woman

Frau Professor or Frau Doktor,

it might be seen as an implicit remark that this elder woman is married to a professor or doctor. It was the case quite a while ago that women where addressed with the title of the husband indicating their social status. It is outdated now, but still common when dealing with elder people. In contrast, to address without any doubt the academic status of the person, rather use

Frau Professorin or Frau Doktorin.

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  • Welcome to German SE! I guess what you identified as 'my' answer was in fact the answer of @HenningKockerbeck where I corrected a typo. Mar 21 at 13:18
  • @amadeusamadeus already corrected, thanks!
    – mdot
    Mar 21 at 13:24
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Sehr geehrte Frau XYZ => When not sure of academic status.

Sehr geehrte Frau Dr. XYZ => When she has a phd.

Sehr geehrte Frau Professor XYZ => When she is habilitated.

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