To this day, we still say “bless you” out of habit (and because it’s polite). It’s part of the social etiquette most of us learned as children.
For example, “the magic word” is one of the first things we learn. In German, it’s easy to say “thank you.” Just say, “Danke!”
But when it comes to saying, “you’re welcome,” well, things can get complicated.
We say “Bitte” (Please). Bear with us as we clarify.
The German word bitte means so much more than “please” or “you’re welcome.” In some ways, it’s a go-to word like “pardon.”
Keep reading to find out more about bitte and how you can incorporate it into your daily German vocabulary.
Why Is “Bitte” so Important in German
Of the many words you first learn as a German-speaking student, both danke and bitte are two you’ll soon become familiar with.
Bitte is a frequently used term in the German language, in both informal and formal settings. In many ways, using the term bitte shows respect and politeness. For German speakers in new situations, bitte is a very useful word that may excuse mispronunciations and incorrect conjugations.
On a more basic level, knowledge of bitte also allows you to (politely) order food, drink, etc.
And if you misspeak when ordering, bitte can excuse you from awkward behavior as well.
Since there are a variety of meanings for this one simple word, it’s versatile and comes in handy in numerous situations. Plus, it’s crucial to your German fluency (in case you haven’t pieced that together already).
Where to Practice Using Bitte
We’re going to show you just how many meanings bitte has in the next section, but before we get started, let’s talk about practice.
Because practicing the use of bitte is just as important as knowing when, where and how to use it.
- Find yourself in a restaurant? Learn how to order food in German with these flashcards. Soon you’ll be impressing your friends and family at your local German restaurant. Did you just order the entire table’s dinners? You can with these helpful phrases.
- FluentU offers many practice resources and tutorials for all your German language needs. You can learn German vocabulary and grammar through real-world videos, while also having fun! Along with informative lessons, you’ll have access to blog posts like this one. Learning German with FluentU means you’ll get to know the language inside and out.
- You can also test your knowledge of basic words and phrases to build your German foundation. Plus, it’s a good resource for refreshing your memory. Because building it right from the get-go brings you that much closer to fluency.
What Does Bitte Mean in German (and How to Use It)
Listed below are seven—yes, seven—meanings that the word bitte can have. The last two show a bit of variation, but nevertheless, bitte is quite the versatile tidbit of German to know. Who knew one word could mean so much?
When used to mean “please,” bitte can take various positions within a sentence. Like most German sentences, it comes down to emphasis. Bitte can preface the sentence, end it, or even come somewhere in-between. Here are a few examples:
Bitte, kann ich mit dir gehen? (Please, can I go with you?)
Gib mir die Adresse, bitte. (Give me the address, please.)
Können Sie mir bitte noch einmal die Nummer sagen? (Can you please tell me the number again?)
Without the word bitte, the sentences above are still grammatically correct. However, adding that extra bit(te) can make a huge difference.
Most beginner German students understand this meaning of bitte. It goes along with the rote “thank you”—“you’re welcome” exchange we say countless times in English.
Stefan, danke für die Bücher. (Stefan, thanks for the books.)
Ja, bitte! (Yes, you’re welcome!)
Now, why is it that in English we use two words to say each of these phrases when in German it’s only one? So much for German being a verbose language—at least when it comes to etiquette, that is.
In English, we use “pardon” inquisitively to mean many things.
For example, you could use “pardon” to mean “Excuse me, I want to get by you,” or “What did you say? I couldn’t hear you.”
You might even say “pardon” with an attitude to mean, “Did you really just say/do what I think you did?” That’s the beauty of language—and emphasis.
Germans use bitte in the phrase “Wie bitte?” quite often.
It very roughly translates to something like “How please?” as in “How do you say that, please?” (“Wie sagt man das, bitte?”).
This shortened form can be compared to the English phrase “What’s that?” to mean, “Can you repeat that, please?”
When Germans use bitte to mean “go ahead,” they’re often approving an action. It’s a bit like asking, “May I?” in English and then replying, “Please do.”
Here’s an example in context for you:
Kann ich ein Stück Kuchen haben? (Can I have a piece of cake?)
Bitte, es gibt mehr im Kuhlschrank. (Go ahead, there’s more in the fridge.)
As you can see, the context of this word is key.
You might also use this meaning of bitte if you’re at the grocery store and both you and another person walk up to a checkout line at the same time. If you’re polite, you’ll let them go ahead of you with a “Bitte.”
We mentioned ordering food earlier, so let’s get back to the table once again. You can use bitte in this situation in a few different ways. For example, if a waiter/waitress comes by and asks you:
Möchten Sie mehr Kaffee? (Would you like more coffee?)
You can answer:
Bitte! (Yes, please!)
If you want more coffee, of course.
But as you can see, you only need to say the one word in order to make your intentions clear.
However, if the waiter/waitress asks, “Are you ready to order?” you wouldn’t necessarily say “Bitte.” This question invokes more of a yes/no response.
But if they ask if you want to try the special, a nod of the head and a “Bitte!” would mean you’re in agreement.
“Here You Go”
These last two meanings of bitte (“here you go” and “may I help you”) require the addition of either sehr (very) or schön (well), respectively.
The phrase “bitte sehr” means “here you go,” as in the following example:
Bitte sehr. Vorsicht, der Teller ist heiß. (Here you go. Be careful, the plate is hot.)
Another instance in which you could use bitte sehr is at your local coffee shop.
Once the barista calls your name with your order, they might say “Bitte sehr” as they hand you your coffee.
Your response might be something like, “Danke!” Rather than using bitte as a response to danke, you’re switching the order around—and using a different meaning of bitte altogether.
“May I Help You?”
The last meaning works similarly to bitte sehr. You’ll likely hear it in customer service settings, such as the instance below:
Bitte schön? (May I help you?)
Ja, ich suche Maria. Arbeitet sie heute? (Yes, I’m looking for Maria. Is she working today?)
The phrase bitte schön shouldn’t be confused with the phrase danke schön, which means “thank you very much.”
Now you know seven different meanings of the German word bitte! We guarantee that with a little practice, you’ll know this useful little phrase like the back of your hand.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start using this powerful German word in your everyday conversations!
Rebecca Henderson holds a degree in German and Creative Writing. She is the editor behind The Kreativ Space and hopes to shift your world perspective through her words, because looking out the same window every day hardly makes for an interesting life.
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