German honorifics

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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.

Honorific pronouns[edit]

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:

Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter All three genders
Nominative case Ihr Ihre Ihr Ihre
Genitive case Ihres Ihrer Ihres Ihrer
Dative case Ihrem Ihrer Ihrem Ihren
Accusative case Ihren Ihre Ihr Ihre

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.

Sex and age[edit]

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). If the surname is not known, e. g. when addressing a stranger in the street, the correct form is mein Herr or werter Herr ("Mister" or "sir", literally "my lord" or "worthy gentleman" respectively), though the latter has an old-fashioned touch.
Frau (pl., Frauen)
for women (equivalent to Ms., Mrs. and Madam in English). Note that this word also means "woman" and "wife." Unlike English Mrs., it is never used with a husband's first name. If the last name of the woman is not known or by domestics towards their employeuse, the correct form is gnädige Frau ("gracious lady") or its abbreviation gnä' Frau, but this is somewhat old-fashioned except in Austria.
Fräulein (pl., Fräulein)
for unmarried women (like Miss in English). Fräulein (diminutive of "Frau", literally "lady-kins") is now deprecated and may be considered condescending, depending on the circumstances, but it is in all cases acceptable for girls below maturity age.
Dame (pl., Damen)
This is not to be confused with British "Dame", which is a title of nobility (which in Germany, curiously enough, Frau originally was but Dame never was). It is used as a direct equivalent of the English word Lady if not intended to mean "daughter of an earl upwards or wife of a peer, baronet or knight"; thus, sich wie eine Dame benehmen to comport oneself like a lady, meine [in letters: sehr geehrte] Damen und Herren "Ladies and gentlemen", and so forth. The euphemistic use is included: Dame vom horizontalen Gewerbe "lady of the night" (literally, "of the horizontal profession"). Also, "Dame" is a technical term for "female dance-partner".

Using "Herr" for very young misters, certainly those below the age of 16, is rather awkward and often avoided (except in letters from the state's bureaucracy) by using the first name, or first name and last name. There used to be a direct equivalent to Fräulein, viz., Junker (equivalent to Master), but this word is now only used in describing a specific class (which properly speaking did not consist of "junkers" in this sense at all, but of "Herren") and in the term Fahnenjunker ("officer candidate 3rd class"), reflecting the tradition that only officers are Herren (though now used together with "Herr", see below under military). Also, it never lost the touch of describing exclusively those of higher class, which was originally true of all the four mentioned above but has been lost by all of them.

Note that almost all other honorifics will be combined with a Herr or Frau respectively (and almost never with a Fräulein); the contrary shall be noted as exceptions in the following.

Clergy[edit]

All clergy and ministers are usually called Herr (or Protestants also: Frau) plus the title of their office, e. g., Herr Pfarrer. Adjectival predicates are only used for Roman Catholic clergy, and then in the following order:

  • Seine Heiligkeit or Heiliger Vater/der Heilige Vater for the Pope ("His Holiness", "(the) Holy Father")
  • Seine Seligkeit for Patriarchs ("His Beatitude"),
  • Seine Eminenz for Cardinals,
  • Seine Exzellenz for bishops not Cardinals,
  • Seine Gnaden for bishops not Cardinals, and for abbots ("His Grace") - now generally considered outdated,
  • hochwürdigst for all prelates whosoever (with the usual exception of the Pope) ("the Most/Right/Very Reverend"; e. g. der hochwürdigste Herr Generalvikar - "the Right Reverend Father Vicar-General")
  • hochwürdig for all priests who are not prelates, and for abbesses ("the Reverend") - never used for seminarians,
  • hochehrwürdig for deacons ("the Reverend", literally something like "the Right Honourable"),
  • wohlehrwürdig for subdeacons ("the Reverend", literally something like "the Very Honourable"),
  • ehrwürdig for (ex-)minor clergy below the rank of subdeacon, male religious not clerics, seminarians and female religious not abbesses ("the Reverend", literally something like "the Honourable").

Whether Monsignors of the first degree (that is, Chaplains of His Holiness) are hochwürdigst or hochwürdig is a borderline case. The predicate hochwürdigst is sometimes also extended to other priests of certain high positions (say, cathedral capitulars), but never for parish priests or for deans.

All these predicates are in increasingly sparing use (except for the first, and except for "Excellency" as applied to the nuncio), but especially Seine Gnaden (which dates from a time when not all bishops were accorded the style "Excellency" then considered higher) and hochehrwürdig and wohlehrwürdig (which tend to be replaced by a simple ehrwürdig), followed by "Excellency" at least as far as auxiliary bishops are concerned. It is good style, though, to use them at least in all places where layfolk would be addressed as sehr geehrte (which they replace), such as at the beginning of letters, speeches and so forth. The oft-seen abbreviation "H. H." (e. g. in obituaries) means "hochwürdigster Herr".

It is incorrect to address an auxiliary bishop as "Herr Weihbischof"; he must be called Herr Bischof. Cardinals are always Herr Kardinal (or more formally Seine/Euer Eminenz), never, for instance, Herr Erzbischof even if they are diocesan archbishops and are addressed as such.

The literal translation of "Monsignor" is Monsignore (using the Italian form), but it is only usually used for Monsignors of the first degree (Chaplains of His Holiness), not for prelates as in English, or for bishops as in Italian. If used, protocol demands to leave away the usual Herr (to avoid the meaning "Lord Mylord"), but this is as uncommon in German that the incorrect phrase "Herr Monsignore" can often be heard.

Higher prelates are addressed Herr Prälat (not, usually, "Herr Protonotar"), or possibly with their office (if it is not that of a Cathedral capitular without further distinction, in which case the title of prelate is preferred.)

Abbots are addressed Herr Abt or Vater Abt ("Father Abbot"), abbesses Frau Äbtissin or Mutter Äbtissin ("Mother Abbess"). (The "Father" and "Mother" versions are one of the few cases where Herr or Frau falls away.) Other male religious are called Pater ("Father", but in Latin) if priests and Frater ("Brother", but also in Latin) if not, sometimes together with the surname, sometimes also with the first name (though Canons Regular are called Herr rather than Pater or Frater). Female religious are called Schwester ("Sister", but this time in German). This is not used together with both Herr/Frau and their name, though in the address, it is quite common to address a religious priest who does pastoral work in a parish orally as Herr Pater ("Mr. Father").

(Note generally that the translation of "Father" into German is only used for the Pope and for abbots, and into Latin only for religious clergy.)

- The office of "Priester" (priest) taken simply is nb. never used as a title (there is "Herr Diakon" and "Herr Bischof" but no "Herr Priester"). In the usually brief period where a secular priest has no office that could be used in addressing him, the phrase "Herr Neupriester" ("Mr. New Priest") is used; after retirement, the title Pfarrer (parish priest, pastor) can be kept if held at some point in their life. It is also quite common to address such priests with their academic rank, if they have some ("[hochwürdiger] Herr Dr. Lastname", for a doctor), or their civil-servant rank if they have some ("[hochwürdiger] Herr Oberstudienrat", literally something like "Rev. Mr. Teacher-first-class", for a priest who serves as teacher of religion at a state school). Professors of theology are always addressed by their academic function (except, possibly, if prelates, which usually, though of similar eminence, they aren't).

Parochial vicars usually have the honorific title Kaplan (chaplain), while actual chaplains as a rule have the in this case honorific title Pfarrer ("parish priest").

Nobility[edit]

The traditional honorifics for nobility are, in descending order,

  • Majestät for emperors and kings and their wives (but not husbands),
  • kaiserliche Hoheit for the members of imperial houses (though in the German Empire only the Crown Prince, with the others merely considered Prussian royalty; in Austria after 1867 officially "kaiserlich-königlich")
  • königliche Hoheit for members of royal houses and grand-dukes
  • Hoheit generally for other sovereign monarchical rulers, though those titled or translated as Fürst in Christian Europe prefer Durchlaucht, and even some of the reigning dukes preferred "herzogliche Durchlaucht",
  • Durchlaucht for other dukes and Fürsten (princes, in the sense of head of the house and possibly ruler of a principality); also used for the members of the houses of German dukes (sovereign or not; bearing the titles of Prinz or as well duke) and sometimes of members of the house of Fürsten (if bearing the title "Prinz")
  • Erlaucht for the heads of semi-sovereign comital houses (the mediatised counts of the Empire) - rare -,
  • Hochgeboren (lit. the High-born) for Grafen (Counts), unless "Erlaucht", and for Freiherren if their house belongs to the Uradel,
  • Hochwohlgeboren (lit. the High-well-born) for all other nobility,
  • Wohlgeboren - by definition not a style for nobility, but as it were for "semi-nobility", i. e. functionaries of noblemen, bourgeois notables, and so forth.

The last one is now completely obsolete, as is the incorrect practice of elevating bourgeois notables to Hochwohlgeboren (which emerged in the last years of the German monarchies to give expression to the importance of the bourgeoisie in a society that was in its formalities still pre-Industrial Revolution). But also Erlaucht, Hochgeboren, Hochwohlgeboren are increasingly rare (and some make a point of not attaching any such predicate unless to sovereigns of non-German states). Austrian (but not German) nobility is forbidden to attach honorifics to themselves or demand them (but may attach them to family members).

The equivalent of a Baron is called Freiherr (fem. Freifrau, fem. unmarried Freifräulein, which is rare, or its more usual abbreviation Freiin), though some "Barone" exist with foreign (e. g. Russian) titles. Nevertheless, in address they are usually called "Baron", "Baronin", and "Baroneß". It is considered incorrect to attach Herr, Frau, Fräulein to "Baron" and so forth, except if the Baron in question is one's actual superior, though this appears often nevertheless. It certainly is incorrect to speak of "Herr Freiherr" and so forth, seeing that this is a doubling, so sometimes the phrase "[sehr geehrter] Freiherr von [e. g.] Sonstwoher" is used (given that Freiherr is unquestionably part of the name of the person in Germany - not in Austria - while calling him "Baron" means treating him as nobility).

It is likewise considered incorrect to attach Herr, Frau, Fräulein to Counts (m. Graf, fem. Gräfin, fem. unmarried Komteß), unless the Count in question is one's actual superior, though again this still appears often

Academics[edit]

Professor
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.
PD (i. e., Privatdozent)
A doctor who has achieved a Habilitation and subsequently applied for and been granted venia legendi, but not (yet) given the office or honorary title of professor. Etiquette demands their being called Doktor, with the PD only in use in the said very formal occasions, but sometimes - especially when specific to their academic profession - the reverse practice can be observed.
Doktor
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 is also 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.) Herr Doktor without the last name is the usual address for a medical doctor, and sometimes regionally for one's attorney (if he holds a doctorate in law); otherwise the last name is usually attached.
Honorary degrees are distinguished as Doktor honoris causa, or "Dr. h.c.". For example, Ferdinand Porsche was the recipient of an honorary Doktoringenieur and would be referred to as "Dr. Ing. h.c. Ferdinand Porsche"
Magister
an academic degree somewhat the equivalent of a Master's degree. In Austria this also gives the right to a honorific of the same name (being addressed as "Herr Magister", "Frau Magistra" etc.); in Germany this is not usual.
Ingenieur
an Austrian honorific for engineers. (In Germany this is a profession, but not even an academic degree per se, which is more properly Diplomingenieur, Master of Engineering, and the like.)

Doktor and Magistra are the only honorifics (other than those of lower nobility) which can be combined not only with Frau but also with Fräulein (subject to the general caveats concerning the use of Fräulein). However, a practicioning female physician or attorney would be Frau Doktor if holding a doctorate; a Fräulein Doktor suggests an unmarried woman with a doctorate in an academic (or retired) position.

Judiciary[edit]

The otherwise outdated use of calling people with Herr and their functions (when they are not ranks of any kind) is in full vigour as far as courtrooms are concerned, where the participants will all the time be addressed as Herr Angeklagter ("Mr. Defendant"), Herr Verteidiger ("Mr. Defending Counsel"), Herr Zeuge ("Mr. Witness"), Herr Kläger ("Mr. Plaintiff") and so forth. Judges are Herr Richter, Herr Vorsitzender, Herr Vizepräsident or Herr Präsident (depending on their rank), similarly the public prosecutors (usually Herr Staatsanwalt).

Military[edit]

The general address for soldiers is Herr (or nowadays Frau) plus their military rank, e. g., Herr Leutnant. If needed for distinction, the last name can be attached. Subordinates can alternatively be called with rank plus last-name. For soldiers who know each other, for Mannschaften (enlisted personnel not NCOs) among themselves, and also for an officer from the same unit to an enlisted soldier whom he knows personally, the rank can fall away except if the subordinate addresses the superior, but Herr is never attached to the last-name simply.

Superiors can alternatively call their enlisted subordinates by their function (e. g. Richtschütze "gunner", Kraftfahrer "motorist", Truppführer "assistant squad leader", and so forth).

The NVA used Genosse ("Comrade") instead of Herr. In the Imperial Army, the style of "Excellency" was appropriate for some high-ranking generals.

A direct equivalent to the frequent anglophone use of "Sir" does not exist.

Civil service (incl. teachers)[edit]

Civil servants (Beamten) used to be called with Herr or Frau plus their rank (for their respective ranks, see the tables at Beamter). This is in full vigour for police-officers (with the now unused rank Wachtmeister stepping in if the precise rank is not known and the addresser is not familiar with the shoulder strap), but otherwise somewhat outdating.

As teachers on public schools are, as a rule, civil servants (and on Church schools often receive a similar status), this is likewise true for teachers, with the exception that for teachers not the headmaster, it is perhaps even a bit more outdating to use their rank than for other civil servants.

Professions[edit]

It used to be the case that the name of professions was used as a honorific, together with Herr (or Frau), e. g. Herr Schriftsteller ("Mr. Professional Writer"), Herr Installateur ("Mr. Plumber") and so forth. This is generally outdated.

Though there is a professional qualification called Meister ("master craftsman"), and there is also an outdated honorific called Meister (in this case roughly equivalent to "goodman"; in use, when "Herr" was only applied to high-ranking persons, for the non-dependent men below them), this was never a honorific specifically in use for master craftsmen.

Professial honorifics[edit]

In Austria - and in monarchical times also in Germany - the Head of State can give certain titles to people of notable achievements in their profession (and, if not for civil servants, usually considerable donations to public welfare). These, again, are usually used with Herr and Frau respectively.

A well-known example is the Kommerzialrat (Prussia: Kommerzienrat) ("Commercial Counsellor [implied: to the Court]), which denotes an entitled businessman. In the monarchies, there also was an "augmented" form of that, in this case Geheimer Kommerzialrat, generally received by adding the adjective "Geheim" (see Geheimrat). This literally means "Privy (Commercial, etc.) Councillor" and is roughly the equivalent of a person knighted for their (in this case commercial) achievements.

Germany generally has not kept the practice, except for the fine arts (Kammersänger, Staatsschauspieler and so forth). People who had received a title under the monarchies usually retained them until their death.

On the other hand, the distinction Hoflieferant ("Court supplier") was not strictly speaking a honorific (though often used as such), but implied the actual function of someone supplying a Court in at least a marginal rôle with some (high-quality) goods. Hoflieferant is now still attached to the companies who had received it under the monarchies, but no longer as previously to their proprietors in person (if they, as now always the case, came into that position later, whether by inheriting or buying).