American singers never use the word “who”
I studied abroad in Austria when I was at university, and sometimes I like to listen to the Austrian Top 40 to hear a little German. Recently, a pop-rap song appeared called “Pass auf, wen Du Liebst” (“Be careful who you love”). “It’s grammatically correct! ” I was thinking. “It’s strange!” American and British singers would never use who, the English equivalent of magnifying glass. There are more than a dozen songs with the title “Qui aime-tu?” and unless you use what grammarians would say is the appropriate form of the pronoun. Do German rappers have better grammar? What do we have against who?
who is now mainly relegated to the written language, appearing in literature, academic papers, and the Mueller Report. It is rarely heard, even in the most rarefied contexts, as linguists Yoko Iyeiri and Michiko Yaguchi discovered when they analyzed White House press briefings and university professors’ meetings. Using it is a dangerous endeavor, because even if used correctly, it can be seen as “frozen, archaic, stuffy, or contrived,” as linguist Alan Kaye explains. He means “pretentious” but is too polite to say it.
The disappearance of who is not a new development. It has been in constant decline since around 1830. A character in Shakespeare, for example, asks, “Who would you hit?”
Most English speakers no longer have an intuitive idea of when to use who, and hundreds of websites and grammar guides have sprung up to offer advice on how to understand it. Usually they advise replacing who who with a form of he she, which we can do intuitively. Yes he she works, the sentence needs a subject and the pronoun must be who; if he she it’s better, it is necessary who. This rule works well with the song title and the quote from Shakespeare, but is less useful when the sentences get more complicated.
Magnifying glass, German who, is still in common use because German is a “moderately inflected” language, as English was 1,000 years ago. Inflection is how a language changes to mark things like the tense of the verb, the case of the noun, or the gender of the noun.
German is not as complicated as highly inflected Latin, but it still has four noun cases, which are distinguished by various endings, articles, and adjective agreements. In English, for example, our definite article is simply “the”; in German there are six distinct forms which are used in 16 different ways. German speakers instinctively know when to choose magnifying glass because they make similar linguistic choices all the time. English today is weakly inflected and is becoming less and less so.
German musicians do not show us their superior mastery of difficult grammatical points. “Who do you Love?” is a natural consequence of the disappearance of the inflections of English.