Sumimasen!

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Because Language Log readers are already familiar with this "most useful word in the Japanese language", and because of its highly polysemantic and multifunctional quality (see the very nerdy, thorough, and entertaining discussion of the various meanings and applications of "sumimasen" on Tofugu, "Sorry for Saying Thank You: The Many Uses Of Sumimasen"), I have decided to leave it untranslated, even in the title of this post.  The purpose of the present piece is to further explore the subtleties, nuances, and history of "sumimasen", in hopes not only that this exceptional Japanese word will be better appreciated, but that it will be used more appropriately by those of us who were not born to it.

Help comes in the form of the following notes provided by Cecilia Segawa Seigle

Thank you for your blog concerning "sorry" and "sumimasen."

Indeed, we Japanese say "sumimasen" or "gomennasai" (and in this connection "thank you," too).  And I have heard comments and criticism on this matter.  But there is quite a difference among people depending on individual personality.  For example, I tend to apologize a lot, and maybe unnecessarily.

It's not as though we feel guilty that much, but those of us who dislike causing unpleasantness or less than a perfect satisfaction to others, feel responsible for failing.

We were brought up being taught to be responsible for our actions, and never never cause annoyance or unpleasantness to other people 他人に迷惑 をかけてはいけません。 So we can't help it.

About the British saying "sorry" a lot, I think they used to say "pardon" a lot, rather than "sorry."

When I was a child, I remember reading an essay by someone who, when he was in England for the first time, kept hearing — at a theater for example — everyone saying "pa—n" "pa—n", and didn't understand what it was.  After a while he realized they were saying "pardon," "pardon," as they went through the crowd of the theater.  I never forgot that.  I have been to England (mainly London) a number of times, but I did not notice "pardon" or "sorry" so much — maybe I was usually preoccupied with other interesting things.

In Japan, however, I do hear "sumimasen," "gomennasai" a lot.  I have a girlfriend who apologizes for everything. It's as though she is apologizing for her existence.

"How are you, Toshiko-san, are you feeling all right?"

"Sumimasen, I am all right" while she is saying this, she is bowing.

"Toshiko-san, you have no reason to apologize!"

"Sumimasen!"

"You are really something!"

"Sumimasen!"

This goes on all day!  And in her case it's always "sumimasen," not "gomennasai."

Among many of us, "sumimasen" becomes "suimasen," especially in Tokyo.

The etymology of "sumimasen" is interesting.  During the Edo period, there was  a lot of trouble over money among people; purchasing and paying, loaning and returning, and so forth and so on.

When everything was paid back and cleared, it was expressed by the verb "sumu" (done 済む). In other words it was finished, cleared.

When something remained in debt, it was "sumanu" or "sumanai", which became "sumimasen".  Now, however, most situations involving sumimasen are not related to money trouble.  Money trouble today cannot be remedied by merely saying "sumimasen".

"Sumimasen" is such a fine and handy expression that I'm often tempted to use it even when I'm speaking English or some other language and when I know full well that the person to whom I'm talking wouldn't understand it.  "Sumimasen" has a nice ring to it and expresses perfectly the feeling of inadequacy or incompleteness in one's dealings with others.

Much more elegant than "my bad", more refined even than the popular meaning of "mea culpa", and altogether different from the feeling of sorrow, distress, pain, and grief that lies at the root of "sorry".

Sumimasen!

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17 Comments »

  1. Steve Tripp said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 10:36 pm

    Sumimasen is often pronounced with a creaky (pained) voice to make it more emphatic.

  2. Max Pinton said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 10:38 pm

    I'm curious about this financial etymology of sumimasen. I thought I had read that it meant "this isn't over" in the sense of social obligation: I owe you a kindness.

    I suppose the core meaning of "not ending" is the same, but does it originate from a financial or social sense?

  3. Avinor said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 11:14 pm

    I've wondered a bit about the pronunciation. I was taught in Japanese class that it's pronounced with what sounds like a noticeably higher pitch in the last syllable. In the same class, I was also taught that the tone in a Japanese word always starts high and drops somewhere on the way. That seems true most of the time, but not here.

  4. Brendan said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 1:04 am

    Interesting. I remember David Graeber having something to say on the subject of obligations in the context of social interactions in his recent book, but I don't remember whether or not he dealt with "sumimasen" specifically.

  5. julie lee said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 1:30 am

    Thank you for the interesting posts on "Sorry!" and "Sumimasen!"

    Regarding the remark ' …"Sumimasen, I am all right" while she is saying this, she is bowing' :

    When my Chinese friends and I first came to America as graduate students many years ago, we discussed how one could tell a Japanese from a Chinese. After all we Chinese and Japanese look alike. One difference is that we Chinese don't say "sorry" or "excuse me" much, nor are we much given to bowing. My Chinese friends agreed that you could tell Japanese and Chinese apart by the Japanese love of bowing. "The Japanese can start bowing to you from quite a distance," one friend remarked. " But if someone who looks Japanese or Chinese walks up to you without bowing, you'll know they are Chinese." While we Chinese think the Japanese bow perhaps too much, the Japanese must think of us Chinese who bow so little as impolite or uncouth.

  6. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 2:57 am

    Help! I am plagued by this absurd macaronic earworm:

    "Coito ergo sumimasen."

    Sumimasen!

  7. Sam Foster said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 7:24 am

    @Reinhold {Rey} Aman

    What a coincidence! Absurd Macaronic Earworm is the name of my band's debut album.

  8. Oskar M said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 7:50 am

    In answer to Max, I don't think its origins are in social OR financial. It's a more base meaning of 'clearing of a haze / uncertainty etc' if I remember correctly. (Hence, sumimasen is 'uncleared')

    I think the word itself is Japanese origin, but with the adoption of Chinese characters, 'sumimasen' (in this meaning) uses 済, which is also in the word for 'economy' (keizai 経済).

    In contrast, if written with 澄 it's closer to 'clear'. We talk about clearing debts but also clearing / being socially indebted to people in English too, so it's not too distant!

  9. phspaelti said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 9:39 am

    I was also taught that the tone in a Japanese word always starts high and drops somewhere on the way. That seems true most of the time, but not here

    A true exposition of Japanese "tone" would require more space. But basically the pitch in Standard (Tokyo) Japanese is characterised, by a notable *lowering* at the beginning of the word/phrase, followed by a sharp rise. If at some point in the word/phrase the pitch does fall, the word/phrase is said to be accented, otherwise it is unaccented, and the pitch stays high.
    Of course this constant high level is subject to a more general down trend, and a final drop at the end, so that constant high is more like a gentle downward slope.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 9:46 am

    Here are the basic meanings of jì 濟 / 济: aid, assist, succor, help, relieve, ferry (across).

    In premodern Chinese, jīngjì 经济 meant roughly "manage and succor". It was only around the turn of the 20th century that Japanese authors, who pronounced it as keizai, matched up the term with the English word "economy" and sent it back to China with that new meaning. It's a prime example of what I call a "round-trip word".

    See "'And the greatest Japanese export to China is…'".

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4138

    among many other Language Log posts that touch on this phenomenon.

  11. phspaelti said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 9:49 am

    This "economic" explanation sounds like another attempt at doing etymology by looking at the characters, which is always a bad idea.
    The Japanese word sumu just means "end". The noun form sumi means "end/edge/limit".
    So the "social" explanation (i.e., "this doesn't end here") seems appropriate to me.

  12. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 10:16 am

    @Avinor:

    In Tokyo Japanese, most words have a single syllable after which there is a fall in pitch (sometimes it's the last, in which case you only hear the fall on a following word.) Rather misleadingly this is usually called the accented syllable. It's the one marked in a dictionary like Daijirin 大辞林 and in Kodansha's nice romanised short Japanese-English dictionary. A lot of words don't have an accent at all though.

    Apart from this, the first syllable of an utterance is normally low, with a rise onto the second.
    So you only in fact get high-low initially if the first word has the "accent" on its first syllable.
    Sumimasen has the accent on the -se-, so goes LHHHH.

  13. Akito said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 10:40 am

    No, it should go LHHHL. The word has 5 moras: su-mi-ma-se-n.

  14. Jessup said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 10:50 am

    Thanks for the etymology on this useful word.

    In Osaka, "sumimasen" or "suimasen" is fine, but it's often "summasen," and the full-on Osaka dialect version is "summahen."

  15. Nat said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 10:52 am

    I do hear "sumanai" / "sumannai" / "suman" every now and then. It's basically the gruff old man version of "sorry not sorry".

  16. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 11:26 am

    @Akito:

    Quite right. Careless mistake on my part. 済みません…

  17. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 11:53 am

    @Nat:

    "Sumanai" is just the plain form equivalent of "sumimasen", used when you wouldn't be using the polite -masu forms, as with close friends. "Suman" is a variant of the same.

    "Sumannai": I think you may actually be hearing "tsumannai", a contracted very informal variant of "tsumaranai" "boring!"

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