Icelandic: no word for "please", 45 words for "green"?

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We've often observed how fond people are of noting (or rather, claiming) that language L has an interesting number N of words for some concept X. N may be zero, which is taken to mean that the L-ians are unable to grasp the concept X, or at least have some special difficulty with it. Alternatively, N may be unusually large, which is taken as evidence that X has an especially central role in L-ian consciousness. In such cases, the factual claims about the L-ian lexicon are almost always false; and even if the word-count claims were true, the logic of the argument is unsound.

Occasionally, someone makes both sorts of claims about a single language; and there's a fine (though unserious) pair of specimens in Georgia Graham, "What has Iceland done for Britain?", The Telegraph 4/17/2010.

Ms. Graham leads with this query:

Vast clouds of volcanic dust from Iceland have grounded planes in Britain and much of northern Europe, creating chaos for travellers. Which begs the question: what has Iceland done for us lately?

Given the Telegraph's fondness for linguistic naming and shaming, I feel that this should count as an official announcement that "begs the question" now means "raises the question", and no longer has any culturally-reliable connection to the logical fallacy of petitio principii.

Anyhow, having begged her question, Ms. Graham goes on to list ten answers, from the Cod Wars and Björk to the LazyTown television program and the decline of West Ham football. Item number 5 is linguistic:

Iceland's language makes British manners impossible to impart – there is no word for please.

Icelandic does offer 45 different ways to say the word green, however. Useful.

You may not be surprised to learn that both of these claims are apparently bogus. (By which I mean simply "incorrect, unbelievable or silly", not "consciously dishonest". Just in case Ms. Graham or the Telegraph is moved to take the issue up with The Hon. Mr. Justice Eady.)

The "no word for please" business is perhaps the most hackneyed instance of the "no word for X" meme. A quick web search reveals that English speakers are worried that many, many other languages have "no word for please":  besides Icelandic, the first few pages of results yield warnings about Danish, Hawaian, Finnish, Ingush, Hindi, Swedish, French, Wolof, Munsee, Unami, Mursi, Malayalam, Dutch, Somali, Ojibway, Hungarian, Urdu, Quebecoise, Mongolian, and so on.

It's certainly true that behavioral norms and expectations do vary from culture to culture, enough that polite behavior in one culture may be interpreted as offensive in another. But there's nothing about cultural differences to be learned from the fact that other languages generally don't have a single word with the diverse syntactic and pragmatic distribution of English please –  the same thing could be said about nearly any common word in nearly any language.

Languages may variously make available polite words that are broader or narrower than English please (e.g. Icelandic takk, which I gather has some of the functions of both English "please" and "thank you"), or special morphological devices for polite requests, or conventional multi-word polite expressions (e.g. French s'il vous plait), etc. And people can always choose to frame requests or suggestions in more elaborate ways construed as polite ("if you don't mind, I wonder if you could …").

The  business about "45 different ways to say the word green", however, is a bit more puzzling. Tim MacDonald, who sent me a link to Ms. Graham's article, and who knows enough Icelandic to be skeptical of the claim, wondered whether "this [could] have started out as a more familiar claim that Greenlanders have 45 words for 'ice', and been metathesised".

I'm not sure — but the idea is not original to Ms. Graham. She may have gotten it from a blog post, "No Icelandic Word for Please", Iceland Express 11/12/2007, whose sub-head is "45 different ways to say the word 'green,' but if you want a beer just say 'I want beer'". The same post observes that "Learning Icelandic is like getting a tattoo on your arse: it’s time consuming, painful, and you rarely get a chance to show it off."

In the comments on that post, "Amanda" notes (without using please…) that "You’ve got me hooked now, I MUST know more about the 45 words for green."

"Erik" responds teasingly that "The REALLY crazy thing is that they all rhyme with 'peanut'", but gives no examples.

Lacking both the tattoo and the knowledge of Icelandic, I'll turn this one over our readers.

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109 Comments »

  1. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 9:32 am

    To look no farther than Britain itself, Welsh has no *word* for "please", the equivalent being a phrase

    os gwelwch yn dda

    which functions in just the same way.

    There is nowadays (sadly) pretty much zero cultural difference between Wales and England, and few or no monolingual Welsh speakers, so this is a fairly conclusive refutation [if any were actually needed] of the pop-Sapir-Whorf notion that the matter has anything at all to do with politeness.

    (Much) farther afield, in the Bawku district of Ghana where I used to live, the people are vastly more punctilious about politeness than in Britain. I had to reprogram myself due to reverse culture shock when I returned ("No, he's not being deliberately rude – that's how people are here – remember?"). There is a sort of translation equivalent for "please" in the local Kusaal language, but really it means something like "I beg you" and is not used in an ordinary request to an equal; if it were, you'd suspect the speaker of taking the mickey.

  2. Nick said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    This is so true – but it seems to me that most comments like this are always in comparison with the dominant language in modern linguistics, i.e. English. So here's a couple of points where English is lacking in comparison with other languages.
    1. A wide range of 'social' phrases do not exist, or where they do are borrowed from other languages. What do you say in English before you eat: bon apetite? What is the ENGLISH equivalent? What do you say in English when someone dies? Is there a saying in English for when someone has bought something new?
    2. The English language can ask questions of quantity only when the answer is cardinal, not ordinal. The answer is "Barack Obama is the 44th President of the USA." I know "Barack Obama" and I know "President of the USA", but I need to know the 'nth' part. What question do I ask in English?
    I am sure there are many more areas that we could come up with. This could run…

  3. Sollers said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    French is a grey area – the verb "plaire" exists, but in the context of polite requests one has to use the entire phrase equating to "if it please you". Welsh also has a verb for "to please" but doesn't use it in polite requests, which work out as "if you see well" (to the best of my recollection anyway).

    I've often had problems with "please" in teaching English, more than any other word or expression, usually having to explain it as a curtailed form of "if it please you". This normally gets reactions along the lines of a slightly disbelieving "well, if you say so…"

    [(amz) See my brief reply to Robert in Beijing below. Your students' disbelieving response is entirely justified; the historical origins of an expression do not explain how the expression is used now.]

    So for the last 40 years or so I've tended to see the single word used for a polite request as being somewhat away from the norm.

    [(amz) In everyday usage in English the word word sometimes refers to a lexeme, sometimes to a fixed expression, regardless of its size. This usage has sometimes been carried into linguists' speaking and writing for popular audiences, as in the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year competition, the candidates for which are often complex fixed expressions.]

  4. Sili said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 9:35 am

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Shades_of_green

    Army
    Asparagus
    Camouflage
    Celadon
    Chartreuse
    Emerald
    Fern
    Forest
    Honeydew
    Jade
    Kelly
    Lime
    Mint
    Moss
    Myrtle
    Olive
    Pear
    Pine
    Sap
    Shamrock
    Teal
    Viridian
    Verdigris
    Turquoise
    Copper
    Nickel

    That's 26 without trying.

    Tak.

    [(amz) There's an immense literature on how to understand "words for X", in some semantic domain -- in particular, on words for colors. Is the question about all vocabulary for referring to some concept, or just about the basic vocabulary for this purpose (in the current language, for general use)? (The "shades of green" in the above is telling.) When linguists, psycholinguists, and anthropological linguists talk about these matters, they're getting at basic vocabulary. Green for reference to GREEN is a basic vocabulary item of modern, non-specialized English; all the items above are non-basic.]

  5. James in Beijing said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    Isn't "please" itself merely short for the phrase "if you please" (which in fact is a direct translation of the French "s'il vous plait", which I imagine is where it came from, given the Norman influence on English after the Conquest of 1066)?

    [(amz) This is just the etymological fallacy. The historical origins of an expression are fascinating, but if you want to talk about what the expression means now, an appeal to its history is beside the point. When modern English speakers use please, they aren't shortening anything; it's an expression on its own, with a wide variety of uses.]

  6. Ethan Poole said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    I think the "45 ways to say green" stems from the complexity of Icelandic adjectives. Adjectives are inflected for case (4), number (2), and gender (3). Then Icelandic has a comparative and two superlative forms of each adjective. Last, there are weak and strong declensions as well. Sadly, I do not know enough Icelandic myself to count these up properly (since some forms are the same as for others).

    [(amz) Yet another troublesome ambiguity in the ordinary-English word word: between '(inflected) form (of a lexeme)' and 'lexeme'. Pick some Icelandic lexeme meaning (in some sense of mean) 'green', and it will have a large number of inflected forms. When non-linguists talk about "words for X", they usually mean lexemes and not inflected forms, though occasionally people will talk about inflected forms instead (perhaps influenced by orthography, and by the dependence of simple search programs on orthographic representations). In this context, linguists, psycholinguists, and anthropological linguists use word to mean 'lexeme' only -- although in some other contexts, word means 'lexeme token', in which case different forms will count as different words, but then in these contexts, different occurrences of the same form will also count as different words: for these purposes, not only are dog and dogs different words in "This dog attacked the other dogs", but then so are the first dog and the second dog in "This dog attacked the other dog".

    Ethan Poole also alludes to a much more subtle, though still important, difference -- between forms that are morphosyntactically distinct (what you might call "m-forms") and those that are phonologically distinct ("p-forms"). Putting some further complexities aside, the verb TAKE has the m-forms BSE take, PRP taking, PRS take and takes, PST took, and PSP taken; two of these are phonologically identical, so there are five p-forms. The verb JUMP has the m-forms BSE jump, PRP jumping, PRS jump and jumps, PST jumped, and PSP jumped -- now only four p-forms. Modals lack non-finite forms (BSE, PRP, PSP) and don't distinguish two PRS forms (cf. "I see the problem" / "She sees the problem" with "I will see the doctor" / "She will see the doctor"). And so on.]

  7. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 10:06 am

    The presence of several Algonquian languages on that list of languages lacking please doesn't surprise me if they're anything like Blackfoot, which rather has a prefix noohk- which means 'please; counter to expectation'. I've never actually encountered the morpheme except in a dictionary, but I imagine it's usage would be pragmatic as in English "could you…." And at the risk of adding to the meme, there's no Blackfoot word for "thank you". Rather, if you feel the need to respond verbally in some way, you can say soka'piiwa, 'it is good' (also the standard response to "How's it going?") The latter information I got from a speaker, and thus feel more confident about than noohk-.

  8. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    @ Ethan Poole:

    I think you may have nailed the origin of this: I count 14 formally distinct Icelandic adjective inflections, weak and strong, so if you assume a miscount at 15, and treble it to account for comparative and superlative … close.

    The comparative is in fact only inflected weak, but I don't think we're talking about somebody concerned overmuch with linguistic accuracy here …

  9. Marguerite Radhakrishnan said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    That's like the time someone asked me if it were true that German has no future tense. It took me aback — of course it does, people talk about things in the future all the time! But then I realized that no, at least modern German (I speak it just as a local, not as a scholar) does not have an equivalent of the English future tense — it's just the present plus an indicator that it's the future (I'm going to the store; tomorrow I'm going to the store). Different ways of saying the same thing, but not an exact equivalent.

    Of course, some things are just easier to say in another language — Hindi films having generally abandoned what translates loosely as "I'm doing great love towards you" in favor of using the English "I love you," for example.

  10. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    "Takk" should be "Þakk", come to that, the Þ being like English voiceless "th", Icelandic being like English in having preserved this sound while the mainland Germanic languages have changed it to d or t.

  11. Dougal Stanton said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    @Marguerite:

    "modern German … does not have an equivalent of the English future tense — it's just the present plus an indicator that it's the future"

    You mean like English? :-)

  12. TB said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 10:56 am

    Marguerite Radhakrishnan, technically I believe English also has no future tense!

  13. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    @Marguerite Radhakrishnan

    English has no "future tense" either, if by this one means either

    (a) a future synthetic verb inflexion, like French "aimerai"

    or

    (b) a form (whether synthetic or not) which just has pure future time reference quite apart from any notion of volition etc

    Just like German, in fact.

  14. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 11:09 am

    Georgia Graham compiled her list by tweeting this to her followers:
    need suggestions of other annoying things Iceland has done to Britain. HELP. PLEASE. 9:06 AM Apr 16th via web

    I'm sure she included any contribution that seemed remotely funny, no matter how wrong, since it was a joke article. But it would have been funnier if there was some kernel of truth to all the contributions, and if she could write with more clever and humorous phrasing.

  15. Andrew F said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 11:15 am

    Marguerite,

    Is "werden + infinitive" any less of a future tense than English "going to + verb" and "will + verb"?

    I realise there's been some discussion on this blog about whether constructions with auxiliary verbs are tenses, but if not, then English doesn't seem to have a future tense either.

  16. goofy said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    David Eddyshaw,
    No, the Icelandic word in question is "takk". Altho Icelandic also has a word "þakka" meaning "to thank". Not sure what happened there.

  17. Richard M Buck said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    "Takk" was borrowed from Danish, which is why it starts with a 't' not a 'þ': you can say ég þakka þér fyrir (I thank you for it) which, being native Icelandic, has a 'þ', but it's a bit long-winded. Þökk — which is, I believe, plural ('thanks') — is an artificial Icelandic calque on the loan-word which no-one actually says.

    I think that if you decline your weak adjective with the definite article attached to it, the way that Icelanders cite it in grammars, you'll actually get many more distinctive forms, getting you much closer to the 45 mark without fussing with the comparative and superlative. I vaguely recall that 'the green stone' (m.sg.) would go something like græninn steinn, um grænann stein, frá grænanum steinum, til grænans steins — with the article all 4 cases are distinct, where without it you'd only count two different endings.

  18. Thomas Westgard said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    It's petitio principii, btw. It becomes increasingly clear that, archaic reference books aside, actual English usage has neither word nor phrase for this concept.

  19. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    @goofy:

    You obviously know more about this than me (not hard).

    I would guess (and I mean guess) 'takk' is loaned from Danish, which I believe has had a big effect on Icelandic during the centuries when the country was under the Danish crown.

    There must be Danish-speaking LL readers who can say how the equivalent word is used in that language? Does it occupy some of the space used by English "please", as well as "thankyou"?

  20. Magnus said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    goofy: I'm guessing takk was borrowed from Danish.

    On the main subject, I'm counting 26 distinct forms of the adjective grænn:

    grænn, græn, grænt, grænir, grænar, grænan, græna, grænum, grænni, grænu, græns, grænnar, grænna, græni, grænastur, grænust, grænast, grænastir, grænastar, grænastan, grænasta, grænustum, grænastri, grænustu, grænasts, grænastrar

    The number of combinations of case/number/gender, as well as positive/comparative/superlative and weak/strong forms for the positive and the superlative, is 4*2*3*5 = 120 (look here for a table with all of them), but most of the forms overlap with one or more other forms. I can't really think of a way to get specifically 45 forms, distinct or otherwise, but I'm sure that number was just pulled out of thin air anyway.

    [(myl) This line of discussion is a plausible way to make semi-quantitative sense of the odd "45 words for green meme" -- but why green, I wonder, since the many-inflectional-forms idea applies to any adjective? For example, you could create a (false) topical link to the "no word for please" meme by making it e.g. "no word for please, but 45 ways to say grateful".

    Maybe the whole "green" thing got started because of Icelandic geothermal energy?]

  21. Richard M Buck said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    @Magnus
    I'm sure that number was just pulled out of thin air anyway

    I'm sure it was – I make 30 or 31 distinct forms of the positive if you count the ones with the article (I was working from an Old Norse grammar, but it looks from the table you link to as if the weak dative plural is different & less distinctive in modern…)

  22. Sigga said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 12:06 pm

    The danish version of takk is "tak" and it means thanks or thank you most of the time.

    Another thing with the lack of "please" in Icelandic is that the subjunctive is used much more than it is in English and is one of the ways you make your requests less of an order and more polite.

    Another thing with the multitude of green, I think it's likely that the original comment was referring to the grammar system and how the declensions work. However Icelandic also does the compound adjective thing without using hyphens so it's easy to construct different versions of green, i.e. like grass-green, cabbage-green, mould-green etc.

  23. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    Almost but not entirely quite off-topic, I was once told by a frequent (Danish-speaking) visitor to the Faroes that Faroese has a lot of different words for "rain", a fact (if it is a fact) that she found entirely unsurprising …

  24. Maame said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    @Richard M Buck: You attached the article to the adjective. I've never seen that in Icelandic (but it's possible in Romanian if I recall exactly). The green stone should be græni steinninn (nominative), græna steininn (accusative), græna steininum (dative), græna steinsins (genitive). The adjective is weak when used with a noun that comes with a definite article. Green stone would be grænn steinn, grænan stein and so on.
    And that's only m.sg.

    Have a look here: http://bin.arnastofnun.is/leit.php?q=gr%C3%A6nn There are all inflected forms of grænn 'green'. Somebody do the math. ;-)

    According to Íslensk orðsifjabók, takk came into Icelandic in the 19th century and is indeed a Danish loanword. There is however an Icelandic word takk, too, which is a kind of interjection used to herd sheep if I interpret the explanation correctly.

    Another interjection used with a similar meaning as 'please' is gerið svo vel.

  25. möngke said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    I'm actually intrigued by the fact that the trope doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. Green isn't exactly the most prominent color in Iceland, or at least not MORE prominent than in certain other areas of the world.

    As for raising/begging the question – is there any information available on when the confusion between the two arose? Most native English speakers I know use the idiom as if it were equivalent to 'raising the question', EXCEPT for those who have had some education in philosophy. Which begs the question (he, he) whether the demise of the idiom is as apocalyptic as the webpage you linked to seems to imply – since using it in common parlance does not seem to significantly impact the philosophers'/logicians' use of the term. (Of course, I never really understood how begging the question is different from a circular argument, but that's another story completely.)

    [(myl) I'm not sure how old the beg=raise usage is. I've been surprised to find that some usage guides from a half-century ago (e.g. Follet 1966) complain about a different interpretation of "beg the question", namely using it to mean "evade the question", but don't mention the beg=raise issue. I suspect that this is a fact about the history of peevology rather than the history of English usage, but I await clarification from those with better knowledge of both.]

    [(amz) Following up on myl: MWDEU has a nice compact entry on the development of the 'evade, sidestep' sense of beg in beg the question, which it says is "fully established as standard". It doesn't mention the 'raise, prompt' sense.

    But Michael Quinion's discussion does. Quinion notes that the 'evade' sense is agreed, by most usage authorities, to have become standard. But about the 'raise' sense he's more cautious:

    It is gaining ground, and one or two recent dictionaries claim that it is now acceptable — the New Oxford Dictionary of English, for example, says it is “widely accepted in modern standard English”. I wouldn’t go so far myself. Because of possible confusion over what you actually mean, and inevitable condemnation from people who have taken the trouble to find out what it once did mean, it’s better avoided altogether.

    NOAD2 simply says that, like the 'evade' sense, it's now "widely accepted in modern standard English" (though some sticklers object). It adds that the 'raise' sense, though the newest of the three senses, is about 100 years old.

    This is just a tiny sampling of scholarly writing on beg the question.]

  26. Maame said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    @David: I'm sure that goes for many north-European languages. In German I can think of regnen, nieseln, schiffen, tröpfeln, schütten, gießen, tropfen, pladdern, pissen, pieseln 'to rain' or Regen, Nässe, Guss, Husche, Schauer, Dusche, Wolkenbruch 'rain'. I'm sure there are more.

  27. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

    @Maame:

    I'm sure you're right.

    I presume that in this context my informant meant at least "strikingly more than in Danish" anyhow. Whether the claim is true, or even easy to assign a precise meaning to, I've no idea; it makes a change from Eskimos and snow, though.

  28. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    What I actually miss in English is what to say when you hand someone something. German has bitte(schön), Swedish has var så god, etc. Here you are just doesn't hack it.

    I can recall several discussions with Swedish colleagues about when and how to use please. Being Swedes, they were interested in the rules and I was never able to come up with any. Swedes usually say "thanks" in anticipation when they request something — En stor stark, tack when you order a glass of beer (not small and not weak, which is the usual state of beer).

    BTW, Google "Norwegian words for snow". A tour de force. Pardon my French.

  29. Panu Höglund said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    Þökk — which is, I believe, plural ('thanks') — is an artificial Icelandic calque on the loan-word which no-one actually says.

    No, actually it is singular. It's feminine. Þakkir is plural.

  30. Panu Höglund said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    Gerið svo vel is plural: "do so well". Singular is gerðu svo vel. Interestingly, it has a parallel in the Finnish dialectal expression tehkää hyvin, singular tee hyvin. For a long time, I thought that one was an entirely literary, obsolete expression, but since I moved to Southwestern Finland, I heard it actually spoken several times by youngish persons.

  31. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    @Dan Lufkin:

    Similarly with "bitte" as the response to "danke"; "You're welcome" in English always seems to me to be very emphatic and ponderous, and you wish there were a less marked way of conveying "don't mention it." I suppose the traditional English response to "thankyou" is a vague smile …

    Interesting about Swedes saying "tack" in anticipation, i.e. where one would say "please" in English. Could this be a pan-Scandinavianism?

  32. Maame said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    @David: In Norwegian it's "En øl, takk", which is "A beer, please".

  33. Army1987 said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    @Marguerite Radhakrishnan:
    I once read the FAQ for a newsgroup about Japanese, and the first answer given for "How do I say 'I love you'?" was "You don't. You *show* that."

  34. Sili said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

    I can only vouch for Danish, but anticipatory "tak" is fairly common, and indeed the closest we come to "please". So "Pass the butter, please" is "Ræk mig smøret, tak".

    A common use is "På forhånd tak" in letters &c, which I tend to carry over into English as "Thanking you in advance", when making a request of someone.

  35. Trond Engen said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    David Evjuskag: Could this be a pan-Scandinavianism?

    I don't know about Iceland, but it's the unmarked polite way of doing it also in Denmark and Norway. (Well, nowadays you may drop the anticipating 'takk' without being impolite, at least in Norway. The politeness is in the tone and the attitude.)

  36. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    So:

    (a) [Possibly] Icelanders as a cultural thing don't sling in a word or phrase more or less corresponding to English "please" as often as an English speaker would in a similar context; if so, they share this trait with many other groups of undoubted courtesy around the world.

    (b) When they do use such a word, it is one that corresponds etymologically to English "thank(s)", and moreover is borrowed from Danish, neither of which facts is of any significance with regard to its contemporary usage.

    (c) Their adjectives, including the word for "green" (why not?) have a lot more inflected forms than ours.

    I do not feel emboldened to draw many conclusions with regard to the Icelandic character from this. I will stick with what can be firmly established from phrenology.

  37. Henning Makholm said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    In Danish (at least), postfixed "tak" is only an appropriate translation for "please" in some narrow contexts — particularly when placing an order or otherwise requesting something that you're reasonably entitled to get. You can say "En øl, tak!" (a beer, please) to someone whose business it is to sell beer to the general public, but not to a friend that you hope will offer you one of his beers.

    If you need to appeal to someone's generosity or pity, or more generally if the recipient of your request has reasonable discretion to deny it, "tak" is not an appropriate politeness marker. Oliver Twist in a Danish translation would never say "Må jeg få en portion til, tak!"

  38. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    In point of fact, anticipatory "thanks" = "please" is pretty well established in English too, with very much the same restrictions as Henning Makholm adduces for Danish.

    "I'll have the chicken tikka masala, thanks."

    It is similarly inconceivable that young Oliver would say

    "Thanks, Sir, may I have some more?"

    This does tend to undermine the case I was constructing that "ta(c)k(k)" overlaps into the range of English "please". Maybe Icelanders, proud descendants of those who refused submission to a Norwegian king, just wouldn't dream of appealing to your pity to give them anything that they didn't already feel they had every right to?

    PS Trond Engen: I like "Evjuskag". Possibilities as a secret (dashing Norwegian) identity … he is blonder and taller than I …

  39. Peter Taylor said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    Thomas Westgard wrote

    It's petitio principii, btw. It becomes increasingly clear that, archaic reference books aside, actual English usage has neither word nor phrase for this concept.

    I'm with möngke on this one: what's wrong with "circular argument"?

    As for "begging the question", I have long argued that it has a transitive form (roughly equivalent to "raises the question", but a bit stronger) and an intransitive form, remnants of which persist in peevology, but which is never seen "in the wild", as it were.

  40. Sarra said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    Maame:

    Have a look here: http://bin.arnastofnun.is/leit.php?q=gr%C3%A6nn There are all inflected forms of grænn 'green'. Somebody do the math. ;-)

    Alas! This is only 29, give or take one or two for human error. (120 in the whole table, of course, but many are identical.)

  41. Toni Keskitalo said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

    There's no simple translation of "please" in Finnish. It can be expressed with the conditional mood but it's common to say something like "yks(i) kalja" 'one beer, please' at bars.

    Once I borrowed a Talk Now cd-rom (Czech-Finnish) from the library. It was really basic, everyday phrases and numbers and such stuff. The funniest thing, after which I decided it wasn't useful at all, was the word "prosím", which can mean 'please'. It was translated to Finnish as "pyydän", which means 'I ask for (something)'. Of course, "prosím" means exactly that as a verb form of "prosit"!

  42. Joe said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    Hey! Lay off the Norwegians, please. Don't know about the Danes, but Norwegians can use constructions like "er du snill" as in, "Gi meg litt tenketid på den, er du snill," roughly, "give me some time to think about it, please. Also, "vær så snill" as in "Kan noen gi meg råd vær så snill," roughly, "can someone give me advice, please." Of course, you could say the latter come from "Vær så snill og hjelp meg" (please help me), which would be more literally translated into English as "be so kind and help me…" But that doesn't sound particularly Viking either.

  43. Joe said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

    Sorry, should have checked before leaving the last comment. What is interesting about Finnish is that "pliis" is being used more and more in casual speech, as in "Auttakaa pliis!!!" (Help (pl) please).

  44. Henning Makholm said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    David, I would suggest that it is the other way around, namely that English "please" has invaded the territory of anticipatory "thanks".

    As a non-native speaker I have little business ascribing core meanings to English words, but nonetheless it seems to me that the basic message of "please" is an emotional appeal to someone's discretion to grant you something you want ("Dad, can I go to Anna's party? Please? Please?"). When you use it in a non-emotional context ("A return ticket to Birmingham, please!"), you create a little social fiction that they are doing you a significant favor, which makes them feel good when they oblige you, all while you can feel good that you gave them that opportunity, so everybody wins. Of course nobody explicitly thinks this when they apply the convention, but it must be so because if you omit the "please" you come across as arrogant, i.e. as needlessly flaunting your entitlement and higher status. Politeness means that even though you're entitled to buy a ticket, you hide that fact by saying please. (Compare "s'il vous plaît", which seems to depend on a similar social fiction).

    I think the appropriate inquiry is not why Icelanders have not broadened the domain of the emotional appeal likewise, but whether they have a short word for an emotional appeal to broaden in the first place. Danish certainly hasn't one; we have multi-word idioms that correspond to this "please" ("Far, må jeg tage med til Annas fest? Må jeg ikke nok?", where the "nok" particle does not seem to have any direct equivalent in English).

    The possible absence of a short emotional-appeal interjection in Icelandic may or may not speak to popular character, but it is difficult to see how it would be related to politeness in particular.

  45. Henning Makholm said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    Similar to Joe's comment about "pliis" in Finnish, it seems that "please" in the the "emotional appeal" meaning is also increasingly being borrowed into Danish.

  46. Maame said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

    Joe:

    Norwegians have these phrases, but do they use them? I had to keep reminding myself that not saying "takk" and "vær så snill" wasn't rude, but just Norwegian, when I lived in Norway. Norwegian school books (for learners of German) point out that Germans use "danke" and "bitte" much more often than Norwegians use "takk" and "vær så snill". I second that.
    But then, "bitte" is much shorter than "vær så snill".

  47. Bob Ladd said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

    Words like please and thank you get borrowed from one language to another quite a lot, presumably to avoid using some native expression that has acquired undesirable connotations (e.g. old-fashioned). In Swiss German you say merci for 'thank you'; in Dutch you say sorry for 'sorry'; in several European languages you can say ciao for 'good-bye'; etc. etc. I don't think this proves anything about anyone's national character, only that politeness, like euphemism and taboo, is a tricky area for the speakers of any language.

  48. Trond Engen said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

    In Norwegian plis is how children beg for something.

    Kan Eva overnatte hos meg, mamma, pliiiis, pliiis. pliiis, pliiiiiis!

    It's not even new. Same thing when I grew up a generation ago, but it seems not to have made it into our grown-up language.

  49. Kapitano said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    Just a footnote about English. We've got "please" – from "If you please", itself probably from "If it pleases you" – but just the one word, across class and register boundaries. If you're being polite to someone, no matter what your relative social standing, or how well you know them, there's just this one word.

    But with "Thankyou" (two words fused into one) there's also "Thanks", "Ta", a smile, a nod, momentarily raised eyebrows and other ways to express your gratitude – all quite ideosyncratic and finely differentiated.

  50. Ignacio said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

    @Dan Lufkin

    When giving someone something, I'd say 'there you go'. However, I wouldn't use it in _every_ context.

  51. CBK said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    Another instance of “no word for X”: The question of an analogue for “misogyny” with the meaning of “hating men” occurred during Michael Krasny’s interview of Louann Brizendine for the San Francisco City Arts and Lecture Series last week. I was quite surprised to hear Krasny, who is a professor of English, say that no such word existed. Apparently he didn’t remember or didn’t learn misandry.

    (This interview will be broadcast during the week of June 20. It barely touches on criticisms of her claims. I did not check earlier to find out if it would be broadcast and am now sorry that I did not ask any questions. For those of you in the Bay Area: Brizendine will be giving a talk at UCSF on April 29. Details here.)

    I suspect misandry is not often used, at least by people involved with word processor dictionaries. My word processor says “misandry” is misspelled but that “misogyny” is spelled correctly.

  52. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    Picking up on Henning Makholm's idea:

    Pursuing the (probably daft) idea that Icelanders might indeed be more fiercely egalitarian (or whatever) than others, what about the usage of polite 2nd person pronouns in Icelandic compared with mainland Scandinavian languages?

    I have no knowledge of Danish, Swedish or Norwegian at all, but have a vague memory of reading somewhere that the use of the singular 2nd person pronoun in Swedish (I think it was) is much wider than that of (say) 'du' in German.

    Is this the case? And if it is, is Icelandic any more 'informal' in this sense than the mainland languages?

    I suppose that it's not a priori improbable that a language might reflect attitudes to social stratification in a number of different but correlated ways. (For example it would be hard to maintain that there was no connection between the nature of Korean and Japanese society and the high degree to which social status affects how you express everything in Korean or Japanese.) I would fit English into this Procrustean bed of a theory by pointing out that we're so obsessed with our bourgeois respectability that we've abandoned the use of our familiar second person pronoun altogether, while flinging about the ostensibly deferential word "please" in all sorts of contexts where other societies might find it redundant.

    It occurs to me that there is probably a huge body of scholarly literature on this very topic of which I am blissfully ignorant.

  53. Joe said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

    Maame;
    Trond Engen would be a much more reliable source about when such phrases are used, but you are indeed correct. I was only being half-serious (but if you play google- corpus, you'll see that it isn't just diplomat-Norwegian they teach you in guidebooks).

  54. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

    @Kapitano: Not just one word. There's also "pray", as in the Churchillian "Pray inform me on one half sheet of paper . . .". And no doubt there still survives a remnant of speakers who use the archaic "prithee" — even if they are only actors performing on the stage!

  55. James C. said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    As yet another offhand tangential comment, Tlingit completely lacks a word or expression for “please”. You simply say something like axh jeet katí /ʔaχ tʃiːt kʰatʰí/  “give me that (small round object)” (lit. “my hand.to IMP.handle.SRO”). Such things aren’t even said especially politely, they’re just said in a neutral manner (dunno about intonation yet, I’m still exploring that).

    The politeness comes after the event, when one says gunalchéesh /kunaɬtʃʰíːʃ/ “thank you”. That latter word comes from an earlier *tléil gunalchéesh /tɬʰéːɬ …/ which means something like “it is not easily obtained for oneself”. Some Tlingit speakers say that learners overuse the word in Tlingit, and that it should only be used when you’re seriously thankful. In such cases, one simply says something like aaá /ʔaːá/ “yes” in acknowledging the act.

    The whole idea of politeness between people who know each other well and aren’t in a formal setting (e.g. a potlatch) is rather foreign. Not to say that Tlingit society is traditionally very egalitarian, in fact it’s quite the opposite, and is heavily stratified even today. It’s just that personal interactions aren’t coloured much by linguistic distinctions (age, sex, status, politeness, etc.). Interactions with people you don’t know are usually done in formal public settings where there’s plenty of time for fancy oratory. Outside of such settings you know your conversational partners quite well, so why bother with fancy talk?

  56. Henning Makholm said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    @David: I think the T/V distinction is dead or dying in all Scandinavian languages. The formal 2nd person is extinct in spoken Danish — the royal family is notorious for insisting on it, but nobody else uses it. It shows up occasionally in formal written style, particularly when addressing an organization (where the formal form frees you from choosing between singular and plural), but tends to give an archaic or "trying too hard" impression.

    The Wikipedia article's "Icelandic" section fits the Danish situation perfection, perhaps even better than the "Danish" section.

    I'm not sure this says anything about Iceland in particular — all the Nordic countries are fiercely egalitarian at least according to our own national myths. Embellishing further on my theory above, one might speculate that we're so opposed to status distinction that even a symbolic subordination would feel too uncomfortable to work as a politeness instrument. But I don't really think that will hold water. The T/V distinction was alive and well in Danish up to about 1950, but the absence of a universal "please" equivalent is far older (I'm fairly sure none is to be found in the language of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), but his works are full of differences in social status).

  57. liamascorcaigh said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

    I suppose the winsome phrase "pretty please" came from "prithee please" on the belt and braces principle.

    [(amz) It's always entertaining to speculate about origins, and only too easy; most of these speculations are historically wrong.

    The subentry for pretty please in the OED's draft revision of March 2010 (an adv. expression under pretty adj./n./int.) says: "[compare German bitte schön] colloq. used in emphatically polite or imploring request", with cites beginning in 1888 and continuing through the script for Pulp Fiction.

    The OED's entry (draft revision of September 2009) for prithee (historically from I pray thee) has cites from the 16th century on, but labels the item as "now archaic"; the cites from the 19th century on are clearly archaizing or humorous or (as the OED has it) "conveying ironic politeness". That seems awfully late for it to combine with the politeness particle please.]

  58. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

    @Henning:

    Looks bad for my theory – in fact it's pretty easy to think of highly stratified societies without a neat equivalent for "please" once you begin (nothing really equivalent to "please" in this sense in Latin, for a start.) Nor does the presence of a word like "please" seem to be a good predictor of particularly high social stratification (despite my efforts to distort the evidence with English), though in premodern times you probably needed to go to fairly remote parts of the earth to find societies which *weren't* highly stratified, so it would be pretty hard to drum up a representative sample, and even harder to find comparisons without multiple confounding factors.

    Back to the phrenology …

    David Evjuskag does not say "please."

  59. Zora said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

    Re X words for Y: Hawaiian (and probably all other Polynesian languages) have a multitude of specialized words for the winds and rains of specific localities. For instance, "Kalihiwai is cooled by the wind Na'ena'e-pamalo-o-ka-hale-'ala" (Wichman, _Kaua'i_). (I left off the macrons, which I don't know how to do in this interface.) A Hawaiian poet would know the wind and rain names for various localities and compose songs, mele, using these as sophisticated allusions to the bare place names.

    There are of course named winds in other places (mistral, foehn) but perhaps not quite the luxurious profusion of names one would have found in pre-contact and early post-contact Hawai'i.

    (Though I just looked at the Wikipedia entry for foehn and found an amazing list of wind names.)

    These names may not have been used in everyday speech; they may have been poetic devices. Given that there's only one Hawaiian-speaking community left in Hawai'i (Ni'ihau, which has experienced significant dialectical deviation from the language as recorded in the 19th century), it might be difficult to come to any firm conclusion.

  60. Henning Makholm said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

    I would expect that in addition to social stratification, a society needs a certain degree of urbanization in order to develop a concept of formal politeness. It needs to be at least conceivable that somebody who ought to know your status doesn't, before it makes sense to invent linguistic clues to verify that he does. This means that the trend-setters of the society must live in an environment where they interact with quasi-strangers frequently.

    This would explain why Tlingit lacks "please" (but not why Latin also does).

  61. Peter T said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

    I can see that the naive argument from vocabulary is silly. But don't the finer points of classification reflect the speaker's ability to see as well as name them? Printers notice fonts, oenophiles learn to distinguish and name subtleties of taste and so on. My friends who have craft skills notice and can name lots of qualities peculiar to their crafts I cannot perceive. If one grew up in a community of, say, blacksmiths, one would learn to see and name things one would not otherwise notice. Or is there some research showing this is not the case?

    [(myl) Familiarity with specialized areas is well known to lead to faster and more accurate perception, better memory, etc. At least when social groups are involved (as they usually are), this also tends to lead to specialized vocabulary or to special meanings for more general vocabulary. (But there's not, as far as I know, anything really special here about single-word terms as opposed to new or overloaded phrasal terminology.) There are some areas (e.g. of mathematics) where the specialized terminology apparently plays a key role in developing and maintaining new cognitive abilities. But this is not always true, as I understand it.

    However, the "no word for X" and "N words for X" memes, as popularly deployed, are most often lexicographically dubious, and even less reliable as a guide to culture.]

  62. Ingrid Jakobsen said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 8:59 pm

    Australian English certainly has a casual, no-fuss way of saying "Don't mention it" or "You're welcome" – "No worries". It's also handy in lots of other situations eg if someone thinks they may have caused offense or inconvenience, to reassure. And because those two words aren't used together in any other context (that I can think of), in practice it's often a single extended syllable – n'w'rries. (Terry Pratchett reports mishearing it as "No rice".)

  63. octopod said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

    I've noticed "No worries" making its way into American English as well, over the last eight years or so. In 2002 I went to Australia and first noticed the phrase, and subsequently brought it back with me because I found it charming. Since then I've been noting it more and more, in several different social circles but especially among my primary "tribe", academics in the geosciences. Has anyone else observed this?

    (It sounds less like "No rice" coming from Am.Eng. speakers though. More fully pronounced, perhaps because more recently adopted.)

  64. Marguerite Radhakrishnan said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

    Ha! I never realized that English has no future either. (I didn't know German didn't until someone asked me about it… Problem with growing up with too many languages, that — you often overlook thinking about them.) Well, if English and German have no future, at least they're not alone: as the family keeps telling me when I try to correct their Sanskrit pronunciation (I'm the only one who's studied it — everyone else just has what they learned at temple) — Tamil has no aspirations.

  65. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    @liamascorcaigh: I suppose the winsome phrase "pretty please" came from "prithee please" on the belt and braces principle.
    Well, it's an intriguing speculation, but where's the evidence? I don't think "prithee please" is an attested collocation.

    [(myl) Also, the comparison to German bitte schön suggests an alternative plausible source, even though the usage is quite different.]

  66. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

    One of the things I've always liked about Iceland is the use of first names. In a newspaper report, a person is identified first by first name and patronymic, then all other references are by first name only. I haven't spent much time there recently, so I expect that the influx of outlanders has made a difference.

    My wife and I were once guests of a senior Icelandic banker (back when Riksbanki was very sound). He phoned his driver to come pick us up and said, "Hrolf, this is Jonas." [He's the one who returned to Sweden after an absence of 25 years and was asked by a cashier at the exchange booth, "How wouldst thou like thy change?" and had to step away a moment to compose himself.]

  67. Beth G. said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

    The American equivalent (at least in the dialects I'm familiar with) of "no worries" is "no problem" or, less commonly, "no prob". It's fairly entrenched, but you'll also see various phrases expressing similar sentiment: "don't worry about it", "it's no big deal", as well as "no worries". "You're welcome" is rare, and ime mostly used when replying to someone who's thanked you for a (physical or monetary) gift.

  68. Alexandra said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

    möngke said,

    "Green isn't exactly the most prominent color in Iceland, or at least not MORE prominent than in certain other areas of the world."

    I beg to differ: http://www.pbase.com/thomas_skov/sydisland

  69. Sparky said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 12:30 am

    "Metathesised"? You started with a thesis, but now you've gone way, way beyond the thesis?!?

    Any relation to "metastasized"? (Tongue in cheek symbol here.)

  70. Chas Belov said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 12:36 am

    @Beth G: I recall reading an article perhaps five to ten years ago noting this trend, and a quick Google reveals plenty of articles, many obviously peeves, but yours is the first comment I've seen that distinguishes between a response to thank you for a gift (you're welcome) and thank you for a service (no problem).

    Interestingly, Cantonese makes this distinction at the thank you point.

    Options:

    For a favor:

    Thank you: M goi (not trouble)
    No problem: M sai m goi (not necessary to say m goi)
    No really, thank you: (extra polite optional) Ying goi ge (?) (or maybe it's yiu goi ge; I heard this many years ago; any Cantonese speakers here)

    or

    Thank you: M goi (not trouble)
    No problem: M sai haakhei (not necessary to be polite)

    For a gift:

    Thank you: Do je (many thanks)
    No problem: M sai m goi (not necessary to say do je)

    or

    Thank you: Do je (many thanks)
    No problem: M sai haakhei (not necessary to be polite)

    Interesting the m goi in the Cantonese thanks is similar to the no problem in the English response.

  71. confused said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 12:53 am

    @Dan Lufkin
    Sorry, I don't understand the last story about the banker. Did the cashier speak archaic English to him? Or did he use the familiar 2nd person singular (T) form in Swedish and the banker had expected to be addressed more respectfully? But then why would he expect that if he spent so many years in a country where familiar forms are more common?

  72. ChrisB said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 1:04 am

    And here's a "no word for…." issue with practical applications.

    Does Chinese have a word for 'No'?

    Specifically, what we're looking at here is a simple device for disabled people without speech; a strip of card with (in English) 'No' at one end and 'Yes' at the other, which they can point to to indicate their choice. In Chinese it seems to be much more difficult, with words that apply to 'No this' or No that' but no single word that covers an answer to all binary questions.

    Anyone like to compare their approximation with ours?

    [(amz) There's a pretty fair literature on systems for answering YNQs (yes-no questions), and the topic has come up several times here on Language Log. The crucial fact is that plenty of languages don't have two fixed one-word answers for YNQs, but instead echo the verb in the YNQ: [in rough English translations] Q: "Have you eaten?" A. "Have." OR "Haven't." As far as I know, in all languages it's possible to give an answer with the verb of the YNQ (and possibly more) repeated, but in some languages there are no fixed formulas for the answers, only variable (context-dependent) responses.

    I can see that there would be a problem in designing visual materials for (speech-disabled) people who read a variable-response language. But then such people would not expect there to be two fixed responses in all contexts, so the materials would have to be appropriately context-dependent.]

  73. Amy West said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 3:08 am

    The color that usually gets talked about — at least by medievalists dealing with Old Norse/Old Icelandic literature — is blue. There seemed to be a literary trope where someone going out for revenge in the sagas was wearing blue clothing. This has lead to a lot of discussion in the past about just what shades the ON/OI terms for blue, black, and brown refer to.

  74. Army1987 said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    If Icelandic had 45 inflected forms for green, and all that guy said was "Icelandic has 45 words for green", that'd be so misleading as to be a lie, because the by far most likely interpretation would be that it has 45 *lexemes* for green. But since probably he neither knew nor gave a damn about whether that's true, in H. Frankfurter's terminology that's bullshit.
    As for the number of lexemes for "green", Sili showed that it's not so far for being true *in English*, but a more important issue is which ones are *basic* colour terms. For example, English has a word for "azure", but it's considered a shade of blue, whereas in Italian referring to the colour in the margins of this blog as "blu" rather than "azzurro" would be as strange as referring to a colour with the same luminance but the opposite hue as red instead of pink. OTOH, IIRC, in Japanese "midori" (green) is a shade of "aoi" (blue), so referring to a top traffic light as "midori" rather than "aoi" would sound as "fussy" as referring to a middle traffic light as "amber" instead of "yellow" in English.

  75. peter said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 9:50 am

    Henning Makholm said (April 18, 2010 @ 8:18 pm)

    "I would expect that in addition to social stratification, a society needs a certain degree of urbanization in order to develop a concept of formal politeness. It needs to be at least conceivable that somebody who ought to know your status doesn't, before it makes sense to invent linguistic clues to verify that he does. This means that the trend-setters of the society must live in an environment where they interact with quasi-strangers frequently."

    I suspect that the causal social determinants for elaborate forms of politeness are high levels of interaction with strangers or with powerful others, along with lots of leisure time. Free time is created when societies produce more than than they consume, and this probably tends to be a feature of societies in rich, not harsh, natural environments. Interaction with strangers can occur even without urbanization, as is shown, for example, by traditional Shona society, in what is present-day Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

    Before European settlement, the maShona mostly lived in small villages (although at some historical time periods there had been urban settlements of several thousand people), and their trade extended very far – eg, Chinese artifacts have been found in central Zimbabwe. Because no single sub-group or community was sufficiently powerful to dominate the others, pre-modern Shona society was organized into loose, ever-changing, coalitions and federations. I believe that this feature of traditional society encouraged the development of elaborate forms of politeness and the frequent use of indirect speech (eg, the relating of parables rather than factual speech), and all the skills of diplomacy and negotiation. Shona society, even today, is extremely and elaborately polite, and parables remain a common feature of conversation.

  76. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    @David: If you're still looking for a less "ponderous" alternative to "you're welcome" and find "no worries"/"no problem" doesn't appeal, I've got yet another suggestion. I'm not sure where I picked it up, but lately I find "Sure thing" is my default response for being thanked either for a service or for presenting an item.

  77. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    @Daniel:

    Alas, I fear I am not youthful enough to get away with "sure thing."
    I'll stick with the vague smile. If it was good enough for my grandfather …

    David Evjuskag doesn't have these problems. He may be younger than me as well as more Norwegian.

  78. Lane said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    I can say that as an American speaker of Danish, though not an extremely comfortable or fluent one, not having a single "please" is an actual pain. I'm not great at greasing the conversational wheels with things like "maa jeg faa" or "Jeg vil gerne have", and good old "please", and its one-word or short equivalents in other European languages, does a lot of handy signaling of "I"m not rude, I just don't know your language as well as I'd like yet so I'm going to say please and thank-you a lot; please bear with me."

  79. Bloix said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

    "Please" has no literal meaning at all. It's merely a social convention. Obviously it originated as verb meaning to make happy or to give pleasure to, but now it doesn't "mean" anything.
    And it wouldn't have originated as "if you please" (which also doesn't mean anything), it would have been "if it please you," that is, "if it would give you pleasure," the idea being that the asker is only suggesting something that the hearer would want to do for his own part in any event. This is what "s'il vous plait" literally means.

  80. Jim said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

    "You're welcome" in English always seems to me to be very emphatic and ponderous,"

    I always thought this was a calque on "failte", from a time when Irish was the prestige language in Ireland and English was not, and English was still borrowing and not yet simply taking.

  81. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

    @Jim:

    Seems unlikely, except in Ireland.

    I believe there are plenty of features of the English of Ireland which can be attributed to Irish influence, but they don't seem to show any propensity to spread to England.

    "You're welcome" actually sounds (a little) American to me, and if this were really the case I suppose Irish influence might be a bit more plausible; but I suspect I'm just falling into the common trap of ascribing a usage I don't particularly favour in my own speech to foreign influence. Moreover I wouldn't be surprised if any apparent American flavour was simply a side-effect of the fact that Americans are just more polite than the Brits.

    I can't follow your distinction between a language borrowing and a language taking; it's only borrowing if you give it back again, right? And I don't think there is any case where English (or any other language) has taken a word from a foreign language so thoroughly that the original speakers have had to stop using it …

  82. John S Costello said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

    I wonder what Georgia Graham would make of Japanese, which has neither a word for "please" nor (as Army1987 mentions above), a basic color word for "green".

  83. pavel said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

    ChrisB:
    And here's a "no word for…." issue with practical applications.

    Does Chinese have a word for 'No'?

    Specifically, what we're looking at here is a simple device for disabled people without speech; a strip of card with (in English) 'No' at one end and 'Yes' at the other, which they can point to to indicate their choice. In Chinese it seems to be much more difficult, with words that apply to 'No this' or No that' but no single word that covers an answer to all binary questions.

    Here's a suggestion for approximating yes/no in Mandarin. Instead of using polar interrogatives, frame the request for information as a declarative, then print on the strip 对 (duì; 'correct') and 错 (cuò; 'wrong').

  84. Juliette said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

    There have been many comments on this post about a language, "having a word for.." I think this is an approach that is very easy to take but that does not necessarily acknowledge the differences in language. By saying in Chinese or Danish for example this word means "please" we are placing an equivalence from one language to another that does not equal the same semantic relationship. Through my studies of translation, I have come to believe that we cannot substitute and interchange words from one language to another. If you are interested in studying translation theory, I recommend Lawrence Venuti's Translation Studies Reader.

  85. Cd-MaN said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 1:34 am

    As a native Hungarian speaker I have to dispel the myth that there is no word in Hungarian for "please". You can use the word "kérem", the longer form "legyen szives" and there are many other ways to express a respectful inquiry. In fact it seems to me (as a non-native English speaker) that the US version of English (not the UK one) is much more direct and less suited for conveying respect that any other language I know (Hungarian, Romanian and German).

  86. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 2:52 am

    @John S Costello:

    dōzo …

    MInd you, it seems to be a feature of Japanese that it doesn't have *one* way of saying anything, but at least six.

  87. peter said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 3:43 am

    John S Costello said (April 19, 2010 @ 7:47 pm):

    "I wonder what Georgia Graham would make of Japanese, which has neither a word for "please" nor (as Army1987 mentions above), a basic color word for "green". "

    Presumably, then, all Japanese people are color-blind, unable to distinguish green from other colors!

  88. Jongseong Park said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 8:02 am

    The situation for Korean is that 'green' as distinct from blue was not originally a native basic colour word and is a later addition, but nowadays it is an essential part of the colour space of Korean speakers. In this respect it's like 'orange' for English speakers, which also was not a native colour word. I suspect the situation is similar for Japanese.

    In Korean, though, the modern word for 'green', being a Sino-Korean term, does not conjugate like native Korean adjectives unlike the original basic colour terms white, black, red, blue (including green), and yellow. There is no such obvious marker in English for 'orange' to betray its late entry to the basic colour space. You would have to look at examples like 'redhead' for those with orange hair to tell that orange was once not a basic colour word.

    By the way, I have a feeling one could feasibly come up with 45 variations of one of the basic colour terms in Korean, the language being rich in vowel alterations, reduplications, and added particles that subtly alter the nuance.

  89. Bill Walderman said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 9:21 am

    Don't the Danes sometimes use the expression "vaer saa venlig at . . . " (sorry, I don't have the special letters) in the same way that English speakers use "please"? And is there some similar expression in Icelandic?

  90. Hamish said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    Henning Makholm said:

    "As a non-native speaker I have little business ascribing core meanings to English words"…

    I had to chuckle at this. Just at the amusement of a 'non-native' speaker who has an awareness of the language well beyond a vast majority of 'native speakers'. Henning, your understanding would surpass that of most native speakers.

  91. Ken Grabach said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 9:59 am

    There are many social contexts for saying "you're welcome" or an equivalent. Some might be minor. Someone is writing, needs a new pencil. I am asked for one, and hand the requestor one. She says "thanks". I might say "no problem" or "don't mention it," if not "you're welcome".
    Someone needs a favor of me, such as trading a reference shift at my library. I agree to make the trade. After the trade has been accomplished, the colleague indicates she genuinely appreciated the gesture. A dismissive reply, "Don't mention it" or "It was nothing" is going to sound curt. I would say something more generous, such as "I was glad I could help you" or "You are most welcome".

    In the first example, the act being thanked is negligible in social value. A dismissive tone is not out of place, as long as it is friendly in inflection. In the second example, where the social value is much higher, that tone would out of place. Something fuller, more complete, yes, more polite, seems called for.

    We don't have a word for you're welcome. But we do have many phrases.

    A regional version of the use of the word 'please' is common in Cincinnati and nearby communities in SW Ohio. When someone says something that the hearer doesn't understand, the hearer will respond with the interrogative, "Please?". Local understanding is that this came from the large German population of the area. The claim is that the usage is simply a translation into English of the German, "Bitte?" that might be used in the same context.

  92. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    Colours:

    The Kusaal language that I mentioned at the top of this thread is like many West African languages in having just three basic colour words, whose core meanings are black, white and red.

    That doesn't in any way mean that the Kusaasi can't talk about other colours; they say eg "ash-colour" for "grey", "vegetation-colour" for "green" and so forth. It's just that there aren't so many basic words, and any colour could be potentially correctly labelled by one of the basic three words, so "brown" is "red", "light green" is "white", "dark green" is "black", but the language is well able to be more precise if necessary.

    There's masses of published stuff about all of this, as it's the classic case where one can reasonably suppose that all normal human beings are describing the same stimuli, so the only variable is the language used for description,

  93. Army1987 said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

    @John S Costello: …to the extent that "kudasai" doesn't count as a "word for 'please'".
    @peter: so, are you Anglophones unable to tell azure from blue?

  94. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    I wonder if it is true to say that though there are may be quite of lot of cultures in which it's not customary to say "please" (or at least not as much as in the English speaking world), there are not nearly so many cultures in which it is not customary to say "thankyou"?

  95. Anonymous said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    Unfortunately, I've found (from a sample of two) that when New Zealanders use "no worries", they often seem to mean it in a passive-aggressive, rather English way, much how a Brit will say "It's no trouble" to mean "What an imposition!" Is this characteristic of Kiwis in general, or did I just happen to run into two annoyingly indirect ones?

  96. Aaron Davies said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

    I think Japanese has the same color situation as Korean, minus yellow as a primitive. Black, white, red, and blue (can) conjugate differently than everything else, and most of the others are transparent compounds (e.g. brown is "tea color").

    I'm vaguely surprised to hear of a language (family) with only one "color" (not counting black and white)–do they really accept the entire range from red to violet as simply "red"? I can understand dividing it into just two sections, along the yellow/green line, as Japanese does, but not dividing it at all seems very strange.

  97. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    @Aaron Davies:

    No; this is a three colour system, not one colour, even though the prototypical meanings of two of the words are "black" and "white" (everybody thinks black and white are colours before pedants and physics teachers tell them otherwise.)

    Essentially darker hues of not-red map to "black", lighter hues of not-red to "white". Very deep reds are "black" and very light reds are "white" as well.

    It isn't that there aren't other words for describing colours; what makes this a three-colour system is that it's always correct to apply one of these three words to any given colour.
    Compare English, where it's actaully an error to call a primary blue colour green, but correct (if a bit male) to call (say) violet "blue", so that violet is not part of the primary system of colours but blue and green are. On the other hand, green is not a shade of blue for English speakers; but for Japanese speakers, green and blue are different shades (perfecltly distinguishable shades) of the same colour.

    The Kusaal system is far from unique among the world's languages. There are also a lot with just four basic colour words. I've read that there are even two-colour systems (lighter shades all = "white", darker shades all = "black") though I don't know any myself.

    I think part of Dan Everett's list of strangenesses for Piraha includes altogether lacking primary colour words (the situation you are supposing I meant.) If he's right that would be very unusual indeed.

  98. Henning Makholm said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

    @Bill Walderman: "Vær så venlig at …" will certainly be understood generally as a formula for a polite request. The form "Vær venlig at …" (without "så") is more common nowadays. It is most idiomatic in impersonal communications such as loudspeaker announcements or business correspondence. If you try it eye-to-eye with somebody it may sound archaic (with a risk of "snooty and patronizing" if your pronunciation is too flawless…).

    @Hamish: Aw, thanks!

  99. Jongseong Park said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    Following up on my earlier musing, I took time to browse a Korean dictionary to jot down as many variations of the adjective family for 'yellow', 노랗다/노르다/누렇다/누르다 (norata, noreuda, nureota, nureuda) as I could find (yes, I had a lot of time on my hands). Here they are:

    노라노랗다, 노랗다, 노르께하다, 노르끄레하다, 노르끄름하다, 노르끄무레하다, 노르끼레하다, 노르다, 노르대대하다, 노르댕댕하다, 노르무레하다, 노르스레하다, 노르스름하다, 노르족족하다, 노르칙칙하다, 노르퇴퇴하다, 노름노름하다, 노름하다, 노릇노릇하다, 노릇하다, 노리끼리하다, 노릿노릿하다, 뇌랗다, 뇌르끄레하다, 누러누렇다, 누렁누렁하다, 누렇다, 누르께하다, 누르끄레하다, 누르끄름하다, 누르끄무레하다, 누르끼레하다, 누르다, 누르데데하다, 누르뎅뎅하다, 누르디누르다, 누르딩딩하다, 누르무레하다, 누르스레하다, 누르스름하다, 누르죽죽하다, 누르퉁퉁하다, 누르튀튀하다, 누름누름하다, 누름하다, 누릇누릇하다, 누릇하다, 누리끼리하다, 누릿하다, 누릿누릿하다, 뉘렇다, 뉘르끄레하다

    I did not include archaic (e.g. 노라ᄒᆞ다) or dialectal (e.g. 노루꾸무라하다) forms, nor forms that were combinations with other colour words (e.g. 누르락붉으락하다) or transparent combinations with other adjectives that can stand on their own (e.g. 누르컴컴하다 = 누르다 + 컴컴하다, although I did include 노르끄무레하다 since 끄무레하다 is pretty obscure), and even prefixed forms (e.g. 샛노랗다). But I still surpassed the magic number of 45 and reached 52. I did include a number of North Korean forms, though.

    I'm not sure why I did this with the adjective for yellow, because if I did it with the adjective family for 'blue' (incl. green), 파랗다/푸르다/퍼렇다 (parata, pureuda, peoreota), I think I'd find even more forms because of the vowel variations (considering that there are also forms like 포르스름하다 poreuseureumhada).

  100. Do languages get (all) the words they need? « Arnold Zwicky's Blog said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 1:45 am

    [...] the words they need? By arnoldzwicky Commenter Nick on Mark Liberman's Language Log posting on Icelandic peculiarities, in particular, the lack of a word equivalent to the English politeness [...]

  101. Joyce Melton said,

    April 23, 2010 @ 4:32 am

    Vietnamese has four basic color words, equivalent to black, white/silver, red/yellow/gold and blue/green. If you want to be more specific, you can say things like "xanh choi" = sky green and "xanh la" = leaf blue. (I'm missing the hooks and tone marks here but the joke doesn't depend on them.)

    Also, some dialects of Vietnamese have no word for yes, using the technique of repeating the verb. In some formal versions of the language there is an affirmative but using it in casual speech comes across as pompous as an English speaker saying "Indeed" in answer to a question.

  102. Kristin Johannsdottir said,

    April 23, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    As there are so many comments to this article I don't know if this has been said before, but if you take the word grænn 'green' in the four cases, two numbers, three genders, weak and strong inflection you get 48 forms. Now many of those forms are the same form but nevertheless, that's the count. If you added it to comparative and superlative you would get a whole lot more of course.

  103. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 5:49 am

    Jim & David; while "Tá fáilte romhat" = "You're welcome" is now ubiquitious in Irish, I have been told by middle aged native speakers that it sounds wrong to them as a response to thanks and that the natural colloquial response would be "Ná habair é", i.e. "Don't mention it". IOW, "fáilte" should be reserved for actually welcoming people e.g. into your house.

  104. Karan said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 2:56 am

    Hindi does have a word for "please", which is "कृपया", although it is only used in formal contexts.

  105. Magnús Már said,

    May 17, 2010 @ 2:58 am

    My first language is Icelandic and I now only one Icelandic word for green, and that's grænn…

    But I know many Icelandic words for snow:

    snjór, mjöll, lausmjöll, nýsnævi, hjarn, njóbörlingur, Hundslappadrífa, skæðadrífa, logndrífa, kafaldsmyglingur, hjaldur, lognkafald, él, fukt, neðanbylur, skafald, skafkafald, snjófok, snjódrif, kóf, fjúk, snjódríf, drift, fjúkburður, fýlingur, Skafrenningur, kafaldsbylur, kafaldshríð, moldbylur, él, snjógangur.

  106. Jason Eisner said,

    June 25, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    Nick wrote:

    2. The English language can ask questions of quantity only when the answer is cardinal, not ordinal. The answer is "Barack Obama is the 44th President of the USA." I know "Barack Obama" and I know "President of the USA", but I need to know the 'nth' part. What question do I ask in English?

    "Whichth President of the USA is Barack Obama?"

    (Seriously, I think most people would ask "What number president …?" But as you say, that is not syntactically a question about an ordinal; it risks getting the answer "Barack Obama is the #1 president!")

  107. stephen said,

    June 25, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

    So much fascinating stuff here!

    I read an English translation of an ancient Mesopotamian text–I don't remember the original language, but the text had one god making a request of another god and using the phrase, "I pray thee…" How strange. I am informed, however, it was not a case of a god praying to another god, it's just a variant of "please."

    I remember an odd phrase I heard in England once. I don't remember much about it–it may have been a waitress who didn't quite hear what was said, and she said, "Thank-you-very-much-again?"

    Does Greek really have no word for–either black or white, I don't remember.

    What variants of "please" and thank you" are used in other languages when speaking with unpleasant people and other miscreants?

    "Please hand over your purse before I stick this knife in your back."
    "Please don't grade my term paper without reading the whole thing first."
    "Please don't take points off my homework just because of the handwriting."
    "You can take my cash, but please don't take my ID and credit cards."

    And then, "thank you" after each transaction.

  108. Anonymous said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

    To do the math. Icelandic adjectives possess 4 cases, 3 genders, two numbers and 2 declensions, weak or strong and three forms of comparison. If you multiply this you'll get 4*3*2*2*3=4(cases)*3(genders)*2(numbers)*2(weak or strong)*3(comparison) = 144 theoretical form. The actual number is usually about 35.

    But Icelandic does have a variety of greenish colour names. But the fact is, that so does English. Blágrænn (blue-green), sægrænn (sea-green), grænblár (green-blue) and so forth. Sorry, no 45 separate adjectives.

  109. Sandra Karen said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 5:38 pm

    We do have a word for please?……….we say "gerðu það?"

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