How To Say Please, Without Saying Please

Please make welcome Bryce Miller, our new regular blogger here on Life in Norway. Bryce, originally from Bonnie Scotland, has lived in Bergen for four years and will hopefully even out the Oslo-bias on the blog 🙂 His area of interest is language so expect a lot of posts about the challenges of learning Norwegian, not least the different versions Bokmål and Nynorsk (he's a nynorsk boy by the way!) Take it away, Bryce…

winter in bergen, norway
Bryce is from Bergen, it rains a lot there

How to say please in Norwegian

You could be forgiven for thinking Norwegians are rude: service levels are as low as the fjords are deep; there is no intuitive sense of where anyone is in a queue; and shoving is an acceptable substitute for saying “excuse me”. Worst of all, they don't even have a word for “please”.

Yeah, that's right my friend: no word for “please”. Go back and read that again (I'll wait). Unbelievable, right? And, it's almost completely true, too!

The thing is, English is a pretty weird language. We don't know how to spell sanely, we take words from other languages without even asking, and we have a word for “please”. Just to be clear, cross-linguistically, actually having a word for “please” is the weird thing to do.

Okay, so German has bitte, but French has s'il vous plait, and Gaelic mas e do thoil e. These are phrases, ladies and gents, and Norwegian (like most of the world's languages) works this way too (okay, so there are some single words which are sometimes translated as “please”, but not always, so cut me some slack).

Let's take a look at some of the ways to say “please” in Norwegian:

Venlegst
[Vennligst]
Most friend-ily
Å vere (så) snill
[Å være (så) snill]
To be (so) nice
Å vere (så) venleg
[Å være (så) vennlig]
To be (so) friendly
Å vere så god
[Å være så god]
To be so good
Gjerne
[Gjerne]
No translation (tough luck)

 

Man, too bad about that last one, there. Wait a minute! Isn't ver så god what you say when someone thanks you for something? Uh…yeah, it is. And it means “please”, as well (and maybe some other things I'll save for another bedtime story).

The thing is, Norwegian words don't always map one-to-one with English, and vice versa. Maybe it would help if you got to see some examples? Look down there! I've found some examples!

Venlegst tast inn biletkode.
[Vennligst tast inn billettkode]
Please type in your ticket-code.
Lukk døra, er du snill? Please close the door.
Ver så venleg å rydd opp etter dykk!
[Vær så vennlig og rydd opp etter dere!]
Please clean up after yourselves.
Ver så god og sitt.
[Vær så god og sitt]
Please sit.
Ja, gjerne!
[Ja, gjerne!]
Yes, please!

You got all that? Are you comfortable with using these phrases? Good, 'cause they're hardly ever used. Okay, you'll see venlegst on signs commanding you to do things (real polite, guys, telling me what to do; hrumph), and maybe once in a blue moon (that's a month where there are two full moons – check your calendars, guys) or in a very formal situation (like a wedding, or becoming a Mafia Don) you'll hear the others, but if you use these phrases like they're caster sugar on a Victoria sponge, then you're going to sound damn needy. I can't stress this enough. If one of your Norwegian friends tells you to say ver så snill, the correct response is “Pff, I ain't gonna beg, Kari”.

Please in Norwegian

So if Norwegians don't say “please”, how come they still manage to live in a civilised society? Well, since there's no “please” expression, every way of saying a sentence goes up a politeness level compared to English, and Norwegian adds another one at the very bottom. Look at this chart, now with three columns!

Norsk English literal English interpretive
Kan du kjøpe meg ein pils?
[Kan du kjøpe meg en pils?]
Can you buy me a beer? Could you buy me a beer?
Kjøper du meg ein pils?
[Kjøper du meg en pils?]
Are you buying me a beer? Can you buy me a beer?

 

Did you see what they did there? In Norwegian, turning a command into a “Can you” question is enough to make it polite enough for everyday use. So, the hypothetical Norwegian says “Can you …”, and the sentence is magically translated into the more polite “Could you …”. And what's more, the quite rude and expectant “Are you …” becomes the familiar, but by no means abrasive “Can you …”.

That's pretty sneaky, Norwegians – and it's just enough to be polite.

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17 Comments

  1. Welcome to the fold! I’ve just about adjusted to being far more direct when asking for things. The acid test will come when I next go back to England. If I just say “two beers” without thinking, will I get punched? I’ll let you know…

  2. What a great post! Lingual differences like this are very interesting and sometimes quite funny, too! As a Norwegian sociologist I love it when you ask “So if Norwegians don’t say “please”, how come they still manage to live in a civilised society?”. Brilliantly asked! Made my day! Thank you! 🙂

    1. So pleased you liked it! I’ve got to say, I really like your blog. I never noticed before how much Pavarotti resembles a Communist guerrilla leader.

  3. Excellent post; I have a challenge for you along those same lines.

    Say you are at a local pub playing darts. Or playing 5-a-side with some buddies. And one of them is bad at it, in norwegian you can easily say “Du, ikke vær så dårlig da!” and thats OK. Its on the rude side, not something you would say to strangers, but in a social setting that works.

    How do you convey the same message in the same setting in english? “Dont be so bad” sounds incredibly rude to me compared to the norwegian line?

    1. Being naturally gifted only at the common pub sport of fox-tossing, and competing exclusively in fox-tossing events, I know all to well what people say when someone poor at darts takes the … darts.

      They say sarcastic things about how “great” you’re playing, or exaggerate how poorly you’re playing. Here’s some things that people have said to me:
      “Man, what a waste of talent.”
      “Have you signed that contract with Celtic yet?” <– This one is also an insult to Celtic
      "I thought you said you'd played before?"

      The last one is probably the most generic.

      Having said this, my friends are mean and sarcastic, so your mileage may vary 🙂

  4. a lot of it is ‘tonal’ also in norsk. Swedes ‘extract the urine’ by saying we sing when we talk, and you don’t realise it at first, but norsk is more ‘sung’ than just said. And the tone you say things in tends to emphasise the meaning more than what you actually say.
    Personally, I tend to ask for ‘to pils, takk’
    🙂

    1. Thanks so much Sophie! We’re a growing team and thoroughly enjoying sharing our love of all things Norwegian 🙂 Just been searching through your blog too, quite an adventure!

  5. Gjerne

    “Ja, jeg kommer gjerne i bursdagsbesøket ditt.”
    “Yes, I’d love to come to your birthday party!”
    Here “gjerne” means “love to.” Very important not to confuse with “please” in this context.

    “Gjerne det” – “Yes, please.”
    “Ja, gjerne det!” – “I’d love to.” – but the degree of volition is often lower than ‘I’d love to.’

    “Det er gjerne like greit” – “It may be just as fine” (when settling for one thing over others; without any particular preference for the choice taken.”
    “Han kommer gjerne” – “He may come.”

    “Han kommer gjerne ikke som vanlig”, “He may not come as usual” / “He is wont not to come [as usual].”
    I use “wont” illustratively because the word is frequently used when commenting on the likelihood of something happening or not. “He may not come” doesn’t seem to carry across that connotation.

    Just my 2 cents on ‘gjerne.’ Thanks for giving me a chance to ponder my own language.

  6. Just moved to Oslo and this is very helpful! I’m Canadian, and clueless. I’m hoping to avoid the development of a nervous tic every time I leave out “please” or “thank you.”

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