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Recently, I was thinking about the meanings and uses of “sorry” in the languages I am familiar with and I thought I would share what I find to be very interesting differences for a word that holds so much and such an important meaning.
First, I would like to establish the meaning of “sorry” in the general sense. I believe it is used to convey one or all of the following- sympathy, pity, regret, compassion, a plea for forgiveness, guilt, shame, and any related emotions I may have omitted.
Now, let us start with the English “I’m sorry.” Sorry comes from the old English “sarig” meaning “distressed, full of sorrow” and further back from the ancestral West Germanic language “sairaz” meaning “pain” ,both mental and physical (etymonline.com). Which, I think gives it a very tangible quality.
In German “I’m sorry” is best expressed as “Das es tut mir leid.” This can be literally translated as “It does me sorrow.” The first thing to notice is that both English and German associate the meaning of sorry with “sorrow”, which makes sense since modern English and modern German are both descended from ancestral West Germanic. A notable difference though is that in English one is sorry, or more literally one embodies sorrow, whereas in German it is something that is inflicted upon oneself. In the strictly literal sense I find this very interesting, since in one language one becomes sorrow and in the other sorrow is brought to you and experienced by you. For Germans it seems the sorrow and the self are still separate, but not so for the English speaker. I feel that this makes the English “I’m sorry” especially poignant. At least that is what I make of it…
Now on to French and Spanish (who share a more recent common ancestor with each other than with German and English). In French one says “Je suis desolée” (just one “e” for a male speaker). This is literally translated as “I am desolated.” Desolé comes from the latin “desolare” which means “to leave alone, make lonely, lay waste, desolate” or “to forsake, abandon, or desert.” Unlike with German and English where the main meaning evoked is sorrow, here there is a sense of loneliness and abandonment. Loneliness due to distress? Due to pain? Due to a discord between the speaker and the receiver of the “sorry”? I wonder how this was associated with the use of the phrase today!
In Spanish, one says “Lo siento.” Literally “I feel it.” Sympathy is immediately conveyed.
Interestingly, Spanish and French are not as similar as English and German in their “sorry phrases.” In French, one becomes desolated, and in Spanish one simply feels. Interestingly the French phrase seems to alienate the sorry individual (perhaps they are deserted in their pain and in doing so are plea-ing to be freed from it by the other party through forgiveness?), while the Spanish phrase immediately connects the sorry individual to the receiver of the message by indicating that they too, feel.
I wanted to acknowledge that there are other words in each of the above languages connoting “sorryness,” but I wanted to focus on the deeper expressions of it (e.g. not the phrases used for small infractions such as excusing oneself if you bump into someone).
On the whole what I think is interesting about words and their meaning is that there’s the word itself (an agglomeration of letters and sound) and then there’s the meaning – a sort of floating shapeless mass that morphs itself to the context where the word is placed. Choose your words carefully…
And lastly, in defense of my speculative measures, I would like to say that I have no formal linguistic formation (so sorry!). But, of course, I would be more than happy to hear input from someone who does 🙂 Or from anyone who might know about “sorry” in another language or knows the above languages better than me :).
***UPDATED: I failed to mention the french phrase “pardon” which although often used to excuse oneself for minor offenses can also be used to ask for forgiveness in graver issues. This is actually what I was taught growing up- “Je suis desolée” I never really used, but when I did a google search to confirm my facts, I found it listed most commonly for the french “i’m sorry.” The difference is that “Je suis desolée” expresses sympathy, while “pardon” asks- to put it simply- for a pardon. Thanks to my brother Damien for bringing this up in the comments. Sorry I omitted it before!