How did this word mean three different pronouns?

When learning languages, one can never escape from having to learn about pronouns. For some, it is quite “straightforward”, while for others, not so much. As such, I was not surprised to see some of my classmates in German class trying to understand which pronoun this one word meant in certain contexts, written or spoken. This word is “sie”, or “Sie”.

The word “sie” is used to refer to both the pronouns “she” and “they”, while “Sie” is used to refer to the formal “you”. If this word does not come in at the front of the sentence, they should be quite easy to tell apart, since “Sie” is always capitalised when referring to the formal you, and different verb conjugations exist for “sie” and “sie” (like sie hat – she has, and sie haben – they have).

But capitalised or not, they all have the same pronunciation, causing a bit of confusion when telling apart the “sie”, especially between the “sie” and “Sie” meaning “they” and “you” respectively, since these pronouns follow the same conjugation patterns for every single tense. This is where context comes in. Sometimes, you would be able to deduce the meaning of “sie/Sie” based on the context of a conversation topic. Still, this presents some confusion or ambiguity when presented with some German verb conjugation exercises like:

  • Sie ______ (fahren) nach Bahnhof.

Many sites have shown what the differences are, but here, we will dive into why these differences are what they are. This involves a fair bit of etymology, and muddied waters of the history behind these different words. Since the modern Standard German spoken today is largely based off High German dialects, we would consider the word histories as they were for High German. So let us explore this one by one!

Sie (she)

Coming from the Old High German word siu, this pronoun is a cognate with a couple of other Germanic words like 𐍃𐌹 from the Gothic language, and sēo from Old English. The latter was used to mean “that one (female)”. Alternative writing for siu included si as well.

It does sound fairly straightforward to see how this siu morphed and changed into the word sie over several centuries. That is, until…

Sie (they)

Before we start, we have to make a note that German has three grammatical genders, which are the masculine, feminine, and the neuter. Today, this “sie” used to refer to “they” encompasses nouns of all three grammatical genders. However, this is not always the case. In Old High German, separate pronouns were used to refer to the plural third-person pronoun for each grammatical gender. So there were three different words to mean “they” back in those days.

These words were sie for the plural masculine, sio for the plural feminine, and siu for the plural neuter. So it is possible that at some point, these pronouns just merged into a sie over time. But do you see a little problem here?

siu in Old High German could have meant both “she” and “they (neuter)”. While this presented some ambiguity, note that these pronouns would have followed different conjugation patterns, so their meaning could have been distinguished based on these differences, or by context. I am not sure if conjugation exercises existed in say, 9th century Old High German, so there is that. More seriously speaking though, this could be a reason why alternative spellings existed for siu to mean “she”, or that changes for siu into si to mean “she” occurred during the era of Old High German.

Sie (formal you)

Understanding this one would require some knowledge on how society was organised in medieval times. Royalty, nobility, and other higher class citizens often demanded to be addressed differently by commoners, as a show of respect, or to be distinguished from the commoners.

So in medieval times, royalty would address commoners using the third person singular pronouns (think er/sie), while demanding to be addressed using the second person plural pronoun (think ihr) from the commoners. The relatively lower ranking royalty, nobility, or higher class citizens would be addressed in the third person plural pronoun (think Sie). This capitalisation when written suggests a distinction of a person of relative power or status in a text compared to those who would have been otherwise be written as er or sie. It is unclear when this capitalisation occurred, or when it became the orthographical standard, however. Additionally, this method of referral for the lower ranking royalty, nobility, or higher class could suggest why sie (they) and Sie follow identical conjugation patterns.

As language evolved into modernity, German society decided that it would be impolite to address someone in the third person singular when they are present, and also somehow dropping the second person plural pronoun in favour of the third person plural pronoun to mean the formal “you”. This meant that Sie, originally used to refer to “they” (as sie), would also be used to mean “you” in formal contexts.

This is in contrast to French, which kept the second person plural and used vous to mean both polite “you”, and plural “you”. English, however, dropped the second person singular pronoun thou, keeping the formal term instead, hence we only use the word “you” in English today, rather than both “you” and “thou”.

It is a fairly messy dive into where these words come from, since pronouns like these form what we could say is among the essential word class used in speech. However, we did manage to explore how these similar-looking words were derived from Old High German, and I hope you have learned a thing or two through this little dive today.

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