In the Mountains, Everyone is on a “Thou” Basis

I know the title of my post has a strange ring in the ears of most native speakers of English—”thou” is an archaic pronoun, and even members of the church who are accustomed to hearing and even using it on a regular basis only do so when praying. So what’s the deal with the title? Well, “thou” is what you will find in English translations of the scriptures where “du” is found in German versions. Take, for example, the season-appropriate twenty-first verse of the first chapter of Mathew:

And [Mary] shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.

In German, that verse reads:

[Maria] wird einen Sohn gebären; ihm sollst du den Namen Jesus geben; denn er wird sein Volk von seinen Sünden erlösen.

In the twenty-first century, German maintains a distinction in everyday speech and writing between “du” (you, informal) and “Sie” (you, formal) that has been lost in English. (For evidence of this, see the title of my post.) Even though there is perhaps a general trend towards less formality with strangers in the German-speaking world, this is a distinction that still matters to most speakers, and the choice to address someone with one pronoun or the other is a meaningful act.

For example, the formal and informal pronouns can be used to express familiarity and formality, of course, but depending on the context both can also be used to express contempt. Addressing a stranger with “du” is generally considered rude, but so is addressing a friend or family member with “Sie.” This is because “du” connotes nearness, which may or may not be appropriate, while “Sie” connotes distance, which, again, may not be appropriate. So for a learner of German, not only do you have to remember the different conjugations of verbs depending on whether you use “du” or “Sie,” you have to figure out which one is appropriate under the circumstances.

As a general rule of thumb, one uses “Sie” with people who are older and/or strangers and “du” with family members, friends and peers. It’s also possible to switch from “Sie” to “du”; typically the higher status person would indicate to the lower status person that it’s okay to do so, and that minor social ceremony is referred to as offering someone the “Du-Wort” (lit. thou-word). In rare cases reserved for expressing extreme displeasure, you can withdraw the “Du-Wort.”

For those who have made it this far, you may rest assured—I will soon be getting to the first of two points.

The first point is this—there is another situation where strangers routinely address each other as “du” without any ceremonial trappings: when you are high in the mountains (or at least somewhat removed from civilization). While I have not studied the history of this practice, my sense from living it for 25 years is that the routine use of “du” once one reaches a certain elevation reflects not only a common interest in hiking, mountaineering, climbing, skiing, etc. but also a recognition that out in the wild we all depend to varying degrees on each other for survival. Thus the somewhat artificial distance one keeps about oneself in city is replaced with a certain nearness born of camaraderie and mutual dependency.

I was reminded of this phenomenon recently when I braved sub-zero (Celsius; I may be a glutton for punishment, but I haven’t lost my mind) temperatures to ride my bike up the very last vestige of the Alps in the northeast. For once it wasn’t overcast, and my ride corresponded with the golden hour. I stopped to take a photo, and I was zooming with my feet, trying to compose a scene, a runner came by and offered a friendly “Servus!” (I should note at this juncture that the use of informal pronouns is not the only way to signal social distance—greetings and farewells can serve the same function.)

At this time of day and year with the temperatures as low as they were, we were the only two people out and about in this corner of the Lord’s vineyard—it was literally a vineyard—on the outskirts of a major city. That was apparently enough to overcome social barriers reinforced by language, and the friendly jogger paused to chat for a minute about the view.

While freezing up on that hill this morning, the second point occurred to me: I couldn’t help but think that this was just how Jesus would want it—two strangers bonding over a beautiful sunrise despite circumstances that make most of us want to stay home where we are better insulated from the cold but also more isolated from each other. More importantly, I think Jesus wants us to bond over discipleship, getting up in the metaphorical pre-dawn hours to rub shoulders in the sometimes difficult work of serving each other. After all,

When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.

Wenn ihr euren Mitmenschen dient, dann dient ihr eurem Gott.

Moreover, I’m convinced that if Jesus were to speak to me in German, he would use “du”; that’s how I’ve been addressing Him all these years, and it would be really weird to have the “Du-Wort” withdrawn in favor of a pronoun that, despite its appropriateness in some contexts as an expression of politeness and respect, stands first and foremost for social distance.

The point here is not to simply ignore social contexts and address everyone with “thou” in reckless abandon—that would be as weird and off-putting as the title of this post and, I am confident, result in greater social distance. Rather, the idea is to develop relationships/seek out situations where “du” would be the appropriate form of address if that pronoun with its connotation of nearness existed in your language.

I don’t know if this is a useful way to think about relationships for speakers of a language that no longer distinguishes between informal and formal pronouns in the vernacular, but I reckon that a sense of nearness, however expressed, is a necessary feature of the kingdom of God. And anyway—pronouns don’t do all the lifting when it comes to expressing nearness. Even if “you” is all one realistically has at one’s disposal, the way we greet, interact with and bid farewell to those around us signals just as readily the nature of our relationships and whether we are drawing together or further apart.


  1. I believe one of the reasons the informal mode of address has fallen away in English is a reaction to Quaker egalitarianism and their conscious rejection of the polite form.

  2. I love this, Peter–it points me to a more productive engagement with the questions than my kneejerk irritation at arbitrary linguistic prescriptions!

  3. hurstme1990 says:

    Very interesting perspective. As a missionary in Austria 50 years ago, we used the formal ‘Sie’ address with almost everyone. It was also used between and among missionary companions, sometimes to the surprise and almost the shock of people we were teaching, since it seems that companions WOULD be on a ‘du’ basis. They often wondered out loud if we were upset with one another. (Which, of course, occurred regularly, but didn’t affect our use of pronouns at all.)

  4. one of the reasons the informal mode of address has fallen away in English is a reaction to Quaker egalitarianism and their conscious rejection of the polite form

    That’s a great example of how context matters and how more is communicated than explicitly expressed.

    kneejerk irritation at arbitrary linguistic prescriptions

    Some arbitrary linguistic prescriptions have them coming, not gonna lie ;-)

    As a missionary in Austria 50 years ago, we used the formal ‘Sie’ address with almost everyone.

    Not quite as far back for me, but same here! Besides the limited vocabulary and a heavy accent that a friend’s aunt likened unto a sock in my mouth, addressing everyone with “Sie” was a dead giveaway that I was in but not of this linguistic world.

  5. French has tu and vous for the same purpose, but in Quebec some 30 years ago it seemed like they were well on their way to losing the formal vous like English lost the informal thou. The Quebecois joked that in theory whether you used tu or vous depended on whether your relationship was informal or formal, but in reality it depended on whether YOU were informal or formal. Only the words they used for “formal” were less…neutral.

  6. On my Spanish-speaking mission we taught folks to tutear when praying because it was important to not distance our Heavenly Father from us, and it should reflect the closeness we should feel to Him. In English though we discuss how important it is to preserve (what has recently become) the formal mode of address in order to show respect for our Heavenly Father. I’ve repeatedly changed my mind about what the lesson is here…

  7. Coming in with my 2 French native language cents. Jared perfectly expressed what we were taught over 50 years ago as investigators. We want to feel close to our Heavenly Father who loves us and we love him.
    One way Americans make the distinction between formal and informal is by addressing people by their first name, or using a title. Even in my 20’s as a new immigrant I was uncomfortable with the assumption that in business settings it was ok to address individuals —doctors’ office for example, from the receptionist to the nurse to the doc—without asking if it was ok. Even my 70 yr old mother was addressed by her first name which she and I found highly inappropriate. Fast forward 25 years after I arrived and I was pleasantly surprised when my new female doc of an age similar to me addressed me as “Mrs Smith.” This lasted for years. At some point we switched to first names but it was years into our relationship.

  8. There are some attempts at the familiar you in English. Think, “Love ya!” and “What are you-all doing tonight?” Given time, I think that the familiar you might emerge.

    On another tac, I was jogging at dusk on the berms of the San Francisco South Bay, with nothing but water and sunset and the narrow road. Way off in the distance I saw another jogger. I realized that I was very vulnerable. I thought about my ancient relative meeting someone from a different tribe deep in the forest and how dangerous that could be.

    We passed and I said “Hi,” the familiar form of Hello.

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