Sorry: A Word With Global Uptake

by | October 6, 2020 |

Most of my adventures these days happen in my arm chair. Watching foreign-language dramas on various streaming services. I’ve watched enough now to have noticed a curious phenomenon. Of course, I’ve long been aware that English is currently the world’s donor language. However, I’ve now become aware that one word in particular has had broad global uptake: Sorry.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Romania. A good fifteen years ago already I remember someone excused himself to me on the street by saying, “Sorry.” I was taken aback. I wondered why that person had determined I was an English speaker. But then I noticed that Romanians used the word with each other. It had become part of the language. Romanian speakers have a long history of adopting loan words. So I didn’t think ‘sorry’ was anything special.

But now I’ve heard it used regularly in: Danish, German, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Swedish, Taiwanese Mandarin and Welsh. And I know it also pops up in Miami Spanish.

The Japanese have even made it into a well-known joke: “I’m sorry, hige sori” (= ‘beard shave’). The sorry/sori pun works if you’re Japanese.

I’ve just begun to watch a Turkish drama and haven’t heard “Sorry” yet. And I have yet to listen for it in languages like Mandarin and Vietnamese. Or varieties of Spanish in South America. And I don’t think it’s used in Spain. So it isn’t necessarily everywhere.

Nevertheless ….

Sorry: Why This Word?

I’ve been pondering the question for a while now.

Phonetically. Two syllables: Consonant Vowel, Consonant Vowel. Simple. No consonant clusters of the type [sk] found in “Excuse me.”

Japanese, which does not permit consonant clusters, even already has a word like it: sori ‘to shave.’

Thus, easy phonetic uptake for almost any language.

Grammatically. Also simple. In that it has no grammar.

Compare German:

Es tut mir leid

It does to me suffering = I’m sorry

Okay, the German isn’t super complicated. And you can shorten it to the less formal Tut mir leid. But you do have to use the dative case mir ‘to me.’ No big deal. But still not nothing grammatically.

Semantically. Here arises a complication. But it’s not one that seems to matter to the users in the global community.

Many words are semantically fluid. Take the word ‘funny.’ If you use it in certain situations, you may need to say, “I mean funny weird not funny ha-ha.”

Same with ‘sorry.’

Comedian Demitri Martin sums up the complication with the joke:

“‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologize’ mean the same thing except at a funeral.”

I’ve told this joke to non-native speakers of English and they immediately laugh. By contrast, native English speakers take a moment to scan the two senses and then they chuckle. My guess is the non-natives immediately laugh because they don’t want to show they don’t get it.

“I’m sorry (for your loss)” expresses fellow feeling. “I apologize” expresses guilt. The contrast in the interpretation and subsequent inference blossom in the context of a funeral.

Sorry: Pragmatically

Pragmatics is the study of language use in context.

“Sorry” in the global community seems to function as a quick and easy politeness marker that works in a wide variety of contexts. It can mean “Give me a minute.” “Let me think.” “You first.” Whatever. It does not seem to be freighted with fellow feeling or actual guilt. Or any other type of emotion other than mild acknowledgement of one’s role in the current situation.

When speakers borrow words they get to do with them what they like. The emotional investments of the native speakers are irrelevant to the borrowers.

I will now start paying attention to possible gender overtones the word ‘sorry’ may have acquired in various languages. (Not surprisingly the Japanese phrase “I’m sorry, hige sori” is said mostly by men to other men.)

In the United States, “Sorry” is super gendered for women. This 2017 shampoo commercial tells the story:

The issue of over-apology hasn’t disappeared. Taylor Swift had something to say about the topic this past February.

Title Image: The board game Sorry! I played it a lot as a kid.

See also: World Travel Pandemic Style


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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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