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Honorifics are words that connote esteem or respect when used in addressing or referring to a person. In the German language, honorifics distinguish people by age, sex, profession, academic achievement, and rank. In the past, a distinction was also made between married and unmarried women.
Sex and age
- Herr (pl., Herren)
- for men (equivalent to Mister in English). Note that this word also means "master, owner, ruler, gentleman, sir" and is also a form of address for the Christian God (English equivalent: Lord).
- Frau (pl., Frauen)
- for women (equivalent to Ms. in English). Note that this word also means "woman" and "wife."
- Fräulein (pl., Fräulein)
- for unmarried women (like Miss in English). Fräulein (diminutive of "Frau", literally "little woman") is now deprecated and may be considered condescending.
- Dame (pl., Damen)
- Unlike the British "Dame," the German word "Dame" is not a title of nobility, but just a polite word for "woman." The English phrase "Ladies and Gentlemen" is translated into German as "meine Damen und Herren" (in letters and e-mails: "Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren").
Like many languages, German has pronouns for both familiar (used with family members, intimate friends, and children) and polite forms of address. The polite equivalent of "you" is "Sie." Grammatically speaking, this is the 3rd-person-plural form, and, as a subject of a sentence, it always takes the 3rd-person-plural forms of verbs and possessive adjective/ pronouns, even when talking to only one person. (Familiar pronouns have singular and plural forms.) Honorific pronouns are always capitalized except for the polite reflexive pronoun "sich." In letters, e-mails, and other texts in which the reader is directly addressed, familiar pronouns may be capitalized or not. In schoolbooks, the pronouns usually remain lowercased.
Declension of the polite personal pronoun "Sie":
Nominative case (= Accusative case): Sie
Genitive case: Ihrer
Dative case: Ihnen
Declension of polite possessive adjectives:
|Masculine||Feminine||Neuter||All three genders|
Obsolete forms of honorific addresses:
In former times, the 2nd person plural ("Ihr" ; like the French « vous ») or the 3rd person singular ("Er" He, "Sie" She) and their corresponding possessive adjectives and verb forms were used. The 3rd person plural as polite form of address as it is used today became standard during the 19th and 20th centuries.
For more details about German grammar, see the entries about the German language.
Profession and academics
- While actually not an academic rank, but an office (or a honorific for former holders of this office), all professors are regularly addressed as Professor X or Herr Professor (X) (abbreviated Prof.). If they hold a doctorate (which is almost always the case), the full title is Prof. Dr. X, possibly enriched by further doctorates they hold, and may be used in this form in the address on letters, in very formal occasions such as the beginning of speeches or introducing a person, and so on. Otherwise, unlike in English it is the title Dr., not the title Prof., that falls away.
- The title Doktor applies to those who hold a doctorate; other than Doctor in English, it is not correct to apply it per se to a physician who has completed his studies and received his approbation (though this usage often happens). However, most physicians do write a Doctor's thesis for precisely this reason, earning them the title of Dr. and, when they translate their titles into English, the title of medical doctor - but despite the existence of a thesis not usually the title PhD, given that doctor's theses in medicine are in most cases of significantly lower complexity than theses in other subjects.
- Unlike the English-language usage, Doktor may be repeated for double doctorates (Doktor Doktor). It can also be combined with other honorifics (Herr Doktor or Frau Doktor Doktor). In oral address, doubling the doctorates only appears in very formal occasions (beginning of speeches, introducing a person etc.)
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