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Yes, I know. There are German words that do not have a really good translation in (many) other languages, like Gemütlichkeit, Schadenfreude and Wirtschaftswunder. All nouns. What about the verbs? There are two quite handy ones, that you are likely to encounter the next time you visit the Germans.
The verb duzen means, literally to you (informally) and siezen means, literally to you (formally). Nowadays, these two are the most used Pronominale Anredeformen (forms in the T-V Distinction). Sounds confusing? I’ll explain.
Contrary to English, German makes a distinction between the formal way of saying you (Sie) and the informal way (du). The formal Sie you would use when talking to a stranger, highly respected person, as for example in some circles parents and other older family members, und so weiter (and so on). It is conjugated with the same forms as sie (they – 3rd person plural). But heed: for this formal “you” form, you need to use the capital first letter, so: Sie, Ihren, Ihrem, Ihnen. The informal du you use when talking to friends, most of the times family members, and others that allow you to do so. It is conjugated just as du is supposed to be conjugated: du, dein, dir, dich.
So what is siezen and duzen? The verb siezen means that you address somebodywith the formal Sie. The verb duzen means that you address somebody with the informal du. So what might happen when you meet a stranger is the scenario below:
Guten Tag! Ich bin Klaus.
– Guten Tag. Ich bin Hilde.
Wie geht es Ihnen?
– Mir geht es gut, Danke. Sie können mich auch gerne duzen, siezen ist mir zu altmodisch! Wie geht es Ihnen?
Mir geht es auch gut, Danke. Ja, duzen können wir uns! Was machst du?
– Ich arbeite bei einer Versicherung. Und du?
Ich bin Bankkaufmann.
Translation of the conversation above:
Hello! I am Klaus.
– Hello. I am Hilde.
How are You (formal)?
– I am fine, thanks. You can also call me you (informal), I think youing (formal) is outdated! How are You (formal)?
I am also fine, thanks. Yes, we can you (informal) each other! What do you (informal) do? (vocational)
– I work at an Insurance. And you (informal)?
I am a banker.
As you can see, you will have to wait until the other person tells you that you can use the informal du. Every person has another threshold for this, but it is normally announced when they want you to do that. So, better safe than sorry, always speak to people with Sie. It is always considered nice, and especially when you are non-German, it is not considered that strange, no matter whether you talk to friends or strangers.
Interestingly, in Germany students in high school are called Sie by teachers when they reach the age of 16, as from that age you are seen to have reached a certain maturity. This formality stretches also to the later job life. It is quite normal to stay on the formal Sie basis with co-workers. You would also not use their first names, but, for example in the case of the name Klaus Kleber, Herr Kleber. This could even be the case in schools, and definitely happens in universities and colleges.
Back in the days, other ways of calling people also existed. For example, in the Middle Ages, the “common people” called the nobles, kings and other important personalities Ihr, the so-called ihrzen. In some German regions this is still quite common, although in mostregions of Germany ihrzen was subsituted with siezen. Furthermore, Erzen was used by the nobility to talk to “common people”. Nowadays, this sounds very strange, and is not used anymore. See the video below how it sounds (or sounded) back in the day to speak to a noble person, like this Königsbote (king’s envoy) from the German TV Show Märchenstunde, a comedy of traditional fairy tales:
See from second 29: