Du or Sie? A tale of awkwardness

Sprechen Sie Du?

What happens when a sort-of German dude, softened by years of Californian informality, returns to Germany and encounters the natives?

Why, it’s friggin’ awkward, of course. Just one aspect: When meeting different kinds of people, should I use Sie or Du, the formal or the informal version of “you”?

The resulting contortions, as I tell them in The Economist’s sister publication Intelligent Life, are meant to be amusing. So go be amused, please, and have compassion with me.

(BTW, the English “you” is actually the formal second person, which completely replaced the informal “thou” centuries ago.)

When a dog is not a Dogge

As you know by now, I am an amateur etymologist (ie, one who is probably wrong most of the time). And when I’m not tracing words from Western languages to Sanskrit, I like to ponder the languages I know best, which are English and German.

And it’s the little quirks that I enjoy.

Thus, for instance, it is no surprise at all that most Anglo-Saxon words in English have the same, or a very similar, root as their German equivalents:

  • arm = Arm
  • finger = Finger
  • (to) begin = begin(nen)
  • (to) bring = bring(en)
  • and so on.

Slightly more interesting is the subtle but cumulatively substantive change in connotation of certain words that once (in the fifth century) were the same:


  • come = kom(men), and
  • become = bekom(men)

But (and this has caused much humorous confusion), bekommen in German now means get, not become. Keep this in mind next time you hear a German tourist inquiring of his waiter whether he might please become a hot dog.

And here is the one that really puzzles me. Etymologically, it is obvious that

  • dog = Dogge, and
  • hound = Hund

Except that something strange has happened.

Dog is the generic English word for the entire species. But Dogge is the specific German words for just one breed within that species, the one English speakers call … the Great Dane (thus dragging a third Germanic nation into this).

Hund, meanwhile, is the German word for the species, whereas hound is a somewhat more specific English word for a type of dog used for hunting, such as this one:

Divided by a common language, as Churchill might have said once again, had he also known German.
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On English (and other dialects of Sanskrit)

I mentioned en passant in the previous post that the Sanskrit word vira, hero, is related to the Latin vir, man, and thus to our virtue and virility. And, of course, to the Modern Hindi vir, brave. (Thank you, Susan.)

Well, that sort of thing brings out the language geek in me, and I can’t help myself. There is something beautifully mysterious in this common Indo-European heritage (pictured above just after the fall of the Western Roman Empire) of our Western languages and this Eastern Ur-language, Sanskrit. It is like visiting very distant relatives and suddenly seeing a nose, a toe, a tilt of the head or an allergic sneeze that is exactly like your own and makes you imagine the stories of the past that unite you.

So indulge me in some word play.

The easiest way to compare languages is by counting to ten in them. Look how incredibly similar most of these word roots have stayed across millenia and continents:

Latin French German English

unus un eins one

duo deux zwei two

tres trois drei three

quattuor quatre vier four

quinque cinq fünf five

sex six sechs six

septem sept sieben seven

octo huit acht eight

novem neuf neun nine
dasa decem dix zehn ten

But the real magic starts when you compare more meaningful words, because then you see not only their etymology but the genealogy of concepts and meanings (this used to be a hot field, called philology, and is how Nietzsche arrived at his philosophy about the evolution of morals).


Since I used the word magic, let’s start there. It “comes from” the Sanskrit word maya, whence the Latin magicus, French magique, German Magie.

Of all these, the Sanskrit word is by far the most interesting and nuanced and deep. It points to a philosophical and religious concept. Maya means magic in the sense of cosmic illusion, the metaphysical head-fake that our senses play on us. We think we exist in our mortal bodies in this changing world, but if we pierce the magic (maya) by making our minds completely still, we realize that there is only pure energy (Brahman) and our soul (Atman) merges into this void.

Bonus: Compare that last word, Atman (soul) with the German atmen (breathe).


Yoga not only means, but is the root of, union. But it gets more interesting. Yoga is also related to the Latin junctio, French joindre, English join.

Its Germanic descendants resemble it even more closely: German Joch, English yoke. (English, as is its wont, gets the root twice, once via Saxon and once via Norman French.)

A yoke at first does not seem very yogic. But if you think about it, that’s a matter of technological connotation. We yoke an ox to a cart, thereby imprisoning him. But in yoga, you yoke (connect, join, unite) your breath to your mind, thence to your soul (Atman), and thence to one-ness or union (Brahman), thereby liberating yourself.


Maharaja means great king in Sanskrit. So it has two words: maha (great) and raja (king). Now recognize:

  • maha → Latin magnus (great), French majeur, German macht (might), English might & major
  • raja → Latin rex/regina (king/queen), French roi, German Reich/reich/reichen (empire/rich/reach), English rich, reach, regal, royal

And so it goes on and on and on…

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