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I am translating a video game into German and I am sometimes unsure whether someone should be using "du" or "Sie." I have heard that "du" is normally used to indicate familiarity, i.e. with family and friends, but can also be used in insults, where it indicates not familiarity but lack of respect. Could someone who was otherwise using "Sie" switch to "du" to indicate a low opinion of someone?

For example, the princess is familiar with the hero from an earlier alliance but not exactly a friend of his, so normally she would use "Sie." Could she switch to using "du" when she is calling the hero a weasel and condemning him to death?

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    The usage of "du" got a lot more common over the years. Especially in colloquial and every day usage, you might encounter a "du" in a lot more situations than let's say 20 years ago. However, there are still more than enough people that will take being called "du" by a total stranger offensive. Even more so in a situation with a strong hierarchical gradient.
    – Adwaenyth
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 15:32
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    The second paragraph implies the story is not exactly set in a contemporary context - have you considered that "ihr" might be the more appropriate-sounding form of address? Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 17:09
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    Reminds me of this classic scene Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 17:46
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    In modern german, generally no as others have explained. But it depends a lot on the time period in which the game ist set. You might want to look into the archaic form of using third person singular that was used at some point in time to address someone far below, like a noble speaking to a peasant. de.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – LazyLizard
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 10:09
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    I have see the opposite happen in an office. Two colleagues were 'per du' before they got into a heated argument. At the end of it, one declared: 'Ab jetzt bin ich "Herr Weber" für Sie, und Sie werden mein Büro verlassen. Raus!'
    – DeltaLima
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 13:42

11 Answers 11

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Yes, swearing or insulting is usually done with "Du" rather than "Sie". There's also a popular meme/video around where someone says "Du Wichser" to a policeman as he leaves, and then the policeman asks what he said and he says something like: "Entschuldigung, ich meinte Sie Wichser".

Nowadays, "du" is just the most natural form, and you rarely use "Sie". It sounds strange belittling someone and still use "Sie". Also, in the heat of the moment it often happens and you call someone by du, where it would be more appropriate to call them "Sie", you just slip up.

I think its appropriate in a formal setting with princesses and knights that they address each other with "Sie". I think if she addresses him in this moment with "du" is a question of how you want to portray the princess and the other words she will say. Is she a snob like princess that wants to keep her temper and be very correct? Then she could absolutely keep "Sie" when belittling the knight.

But if i wanted to portray the princess as more natural and also convey that she is in a heated moment, i think it would make sense she uses "du" even if she normally addresses him with "Sie".

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    I'd say that "Sie" is still quite common when there is an age difference (by the younger person), and in formal or professional relations, at least in the beginning. Maybe between older people in general. It's a bit of an intuition thing, age, clothes, haircut, general demeanor. I remember an interview with a former "Gammler" (young people, often loathing traditional work, hanging around smoking, possibly dope, long hair, jeans). He said about that time, ~ early 1970s: "We just recognized each other. We didn't need many words." They surely used "Du". Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 22:28
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Using "du" instead of "Sie" indeed indicates familiarity. On the other hand, using "Sie" is also a sign of respect. Switching from "Sie" to "du" out of anger is possible and will show the loss/lack of respect - the one so addressed is not worth the respectful "Sie" any more.

There is a proverb in German:

Es sagt sich leichter "du Arschloch" als "Sie Arschloch".

Establishing familiarity is - in language like everywhere else - a double-edged sword. On one hand you get closer, on the other you also make yourself (and the other) more vulnerable.

ADDENDUM: There are two more common situations in which the dichotomy "du/Sie" is shown and for completeness sake, hereit goes:

  1. In relationships with a steep differential in authority or power (like "master-apprentice", in times past also "children-parents") it is not uncommon for the one having authority to adress his underlings by the informal "du" while they address him/her by the formal "Sie".

  2. As I said above, familiarity is a double-edged sword. And sometimes familiarity starts to feel uncomfortable. It is not unheard of that someone, addressed by "du", would interject something like "Ab jetzt wieder per 'Sie'". This is, of course, interpreted as an insult - like, saying "we are no longer friends".

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  • For 1.: I cannot recall any situation except for grown-up - child relationships where one direction uses "Du" and the other "Sie". I believe that's a thing of the past. For 2.: that was also my first intuition. If I am not so sure if I "duze" someone I might switch back to "Sie" if the other person is not so likeable anymore.
    – flukx
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 19:19
  • @flukx: For 1, children-parents: yes, this is why I said "in times past". 100 or more years ago this was the norm, though.
    – bakunin
    Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 10:45
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In my opinion, switching from Sie to du indicates that the two persons were formerly treating each other formally/politely, but now have become more familiar with each other.

Du as an insult would rather occur between two persons who did not know each other before at all - for example, a road user who gets angry about another (unknown) road user might use du when giving the other one a piece of his/her mind.

So in the scenario that you are describing, I would probably stick with Sie.

On the other hand, switching back from du to Sie normally indicates a worsened relationship, for example after a dispute.

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  • My Austrian acquaintance says she loves to insult people with Sie Arschloch, but that she would never say du Arschloch, because she doesn't want to insult her friends.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 8:11
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    I feel this discussion is not complete without a reference to Joschka Fischer (who was later foreign minister of Germany) who in 1984 said to the vice president of the German Bundestag: "Sie sind ein Arschloch, Herr Präsident, mit Verlaub". Basically: "With all due respect, you are an asshole, Mr. president." This shows nicely how you can insult somebody while still keeping up some kind of decency. sueddeutsche.de/politik/…
    – Jochen
    Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 12:31
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It is my experience that when people get angry to the point of insulting others, they do indeed switch from the respectful Sie to the disrespectful du.

Although it has become the convention to address even strangers with du in informal situations where a shared activity connects everyone (e.g. in a gym or at a rock concert), there are many other situations where people still address each other with Sie and where du would be considered disrespectful (e.g. in public transport, in the waiting room of a doctor, asking for directions on the street, in a store etc.).

When people want to insult others, they commonly do away with the polite conventions and use the most impolite language possible, and this includes withholding the respectful Sie.

I witness this often.

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Your title asks a different question

Do German speakers who would otherwise use "Sie" ever use "du" out of anger?

than the body of your post:

Could someone who was otherwise using "Sie" switch to "du" to indicate a low opinion of someone?

For your second question, it will be rare for A to usually address B by "Sie" and suddenly switch to "du".

However, for your first question, consider some A driving a car, and an adult pedestrian B. If A wants to ask B for directions, they will use "Sie". ("Du" for children, which is why I emphasized that B is an adult.) However, suppose that B suddenly runs across the road in front of A, and A has to brake, tires screeching. That is when A will roll down their window and address their expletives to B using "du".

So A would use "Sie" towards B in usual situations, and "du" in moments of anger, especially in traffic.

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If the princess is (as princesses tend to be) of nobility, you should also consider an option that is independent of the answer to the question you raised: She could address the hero as "Er" (for a male hero) or "Sie" (for a female hero), especially if she uses or demands the pluralis majestatis (royal "we") to refer to herself, and especially if the hero is a peasant or of lesser nobility than her. (Note that the female "Sie" here is here is not the formal (and grammatically plural) "Sie", but a capitalized version of female 3rd person singular "sie". This is relevant for verb forms etc.)

Depending on the time period your story is set in (or—in a fictional setting such as a medieval-inspired fantasy—depending on that world's linguistic customs), disrespect could be shown either by switching from "du" or "Sie" (formal) to "Er"/"Sie" (singular) or even vice versa.

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  • For the context of the question, this is imho the most relevant answer - though it asks more general Commented Nov 25, 2023 at 6:29
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As others have mentioned, it can happen, either intentionally as an insult, or in the heat of the moment. However, there is a certain resistance to switching familiarity levels, that's usually quite an ingrained thing.

If you say "Du Arschloch" more to yourself under your breath, than directly at them, it's more likely. Also if you have never spoken to that person, but would usually use "Sie", and then they do something bad, leading to your outburst.

As an example, my dad, usually very polite, once encountered a bus driver who closed the doors on an old woman, not realizing she had already gripped the hand rail in the bus and was now trapped. It's rude in general to drive off in front of a waiting old person, but this was a life and death situation now.

He was about to leave as my dad got up and, running up to him shouted to open the door. My dad was ignored until he actually reached the driver and insistently said "Du machst jetzt die Tür auf."

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You must understand that the English you does not correspond to the German Sie, but to du. So du is the normal form you normally use when talking to anyone you are familiar with: Family members, friends and colleagues.

The form of address »Sie« is known as honorifics which means »polite form« and expresses a distanced respect. Although you normally respect those close to you, this respect does not have to be expressed through language because these people know you and know from past actions that you respect them. But when you meet strangers, this shared past does not exist, so in many languages there are forms of politeness whose use signals that you honor and respect the other person. Old and Middle English had this form too (thou and ye for singular and plural) but it went lost in modern English.

The vast majority of people usually try to be nice and friendly to other people, and this includes respecting the person they are talking to. That's why German speakers usually use the »Sie« form when speaking to strangers.

If someone addresses an unknown adult stranger as »du«, there may be two reasons for this:

  1. rudeness and disrespect
  2. an attempt to appear close to the person being addressed.

What is meant by this must be inferred from the social context.

But the situation is very different, when you used to use »Sie« for a long time and suddenly switch to »du«.

If two people who are used to use »Sie« feel, that they have built up a friendly relationship through longer contact, then one person offers the other the »du« word. This is a relatively formal act, for which there is also a whole series of complicated rules, because you are leaving the realm of constant mutual expressions of respect, and therefore this transition from »Sie« to »du« involves a good deal of respect: Only the person with the highest social rank may offer the »du« (the boss may offer it to the employee, under no circumstances may the employee do so). If the two people feel they are of equal rank, it is up to the older person to make this offer, and if you are roughly the same age but of different gender, then it's the woman's turn to make this offer to a man.

Switching from »Sie« to »du« without this formal transition is always seen as an offensive act of expressing disrespect. Of course, this may happen unintentionally in a stressful situation, if this is the case, it is then necessary to apologize immediately.

But normally, even in a dispute, you remain respectful and do not switch from »Sie« to »du«. If you say »du« in a dispute with a person you would normally address as »Sie«, this is a strong act of disrespect and if you do this to a police officer, you can be punished for insulting the officer. (Newspaper articles: from 2020, from 2021 from 2023)

So the princess in your game can switch from "she" to "you" in an argument, but only if she is really very angry and if she really wants to end the previous respectful relationship for all time.


Something else puzzles me at your question:

It confuses me that the princess in your game uses the word »weasel«. I've never heard anyone say »weasel« to another person. This is not common in German and sounds funny and in such a situation even very irritating. A weasel is a very clever animal with an elegant body shape. It is agile and supple. These are all positive characteristics. Why would someone use this word in the context described? It doesn't make sense to me.

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  • Maybe you should ask your question on another SE site, not in your answer?
    – Olafant
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 10:39
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    In English, calling a person a weasel means that you think of him as a sneaky, untrustworthy, or insincere person. This meaning is derived from the figurative meaning of the verb, "to evade an obligation".
    – user57303
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 12:44
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    I think you are mistaken concerning the correspondence between English "you" and German "du"/"Sie". At least as I remember and wiktionary confirms, "you" (object form of "ye") was plural of "thou"/"thee" and used as polite singular when addressing superiors, similar to German "Ihr". So, it's more likely that English lost its informal pronoun for the second person and kept the formal one.
    – Dubu
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 14:26
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    @odduse_of_language: In German the weasel has not any connotation with a traitor who assassinates other people. Saying »du Wiesel« to a person will not be understood. It has about the same meaning as calling someone an apple tree or a faucet or a brick. From the tone and other circumstances people will understand that you are trying to insult them, but nobody will understand in what manner exactly. Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 8:28
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    @PeterMortensen: I know what a weasel is. The point is: It has no insulting connotation in German. So, when a princess says »du Wiesel« to a man who was described as a hero before, it's the same in German as calling that man a handle or a pencil or a plate. It has no insulting meaning in German. I have learned now, that »you weasel« will be understood as an insult in English, but this doesn't help any German native speaker to understand it when translated into German. Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 9:56
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Could someone who was otherwise using "Sie" switch to "du" to indicate a low opinion of someone?

Unlikely. While it might happen, what I as a bystander would take from it is a totally different conclusion: They knew each other, they just went with formal before, because they did not want other people to know. And in a high stress situation, they slipped.

Innocent everyday example: Mr. Smith and Mr. Tailor work together in a retail customer service environment. Their nametags say "Smith" and "Tailor". When talking in front of a customer, they refer to each other as "Mr. Smith" and "Mr. Tailor" to not confuse the customer. In the break room they call each other "John" and "Jack", because they are on good terms and go out for beers or soccer after work a lot. If for some reason they get agitated, stressed or angry, they might slip and one might call the other "John" in front of a customer. This is not an insult, simply a slip in protocol indicating that the strict "last name basis" they normally use is just a formal facade as mandated by company policy over their good private relationship.

A slightly raunchier example: Mr. Smith and Mrs. Doe work together in an office where people are formal with each other. Most people don't know each other from outside the office. Those two are having an affair. Obviously, if Mr. Smith would call Mrs. Doe "Martha, honey" it would come across as either a sexist stuck in the 50s, or... they are having an affair. So if Mr. Smith and Mrs. Doe would suddenly, in a phase of high stress or anger call each other by their first names, the whole company gossip would be "hey, they knew each other? How? Why? How long has this been going on? Do their husband and wife know?"

So if your princess switched to an informal first name basis in the middle of a heated discussion with someone, my take would not be "oh she has lost respect"; my take would be "oh, she uses the informal form, they know each other, and they just didn't want people to know that they know each other before".

If they indeed were on first name terms before, it might be normal to read the official judgement in an official, formal tone, and then add a personal note after it in an informal, personal tone. But that is to differentiate the "official business" from the "personal remark", not to indicate lack of respect.

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It is would be very uncommon that someone switches due to anger. When angry, we are more impulsive, but we use "Sie" vs. "du" out of habit.

For a video game, I could understand a switch back to "Sie", if someone breaks a "friendly relationship" to someone, with whom he had established "du" recently, and this person now became his enemy. But this returning to "Sie" really means that their relationship is destroyed beyond repair.

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Switching from "Sie" to "du" in anger is definitely a possibility. In most cases, though, I would assume that the person doing the switch is closer to the other person and the "Sie" was only used to keep that familiarity hidden. And not that suddenly all respect has been lost.

In my experience it's more common to switch the other way so from "du" to "Sie" if the conversation gets more heated as it helps to get more distance. If I say to my boss "du bist ein Arschloch" he would probably be more upset compared to me saying "Sie sind ein Arschloch".

It's definitely something that might change depending on your age and/or location, though.

For your given example I would probably go a different route. I mean it does depend on the whole context, but, in general, I would assume that in this case the princess is already using "du" for talking to the hero. At least if there is no good reason against it (e.g. the hero is highly regarded). The princess has the higher authority and why should she show someone respect if she has none for them?

And even if she is using "Sie" because of reasons, in a lot of cases you can simply avoid using "du"/"Sie" altogether. e.g. "Da ist ja das Wiesel!" or "Ob er wohl schreien wird wie ein Wiesel?!"

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