Point of view, the T-V distinction and the Ingeborg Bachmann prize

This is the post I had drafted and intended to post yesterday, before that Strunk and White business diverted my attention. It is long and full of technical details regarding linguistics, narrative perspective and contemporary German literature:

The 2011 Ingeborg Bachmann prize for German language literature goes to Austrian writer Maja Haderlap. The Ingeborg Bachmann prize is awarded in a sort of workshop setting, the Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur in Klagenfurt, Austria, where the contestants reading previously unpublished texts, which are then criticized by a panel of writers and literary critics.

The Bachmann readings are broadcast live on TV. I always try to catch as many of those broadcasts as I can (the timing is awful, morning and early afternoon). Because even though I don’t write in German and don’t write realist literary fiction (which is what the Bachmann prize is heavily weighed towards), I like listening to what worked for the critics and what didn’t. Which is often very different from what worked for me and what didn’t.

If you want to read the texts, you can do so on the official site. They also have videos of the readings and jury discussions. There even are translations into eight different languages available.

I actually did catch Maja Haderlap’s reading and I have to admit her text did not work for me*. It wasn’t exactly bad, it simply did not interest me beyond a brief moment of “Cool. I didn’t know that”. Of course, I did know there is a Slowenian minority in Kärnten in Eastern Austria, but I hadn’t known about Slowenian partisans in Austria during the Third Reich, so that was a new and interesting tidbit of information. The text itself, however, was a lot of ruminating about Nazis and partisans and World War II and how the Third Reich is still very much a festering wound, i.e. stuff I and the rest of the German-speaking world heard and read (minus Austrian-Slowenian partisans) a thousand times before in the past sixty years and can we please start writing about something else now.

The critics, alas, did not agree with me and almost unanimously praised the text. I pretty much pegged it to win there and then and I was right. “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, that curious German term that has no direct English equivalent (the dictionary has “coming to terms with the past”, but that doesn’t quite hit it) always seems to work well for the Bachmann judges. Last year, an autobiographic text about an abandoned child in an East German children’s home won – and for the record, I didn’t like that one either.

The text that I liked most among those I heard is Einen Schatz vergraben (To bury a treasure) by Matthias Steinbeis.

The text wasn’t without its share of flaws. For starters, it hinged very much on a twist that I for one saw coming from miles away. Indeed, when one of the critics said that the impact of the text was reduced once one knew the twist, I thought, “Please, don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming, because it is really bleeding obvious.”

But what I liked about the text, much more than the not very surprising twist, was the unusual narrative perspective. For this story was narrated in second person formal POV. Which started a train of thought how some narrative perspectives are only possible in certain languages.

Now most people will be familiar with the three main narrative perspectives in (western) writing, namely first person, third person limited and omniscient. Nowadays, most popular fiction uses the third person limited POV, which has become the standard and in some genres (e.g. romance, but also SF and epic fantasy) only acceptable POV. First person is still quite common as well and is used in memoirs for obvious reasons as well as in certain genres. YA, chick lit, urban fantasy and hardboiled crime fiction are all genres where first person narration is common if not expected.

Nonetheless, there are quite a few people with a vehement dislike of first person narration and flat out refuse to read it. Nick Mamatas goes a bit into this hatred of first person narration in this post at Booklife Now (He is wrong about Gustav Freytag, though).

Omniscient narration, finally, was the dominant form in the 18th and 19th century, but fell from grace in the early 20th and is now reduced to the red-headed stepchild among narrative perspectives. Indeed, the German teacher who first taught me about narrative perspectives in 9th grade dismissed omniscient POV as follows: “The omniscient narrator has a god-like view and knows everything. But in the modern world, God is dead and we can now longer claim like those 19th century authors that we know everything.” My objection that one didn’t need to know everything about the world and the universe, the author just needed to know everything about the story, and besides, hadn’t he just said that the author and narrator were not the same person, went unheard. So did the objections from the more religious students that God was not dead. But while omniscient is largely obsolete, it does have its uses. Paul Jessup explains the use of omniscient POV in epic fiction here. It is also very useful for satirical fiction and certain forms of experimental fiction.

Those are the main three, but there are other lesser used narrative perspectives. For example, there is the second person POV, i.e. a piece of fiction using the second person pronoun “you”. Second person POV is fairly rare, often experimental and works best for short stories. When teaching highschool kids, I tend to mention second person POV as something that exists, but I usually don’t bring an example. For university students, I include an example. Luckily, the SFF genre has quite a few. The Chains That You Refuse by Elizabeth Bear is one.

Now English only has one second person pronoun and therefore only one possible second person POV. German, however, has two, one for formal and one for informal relations, thanks to something linguists call the T-V distinction. The term refers to the French pronouns “tu” (informal) and “vous” (formal). German has a T-V distinction as well, though our pronouns are “du” (informal) and “sie” (formal).

Interestingly, the English language did the T-V distinction as well with “thou” and “you”. However, “thou” vanished from common usage in the 17th century, though it survives in the King James Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and the other Elizabethan writers. “thou” was the informal pronoun, by the way, though nowadays most people consider “thou” more formal because of its association with the Bible. The example I always give my students are the Ten Commandments, something most will at least be familiar with whether they are Christian or not, which use “du” in German and “thou” in English, i.e. the informal pronoun, because God is supposed to have an intimate relationship to his worshippers and thus uses the informal and more intimate rather than the formal and more distant pronoun.

The story by Matthias Steinbeis at the Bachmann Prize competition now used the formal second person POV, i.e. the pronoun “sie”. This was completely appropriate for the context, which is that of a company offering advise on protecting one’s assets and burying a treasure in a post-financial collapse, tea party gold-standard world. And in German, any sort of official communication, whether by businesses, local authorities, the government, etc…, uses the formal second person pronoun “sie”. There are some audiences and social contexts where the informal “du” is used, e.g. when addressing children or teenagers or among certain subcultures such as university students (among each other, professors use “sie”), comic book fans and bikers. But what Steinbeis had written was basically a financial advice broshure from the post-collapse future and financial advice broshures always use the formal second person pronoun. It is a matter of politeness.

Listening to the story, I thought, “Hey, second person formal POV. That’s neat.” And then I thought, “You couldn’t do this in English, because English doesn’t have the T-V distinction.”

And indeed the English translation has to go with second person “you” (because there is no separate formal second person pronoun in English), which alters the voice and somewhat robs the story of its impact. The French and Spanish translations, to take two languages that have the T/V distinction, both use the formal second person pronoun.

This led to a further train of thought about certain narrative perspectives that are only possible in certain languages. For example, I found myself wondering whether anybody had ever written a story in English in second person “thou” perspective. It is certainly possible, though the story would have to be short (a flash piece is best), because “thou” tends to sound stilted and unnatural to modern ears very quickly. Never mind that the grammar is difficult to get right.

There are other examples of non-standard POVs as well. A few years ago, my university hosted a reading with students of the Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig, the only dedicated creative writing program in Germany. One of the students, a young woman whose name I have forgotten, read a story in third person indefinite POV, that is a story using the German indefinite pronoun “man”.

English does have indefinite pronouns, the Wikipedia page lists some of them, but they are not as commonly used as “man” is in German. “One” would be the closest translation, i.e. “One meets someone, one dates, one gets married, one has children, one builds a house” (the story went like this). It’s not a perspective that would be used in English, even though it’s possible and grammatically correct. Nonetheless, English-speakers, were they to write such a story, would probably use the all-purpose “you”. Indeed, one of the giveaways of German native speakers writing in English is that we tend to use “one” as an indefinite pronoun a lot more often than most native speakers. Because while “one” might sound stilted to a native speaker (I bet my good friends Strunk and White hate it), “you” does not have the same meaning.

Of course, all this begets the question whether there are completely narrative perspectives that are only possible in languages with a different pronoun system. Or whether some languages don’t have one or more of the common western narrative perspectives, because they don’t have the appropriate pronouns?

*I usually keep negative opinions about the works of other writers to myself, but if Ms. Haderlap and Mr Steinbeis could take having their work torn apart by prominent critics in Klagenfurt, they can take the remarks of a nobody like me.

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10 Responses to Point of view, the T-V distinction and the Ingeborg Bachmann prize

  1. I started writing a lot with second person this past year. I think what influenced me to do this was the amount of Spanish-language fiction I’ve been reading, Spanish and Latin American authors seem to have a really marvelous fluency with the second person, it does not seem to be used as frequently in English.

    Genius Chilean author Hernán Rivera Letelier likes to switch around between third and second person, with spell-binding results. His book «Santa María de las flores negras» is (I’m pretty sure) the only novel I’ve ever read which is told primarily from the first person plural — so the reader is made very much a part of the story.

    • Cora says:

      Unfortunately, I’m not as well read in Spanish and Latin American fiction as I should be, partly because my Spanish isn’t good enough to read literature, so I have to make do with translations. Thanks for the plug regarding Hernán Rivera Letelier, though. I will check him out.

  2. By the way, are you familiar with Büchner’s «Woyzeck»? I was surprised when I read it to find that German used to have a more complex system of formal-second-person pronouns — am I right to think in contemporary German, the only formal second person is “Sie” taking the equivalent verb forms to third-person-plural? In «Woyzeck» (the only place I’ve ever seen it, but I haven’t read a lot of German) “Er” is used with third-person-singular verbs to mean “formal you” when talking to a man; presumably “Sie” with third-person-singular verbs could be used when talking to a woman. I take this to show how formal-second-person is originally third-person — the speaker is showing respect for the addressee by distancing him, not pulling him into the speech as using “du” would.

    (In Spanish, formal second person “Usted/Ustedes” is a corruption of “Vuestra Merced”/”Vuestras Mercedes”, i.e. “Your Grace/Your Graces”.)

    • Cora says:

      Yes, I am familiar with Woyzeck, though it’s been a while.

      You’re right, the third-person-as-second-person form is another feature peculiar to German. It occasionally pops up in literature from the classic and romantic era, Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Büchner, von Kleist, Eichendorff, etc… The third-person-as-second-person address appears mostly in the context of a high-ranking person, i.e. a nobleman, high-ranking officer, clergyman, king or emperor, speaking with a person of much lower rank. It’s not necessarily a form of respect – I have always interpreted it as the high-ranking person not being able to bring themselves to address the low-ranking person directly, because addressing them directly would make them equal. The form occurs with the third person conditional/conjunctive, i.e. “Er möge sich erheben” (He may rise) oder “Er sei gegrüßt” (He may be greeted). This form is different from the second person formal “sie”, which uses the third person plural verb forms.

      The third-person-as-second-person address gradually faded in the 19th century, though I have seen examples of it being used by Kaiser Wilhelm II, i.e. in the late 19th or early 20th century (but then Wilhelm II was something of a prick). It vanished from normal use in 1918 along with the monarchy and the privileges of the aristocracy and now only appears in historical fiction from time to time. I’ve definitely seen it in Lion Feuchtwanger’s historical fiction.

      Thanks for the information regarding usted/ustedes BTW. I did not know that.

  3. Tom Valentine says:

    Hi.
    Re your comment about “thou” having vanished from common usage.
    I live in South Yorkshire, England, and it is second nature for most peoople I know to employ the second person singular (thou, or a closely related word) in everyday conversation. Broadly speaking it follows the same conventions as T-V usage in French.

    In practice “thou” tends to be changed to “tha” when used as a subject pronoun

    “Tha can tell me later”

    whereas thee is still pronounced the same as an object pronoun

    “I gave it thee yesterday”

    and the same with possessive pronouns, although “Thy” sounds sometimes like “thi”depending where the stress falls in the phrase.

    “It’s thy fault” “Take thi coat off”

    “Thine” is always pronounced the same.

    Hope this contact isn’t intrusive. I was looking for info. about thee/ thou and came upon your blog.

    Best wishes, Tom Valentine.

    • Cora says:

      Wow, that’s fascinating! I didn’t know that, but then Yorkshire is a part of the UK where I’ve never been.

      And don’t worry, your comment is not intrusive at all. Quite the contrary, you just made this language geek’s day. 🙂

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