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The Politeness Word in Different Cultures and Languages

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There’s something fun I’ve noticed among many languages I’ve studied: there’s a word that’s difficult to translate into English but which is common to many other languages. And I describe it as a “politeness” word of general use, a word you use to invite people to do things.

It’s a word of “invitation”. To explain it, there’s a word in many languages that means at least a few of the following things:

  • “Please come in!” — Inviting someone to enter a room
  • “You go first!” (Indicating someone should go to through a door or anywhere)
  • “Please, go ahead and start” (eating, speaking, doing anything)
  • “Have a seat/please sit here.”
  • “Please have some!” (offering anything — a drink, a snack, pamphlet, your meal)

In the below languages, you use one word to express these things — without an auxiliary verb. In English, you can use “Please” to say any of these by gesturing, without saying anything else. But that usage can be a bit awkward and slightly stuffy.

The most common feature of any of these words is that they’re often described as a very important word to know, if not “the most important word” or “the first word” to learn in each language. Maybe after learning to say “hello”, anyway!

politeness word bowing in japan cover

But politeness words go further than saying “hello”. They inject smoothness into any situation and help people feel better. They can turn an awkward situation into a smile, because someone trying to be polite (even if awkwardly) always helps things go smoothly. That’s why I wanted to include the Cantonese word here — even though its use is more limited than most words here, it’s still a politeness word that’s incredibly useful.

These words are common in many languages but in English they are often poorly translated to “please”. Read on to find out more!

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The Invitation Word in Different Languages — Summary table

As I built this list, I realised it’d be helpful to analyse the “invitation” word in different languages, comparing their uses.

Below is a table of the common uses of the general invitation word, plus each language’s word (in its base form, not a variant), and which situation applies.

LanguageWord“Please”“You’re welcome”“Come in”“May I help you?”“Go first”“Here you go”“Have a seat”
Arabicتفضّل (tafaDDal)NoNoYesYesYesYesYes
ItalianPregoNoYesYesYesYesYesYes
FrenchJe vous en prieYes (more urgent)YesNoNoYesNoYes
Persianبفرمایید
(befarmaaiid)
NoNoYesYesYesYesYes
Hebrewבבקשה (bevakasha)YesYesYesYesYesYesYes
Cantonese*唔該 (m4go1i)YesNoNoNoNoNoNo
German**BitteYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
RussianПожалуйста (Pozhaluysta)YesYesNoNoYesYesYes
Japanese***どうぞ (dozo)YesNoNoNoYesYesYes

* Also “excuse me” and “thank you”, unlike any other word on this list. The Cantonese word here is more limited than most on this list, but it’s still a versatile politeness word worth mentioning.

** Also “Pardon me?”

*** Also a “yes, of course!” responding to a request. Hai, dozo!

Arabic: تفضّل (tafaDDal)

In Arabic, there’s a word which is used to invite people to do anything — to eat, to sit down, to anything, and that word is تفضّل (pronounced tafaDDal).

Variations of tafaDDal based on whom you’re addressing:

  • tafaDDali — when addressing a woman
  • tafaDDalu — when addressing a group

The word tafaDDal derives from the Arabic root faDl, which means “grace” or “kindness”. The form tafaDDala means “graciousness” or “kindness”.

Grammatically, tafaDDal is the imperative of this word, i.e. it’s asking someone to “be so kind/gracious [as to do this]!”

On a related note, the Arabic for please – من فضلك min faDlak – derives from the same root and literally means “from your kindness”, i.e. if you comply with my request it is from your kindness that you are doing so.

See here for more common Arabic vocabulary — Egyptian Arabic, to be precise.

Swahili has the loan word tafadhali (as there are many imported words and phrases into Swahili from Arabic), but it’s only used in the sense of “please” in a phrase, and not on its own.

Italian: Prego

Prego is a wonderful Italian word because it’s so versatile and it’s totally invariant, no matter who’s saying it (and to whom you’re saying it).

It’s derived from the word to pray, pregare. Prego literally means “I pray”, and implies “I pray that you will do this”. Not because it benefits you, but because you want the best for your guest.

You use prego in many situations

  • To respond to thanks. “Grazie!” “Prego!”
  • To invite someone to start eating
  • For a shopkeeper to ask how they may help you
  • To ask someone to go first, like “After you!”

French: Je vous en prie

French is a very formal language, which is one reason it feels quite natural to me as a native Persian speaker.

In French, there are many ways in which you can express politeness. In fact, I find it to be a unique language in which you can be simultaneously rude and polite (again, feeling quite familiar as a Persian).

And just like in Persian (see below), there is a phrase you can use to invite someone to do something in French: je vous en prie.

The phrase je vous en prie, has a few meanings when used stand-alone

  • “Please” — more imploringly than s’il vou plaît, like if asking an officer to not give you a ticket,
  • “You’re welcome”, but stronger, more “it’s my pleasure/at your service”.
  • “Please, go first” (if at a door, and you want ot ask the other to go in first”
  • “Have a seat” (if one seat is vacant on the metro)

Note in the last two examples — use je vous en prie when there is

But je vous en prie also is generally an “invitation”. Literally, similar to the Italian prego, it means “I pray you (of it)”, and implies “I hope that you will do this”. To be clear as an invitation, je vous en prie sometimes does need an auxiliary sentence.

For example:

  • Allez-y, je vous en prie. Go ahead, I implore you.
  • Je vous en prie, servez-vous!
  • Dinez avec moi ce soir, je vous en prie. Kindly dine with me this evening.
  • Je vous en prie, allez plus vite! Please, go more quickly!

This phrase also has a casual variant: je t’en prie. I hear this less commonly, I think because to be very polite in a casual setting is less common situation.

Persian: Befarmaiid (بفرمایید)

Persian is one of my mother tongues, so I’m very familiar with the expression befarmaaiid (sometimes written befarmaid), as would anyone who learns persian.

Literally, بفرمایید (befarmaiid) is an archaic imperative of the verb فرمان دادن (farmaan daadan), “to order/command”. The verb farmaan daadan should technically be farmaan koniid, but this is a more modern conjugation using the compound verb structure.

The word befarmaiid is a general “invitation”. You use it to

  • Invite someone to start eating something
  • Invite someone to start speaking, either in person or on the phone
  • Invite someone to enter a place, or to welcome them in

It also has a casual, singular person variant, befarmaa. But I hear that more rarely.

However, unlike other words here, befarmaiid isn’t the most common way to say “you’re welcome” in Persian, which is “خواهش میکنم” (khaahesh mikonam in the Tehrani accent), nor “please” (لطفا, lotfan).

Hebrew: Bevakasha (בבקשה)

The word בבקשה (bevakasha, or bevaksha) works a lot like many words on this list in having multiple meanings and uses.

Used in Hebrew, the word בבקשה can be used to mean:

  • “Please”, it can be used in a sentence, like “Close the door, please” (סגור את הדלת בבקשה)
  • “Have some”, offering something to someone
  • Inviting someone to go somewhere or to sit
  • “You’re welcome”, in response to “thank you” (תודה)

Cantonese: 唔該 (mgoi)

The word 唔該 (pronounced in Cantonese jyutping m4goi1, the “m” having a low falling tone, and “goi” having a high one) is a little different.

It’s a very important general politeness word in Cantonese, and you hear it very often in Hong Kong. I’d say it’s the first word anyone should learn in Cantonese.

Its uses are more limited than other words in this list, but it is still a politeness word of general use (and it has some unique meanings).

It has three main meanings

  • “Excuse me”, e.g. to get a server or attendant’s attention,
  • “Thank you”, after being served
  • “Please”, after a request

It’s unique in this list for meaning “excuse me” and “thank you” as well. I almost didn’t want to include it, but its generic usage and the fact that it’s such an important colloquial word compels me to include it.

German: Bitte

I’m only a beginner in German (as of writing… slow progress), but I am well familiar with the many uses of “bitte”. Here’s a great article from Fluentu that articulates it well.

If you know any German at all, you’ll know that bitte means “you’re welcome”, as in response to someone saying “Danke!”

And the word bitte has many other uses too. It can mean “please”, “pardon me” (unlike other words here), and of course “you’re welcome”.

But for the purpose of this article, bitte means “please”, as in “go ahead”.

  • Bitte sehr! (“Here you go”)
  • Kann ich ein Stück Kuchen haben? (“May I have a piece of cake?”) Bitte!

(“Please, go ahead!”)

You can use “Bitte” as a general invitation word asking anyone to come into a room, have a seat, to start speaking, etc.

Russian: Пожалуйста

Pronounced pozhaluysta, the Russian word Пожалуйста has a similar range of diverse meanings as all the words above, with one exception.

Used stand-alone, Пожалуйста can mean

  • “Please, go ahead”,
  • “Please have a seat”,
  • “Here you go” when handing something over,
  • “You’re welcome/don’t mention it” in response to someone saying “thank you”

The only meaning that Пожалуйста doesn’t share with other words here is it isn’t used to invite someone to come into a room.

Japanese: どうぞ (dozo)

Intervariably transliterated as dozo or douzo, this Japanese particle has the same meaning of “go ahead” or “here you go”.

In Japanese the magic phrase よどうぞよろしくお願いします (dozo yoroshiku onegaishimasu) is a magic phrase that opens doors and makes everyone feel good. You use it when making a request, or after someone has done something for you.

That’s the phrase’s most formal form. Politely it’s よろしくお願いします (yoroshiku onegaishimasu), and between friends it’s どうぞよろしく (dozo yoroshiku).

But the part that’s most important here is the first particle, よどう (dozo).

You can use dozo to say:

  • Please, e.g. どうぞおはいりください (dozo ohairi kudasai): “Please come in”
  • Responding to a request to say “of course”: ここで座ってもいいですか (koko de suwatte mo idesu ka), “May I sit here?”; はい、どうぞ (hai, dozo) “Yes, sure!”
  • Offering something to someone, e.g. お菓子をどうぞ (okashi o douzo) “Here, have some snacks!”

Languages missing from this list

There are a number of languages with which I’m familiar that do not have a single word/phrase that means “please, go ahead” in a variety of situations.

These are

  • Swahili — as mentioned above, Swahili has the loan word tafadhali, but it’s used in a more limited way, just as “please”.
  • Spanish — of course has a word for “please” (por favor), but it’s not used in as many ways.
  • Chinese (Mandarin) — Some will say it’s the word 请 (qing3), which has the implication of beckoning/imploring, but that word is almost never (except archaically) used stand-alone. There are separate words/phrases asking people to go first, to eat, etc.
  • Korean — Korean is a wonderfully complex language (to me, anyway), and has a huge amount of built-in politeness modifying verbs and pronouns, but it doesn’t have a single expression that means “go ahead” in a variety of situations. It’s very interesting that Japanese has a particle like this (dozo), but Korean doesn’t.

Which isn’t to say it doesn’t exist in other languages with which I’m less familiar. Like, see this Quora answer that says:

“douzo” is very similar the the Greek word “ορίστε” (oriste).

Very interesting… and if someone can tell us more about ορίστε, we’ll add it in!

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