Elton John hit the nail on the head. His hit song “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” is pure truth, isn’t it?
The song is recognized globally because “I’m sorry” usually isn’t an easy expression to say. Even those with huge vocabularies struggle to find just the right words to express regret.
But let’s face it: We’ve all made mistakes and have been in a position where we need to offer an apology.
Plus, saying sorry is just part of politeness, so it’s a good idea to figure out what the culturally correct expression is in the language(s) you’re learning.
Let’s see how it’s done across the continents!
How Different Cultures View Apologies
Even though different cultures handle apologies in their own ways, it’s safe to say that “I’m sorry” is typically said after you’ve made a mistake. However, many cultures also use it after there’s been a misunderstanding or, if a friend or acquaintance is experiencing a difficult or unfortunate life event, to express your condolences.
For example, if a colleague tells you that her mother has recently passed away, you’d typically respond with “I’m sorry for your loss,” or something similar.
It can also express regret over missing an occasion or as a way to atone for lateness.
Sometimes an apology is accompanied by a gift. For example, when apologizing in Brazil, the person who says “I’m sorry” often gives the offended party a small gift along with a note.
Iceland, with its gorgeous glaciers and super friendly citizens, isn’t a global hot spot for apologies. Their word for “I’m sorry” is used more frequently to indicate, by the tone of their voice, whether their intent is a heartfelt “excuse me” or just a conversation filling phrase.
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Pardon Me: How to Say “I’m Sorry” in 20 Different Languages
Afrikaans is spoken in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
A large number of countries—25, at least!—use Arabic as their official language, so grabbing this language’s “I’m sorry” might come in handy!
Bosnian is spoken not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro.
Chinese is one of the official languages of the United Nations, along with Russian, Arabic, English, French and Spanish. It’s believed that approximately 1.3 billion people speak some form of Chinese as their native language!
Czech is the official language of the Czech Republic and is spoken by more than 10 million people.
When I spent time in Prague, I was able to listen to a lot of people speak this language. It’s very lyrical—and my new friends assured me it’s an easy language to learn. But of course, it could just seem easy to them since Czech is their native language.
Danish is spoken not only in Denmark but also in many other countries. Included in the global spots where this melodious language is spoken are Norway, Iceland, Germany and Greenland, to name just a few.
If you find yourself running late in a Danish-speaking country, “Undskyld, jeg kommer for sent” (“Sorry, I’m late”) will get you off the hook!
Dutch is a widely spoken language, with 23 million calling it their mother tongue.
It’s spoken in the Netherlands, but did you realize it’s also spoken in Suriname (in South America) and parts of the Caribbean?
Finnish is one of the two official languages of Finland (Swedish being the second!).
I picked up a fun bit of trivia about Finnish language learners when I visited Finland. It’s said that many people learn the language because of music. That’s right, Finland is well known for its heavy metal bands. Apparently many music lovers hop on the Finnish language train in order to better understand songs by these bands—which are often sung in, you guessed it, Finnish!
French is a beautiful language, even when there’s only a one-word apology being offered.
Don’t use the apology, though, if you’re trying to ask for information or get through a crowd. In that case, say excusez-moi (excuse me) instead!
German is an official language in six countries: Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Austria and Belgium!
If you’re an English speaker saying συγνώμη (signómi) in Athens, you might receive a smile of acceptance just before you’re offered a taste of freshly baked baklava. This is something I personally know can happen—my mouth still waters when I recall the delicious, sweet pastry I was served after apologizing for a mishap with my water glass at a sidewalk café!
Nearly 10 million citizens of Hungary call this lovely language their native tongue!
Saying “I’m sorry” in Icelandic is, as noted above, not something that’s overdone. But, when it’s absolutely necessary, fyrirgefðu works just fine!
As noted above, there are many ways to express regret or offer an apology in Japanese. すみません (Sumimasen) translates into “excuse me” but is accepted as a nice way to smooth things over.
미안합니다 (mianhamnida) is used in more casual situations, whereas 죄송합니다 (joesonghamnida) is more polite and thus, used more often.
Norwegian is the official language of Norway—a magical spot where, if you’re inclined to visit, you just might see the Northern Lights! I did see the Lights when I was there and believe me, there’s nothing to be sorry about when you have that kind of adventure!
Portuguese is a widely spoken language that boasts over 279 million speakers!
Over 265 million people speak Russian, which is the official language of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and, of course, Russia.
Often mucho (much) is attached to the end of this phrase, turning it into the more meaningful lo siento mucho (I’m very sorry).
Perdón (literally means “pardon”) is the word used to ask for an apology in Spanish.
If you want to hear “I’m sorry” spoken in more languages, check out this great video on YouTube. It’ll definitely help language learners with pronouncing many of the apologetic phrases!
Global citizens should know that polite expressions are fundamental parts of learning and knowing any language. It’s important to be able to apologize or adequately express regret when it’s appropriate.
Use these “I’m sorry” expressions to make amends, smooth things over or accept guilt for an error made.
So if you make a mistake? Express an apology with ease, now that all the relevant words and phrases are in your skillset.
And if you’re learning to speak more than one language? We’ve still got you covered!
Your foreign companions will appreciate your effort to be polite—in any language!
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