Why do people in German-dubbed Hollywood movies use the second-person plural so strangely?
October 9, 2011 1:03 PM   Subscribe

Why do people in German dubs of American movies use the second-person plural form of the verb so strangely? They often use it in place of either the polite form or just the second-person singular, z.b. in the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Commodore says to Will Turner (just Will Turner), "Ihr seid kein Seemann." What?

Is this an attempt to split the difference between du and Sie? Not quite as intimate as du but not as respectful as Sie? Is this just a mistake made by Hollywood translators? An old-fashioned way of speaking? Now that I've started listening for it, I've been hearing it all over the place--not just in Pirates of the Caribbean. People will say things like, "Ich helfe euch" to the only other person in the room.

I would assume I was mishearing something, but Ihr seid... and euch are pretty distinctive sounding. Maybe it's worth noting that I know Ihr is the polite form of the possessive pronoun, so I'm not asking about those sorts of cases. Also, the times I've noticed it, it's always pretty clearly one person speaking to a single other person. So, what's going on? And do Germans ever use the second-person plural like that in real life?
posted by colfax to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
In a nutshell, it is an old-fashioned version of the majestic plural. In modern speech, Ihr has been replaced by Sie.
posted by Triton at 1:29 PM on October 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

Compare Goethe, Faust:

Verzeiht! ich hör euch deklamieren;
Ihr last gewiß ein griechisch Trauerspiel?

Wenn ihr's nicht fühlt, ihr werdet's nicht erjagen,
Wenn es nicht aus der Seele dringt
Und mit urkräftigem Behagen
Die Herzen aller Hörer zwingt.
Sitzt ihr nur immer! leimt zusammen,
Braut ein Ragout von andrer Schmaus
Und blast die kümmerlichen Flammen
Aus eurem Aschenhäuschen 'raus!
Bewundrung von Kindern und Affen,
Wenn euch darnach der Gaumen steht-
Doch werdet ihr nie Herz zu Herzen schaffen,
Wenn es euch nicht von Herzen geht.

posted by miorita at 1:58 PM on October 9, 2011

Thanks, that's really interesting. And it makes sense why it's particularly noticeable in a movie like Pirates. Do German film makers regularly use those forms to indicate something is a period piece, or is it just something Hollywood is particularly fond of?
posted by colfax at 2:28 PM on October 9, 2011

If it's a movie that takes place in a different time period, yes. Triton is right, it is a version of the majestic plural and is used in dubbed movies to indicate that it's not now. So when German filmmakers use it in German movies, it's usually in period pieces.

I don't really understand the second part of your question, but I'd say that if the English original is a period piece or takes place in a fantasy universe the German translations use this old-fashioned style to 'translate' the 'thy' 'though', etc.

It's not used in regular German anymore, except in an ironic way.
posted by Bearded Dave at 2:49 PM on October 9, 2011

Well yeah, this is how it is assumed people talked back then (not necessarily accurate in every case). But it has nothing to do with Hollywood.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:52 PM on October 9, 2011

To clarify the second part of my question, I hadn't heard this usage in any original German movies before. Apparently I've only watched stuff that was either set in the slightly more recent present or just not set in fairytales/made-up worlds, etc.

And since Hollywood film makers often make sort of odd decisions about language even when the movie isn't in translation (like making most British people speak in either Received Pronunciation or cockney and not acknowledging any of the accents inbetween), I was wondering if these odd choices bled over to translation practices as well, or if the ihr usage was actually something German film makers would use.

I don't know, maybe that just makes my question muddier and not clearer at all. Anyway, thanks for the answers.
posted by colfax at 3:13 PM on October 9, 2011

Oh yeah, that makes it clearer. Yep, it simply something that bleeds over to preserve a period feel using an antiquated form of German address.

I tried to think of a German movie set in a different period and remembered Schlafes Bruder --- this is the only clip I could find, but you can hear some of the different forms of address and, to contemporary ears odd, grammatical constructions, like the substitution of 'er' for 'du/Sie' in "Warum lacht er?"

(The movie is pretty good, too!)
posted by Bearded Dave at 3:35 PM on October 9, 2011

My sense is that it's a compromise between du and Sie-- not as intimate as "du," not as formal and bureaucratic as "Sie," but still with a measure of distance and respect. Severus Snape calls Voldemort "Ihr" in the German dubbing of Harry Potter, which is perfect-- 'cuz you definitely can't "duz" the Dark Lord.
posted by ms.codex at 3:49 PM on October 9, 2011

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