Hustysk Helen svarar: Can I say you to you?

German is a confusing language for many. There are three articles that follow little logic (for example, the moon, female in many languages, is male in German while the sun, often lingustically male, is a she in German). Then there is lots of complicated cases and terrible tenses. But most troubling for foreigners might be questions of courtesy. At least that is what I understood when I was recently asked:

“Can I say “du” to my roomate?”

helen-hustysk

German knows basically two ways of addressing people: the informal du (“you”)  accompanied by the first name, and “Sie”, the formal designation that usually is followed by a “Ms/Mr” (occasionally also with a first name which is then referred to as “Hamburger Sie”). So far, so difficult. But who do you address with Sie (“siezen”) and who can you call du (“duzen”)?

Some German learners prefer to siezen everyone because that way you don’t have to adjust the verb but can use the infintive all the time. However, siezen and duzen has so many social implications that it is important to choose the right form – even if it is a conjugational hassle.

In school

The general rule in Germany is: you say Sie to everyone that is – or looks – older than, say, 16.  Except if you are the same age group. A 19-year-old who says Sie to an 18-year-old appears rather ridiculous. In high school, from the age of 16 onwards, teachers call you by your first name and Sie. (Students always call teachers Ms and Sie. Actually, I even spoke to my kindergarten teacher as Frau Zimmer and Sie.) At university, professors refer to their students on a last-name-basis with a Sie. The Du has then become the address for the underage and you have acquired Sie privileges. Consequently, children are always to be addressed with du.

At work

In professional environments, you should always – always – start by saying Sie to people. Changing to the du is possible, and common in some fields, but the du must be offered by the person that stands above you in hierachy and age. An intern meeting me can only say du to me if I introduce myself with my first name only. At the same time, I must say Sie to my boss or client until they suggest the du. There are tricky cases, like when the boss is younger than you. But maybe then the Sie-Du-question is not your biggest problem. Also, at company parties it might happen that you, tipsy thanks to free drinks, end up saying du to your similarily intoxicated co-workers. But beware – this might be nullified the next day, and you’re back to Sie.

Among friends

If you meet new friends, you can pretty much be sure that it is okay to say du to them. At parties and similar social gatherings, age and hierachy is less important. In your choir, it is perfectly acceptable to say du to your fellow singer even if he is 20 years older than you. 

Friends’ parents (also in-laws)

The friend-rule does not apply when it comes to your friends’ parents. Yes, there are many parents who are fine with you calling them Helga and Horst and saying du. This is, however, not something you should assume. If you start of with Herr Schnarrenberger and Frau Schnarrenberger, you are on the safe side, showing respect and good manners. If you marry a German, your in-laws will sooner or later ask you to say du to them. But give them the chance to do so, thus exhibting your detailed knowledge of linguistic subtleties.

The German practices of Sie and du sound complicated. But really,they are practical indicators of both status and intimacy. Being offered the du means something. Honoring someone by saying Sie expresses your apprecation. If you need to distance yourself for some reason (Ingrid’s example: “getting molested on public transport”), you can respond to someone who says du to you by siez-ing back, thus creating a clear “we’re-not-friends”- demarcation for them and others around you. The German language is beautifully versatile if you get the hang of it.

Oh, and to answer the question: your roommate falls under the “among friends” rule. Yes, you say du to her. If you don’t want to provoke a laughing fit.

A running pass for a pig and a happy ending

Hustysk Helens Adventskalender

helen-hustysk

Christmas Eve! Christmas Eve means a bigger door, usually a door made of two parts. So of course you get two idioms today. Merry Christmas!

Idiom: Jemandem den Laufpass geben

Literal translation: To give somebody the running pass.

Alfonso is waiting in front of the dance studio that he teaches at twice a week. Gudrun has asked him if Günther could join for a tango lesson. Alfonso thinks everyone should learn how to dance tango so he is happy to take Günther with him. Germans have to learn a lot about tango, he thinks, and remembers his diligent dance students who after a while – like two years – finally discover the passion in the dance. He wonders if Günther has more Latin vibe in his blood. The traffic light opposite the studio turns green and Alfonso sees Günther walking over the street towards him with light steps. They greet each other and Alfonso takes Günther inside. “So what are you hoping for with tango lessons?” Alfonso asks interested. “I am up for finding a great girl”, Günther replies. Gudrun’s boyfriend is confused. As far as he remembered Günther had a girlfriend. The tango aspirant shrugs. “Elvira gave me the running pass”, Günther explains succinctly, “so it’s over”.

If you let the pig out, you are whooping it up.

If you let the pig out, you are whooping it up.

Idiom: die Sau rauslassen

Literal translation: To let the sow/pig out

 

During the last month, lots has changed for our German friends. Detlef won the lottery, Sabine got a new job, Günther lost his girlfriend and took up a new hobby that he shares with Alfonso, and Elvira fell in love with Rüdiger whom she now dates. Despite these changes, the friends decided they still want to celebrate New Year’s Eve together. Instead of going to a cabin in the country side, they have arrived at the agreement to spend the night out at a party in a club. “It is going to be an epic evening!” Sabine is sure. “We will dance the night away!” Alfonso says and Günther nods while he is tapping his foot to a tango tune in his head. “Oh yes”, Rüdiger agrees, “we will let the pig out on New Year’s Eve!”

 

 

A colorful dog

Hustysk Helens Adventskalender

helen-hustysk

Idiom: ein bunter Hund sein

Literal translation: to be a colorful dog

Rüdiger and Elvira are strolling down the main street. It is very Christmassy outside with all the lights in the city and Christmas music coming from the shops. For the first time, Elvira and Rüdiger are walking hand in hand. As they come by the Christmas Market, someone stops them. “Well, hello there!” a lady calls. “Is that you, Rüdi?” He smiles. “What are you doing here, Ann-Kathrin?” he asks cheerful. The two talk for a while and Rüdiger presents the lady as an old school mate. When they start walking again, they only make it 378 metres before they are stopped again.

A colorful dog is a person that everyone knows.

A colorful dog is a person that everyone knows.

This time, it is a couple calling Rüdiger’s name. “So nice to meet you again, Rosemarie, and you too, Karl-Heinz!” The two are former colleagues of Rüdiger. After a little chat, Elvira and Rüdiger go to the metro station. As they go down the stairs, an old man coming up from the metro catches sight of them. “Is that you, Rüdiger?” he shouts happily. “It has been ages!” The old man is one of Rüdiger’s former professors. Elvira shakes her head. They have only walking some steps and met so many people who know Rüdiger. “You really are a colorful dog, you!” she giggles.

 

 

 

Pudding walks

Hustysk Helens Adventskalender

helen-hustysk

Idiom: einmal um den Pudding gehen

Literal translation: to take a walk around the pudding

One week night is always cinema night in many German cities. Tickets are cheaper than normal so many take the opportunity to see a movie. Rüdiger had earlier emailed Elvira if she was up for seeing the rerun of “Casablanca”. The two sit next to each other enjoying a shared bottle of beer and a big bag of popcorn. During the movie, Elvira’s eyes get distracted and rest on Rüdiger’s face. When the film is over and the two walk out, Rüdiger accidentally brushes Elvira’s arm. “Hm, I thought”, he says gently, “we could maybe talk a walk around the pudding?”

NB: The expression walking around the pudding, i.e. taking a short walk, is used mostly – maybe exclusively – in North Germany.

 

Whistling pigs

Hustysk Helens Adventskalender

helen-hustysk

Idiom: Ich glaub, mein Schwein pfeift

Literal translation: I think my pig whistles.

The next day, Günther and Gudrun eat lunch together. Even Gudrun had noticed the unpleasant fight in the institute’s corridor the day before. Gudrun tries to talk about other things and tells Günther about how she thinks the meat balls are so good at the Helen Enterprise cafeteria. “Sorry, what did you say?” her colleague asks. “Are you even listening?” Gudrun sighs. Günther tells her how his mind keeps wandering off to the problems with Elvira. “Maybe you should apologize”, Gudrun suggests. Günther stabs his meat balls angrily. “I think my pig whistles!” he says short-tempered. “It is not me who keeps looking at others and who comes home late all the

I think my pig whitles means that you cannot believe it, either because the idea is so foreign to you or because of tremendous surprise.

I think my pig whitles means that you cannot believe it, either because the idea is so foreign to you or because of tremendous surprise.

time!”

 

Tomatoes

Hustysk Helens Adventskalender

helen-hustysk

Idiom: Tomaten auf den Augen haben

Literal translation: To have tomatoes on the eyes

Detlef resigned with immediate effect and the institute’s boss decided to give Sabine Detlef’s job. Both Sabine and Elvira are glad about this change and to celebrate it, Sabine has invited everyone for champagne. Once more, all the friends gather and the atmosphere is festive and happy. They raise their glasses to toast for Sabine. As the new lab leader wants to clink her champagne glass with Elvira and Günther, she noticed they have walked outside to the corridor where they are fighting. She tries to discreetly close the door to the corridor and turns around again only to almost walk into Rüdiger. He raises an eyebrow. “Günther has tomatoes on the eyes”, he declares. “He does not see what a great girlfriend he has!”

 

 

 

The hose

Hustysk Helens Adventskalender

helen-hustysk

Idiom: auf dem Schlauch stehen

Literal translation: to be standing on the hose

Sabine and Angelika are writing Christmas cards. “Cumpleaños feliz”, Angelika has written in her nicest handwriting in one of the cards with the baby Jesus on the outside. She passes the card over to Sabine who is sitting on her side of the kitchen table, signing the cards after Angelika. “What’s this?” she inquires looking at the Spanish writing. “That’s the one for Gudrun and Alfonso”, her girlfriend explains. “I wanted to make it a little more Spanish so that Alfonso would like it”. Sabine frowns and puts away her pen. “And so you wrote Happy Birthday?” Angelika is already writing the next card. There are 55 cards to be written so she is in a hurry. “What do you mean, happy birthday?” “You wrote Happy Birthday!” Sabine insists. “I am standing on the hose”, Angelika says and shakes her head. “I just don’t get what you are talking about”. Sabine sighs and takes out her phone with the translation app. After a few seconds, she shows Angelika the result. “Cumpleaños feliz means happy birthday. You meant to write feliz navidad, silly”.

Standing on the hose means not understanding.

Standing on the hose means not understanding.

If you have not fallen onto your mouth, he are never lost for words.