Six ways of saying sorry in Dutch

Six ways of saying sorry in Dutch

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Direct Dutch Institute recommends speaking Dutch as often as possible - even if all your Dutch colleagues speak English, and even if you only know a few words of Dutch.

The United Kingdom may be leaving the EU (so sorry for that!), but the Dutch and the English can never cut their family ties.

Culturally and linguistically speaking, we are like brother and sister. Though living on separate grounds, we share much grammar and vocabulary.

Our forefathers, the German family, spoke dialects of the same language. That’s why today’s Brexit feels like a heart-wrenching break-up. And our relatives on that "precious stone set in the silver sea" have not even said "sorry" to us.

Of course this will not do, so Ruud Hisgen created this handy guide for English-speakers of how to say sorry in Dutch.

1. Sorry (doesn’t come from English)

According to Elton John’s 70s song, "sorry" seems to be the hardest word. "It’s a sad, sad situation", indeed, but it’s not true because the Brits will use it over 20 times a day.

And these two simple syllables are also the commonest form in Dutch of saying that you’re regretful. Sorry seems to sound so English and it looks as if it is related to "sorrow" but, no, its roots go back to our German forefathers who lived on this side of the North Sea.

Sorry goes back to the Dutch word zeer which means pain, sore, sensitive, hurt, sad, feeling grief, etc. So, if you step on someone’s toes, it does not hurt to say: sorry! Remember, however, that if you want it to sound Dutch, don’t forget rolling the r’s a little. Practise Sorry, Rotterdam, maar rot op, twice a day!

2. Pardon

Yes, the Dutch also use this word which like the Brits we borrowed from the French. "Je vous en demande pardon" (I beg your pardon) has been uttered ever since the dark Middle Ages.

Pardon expresses a polite apology. Especially when you didn’t catch what someone said. Of course you know the following urban legend. Early 60s Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Luns, speaking a notorious kind of Dunglish, said to John F. Kennedy when asked about his hobbies: "I fok horses", meaning "I breed horses".

Kennedy replied in shock: "Pardon" and Luns happily answered: "Yes, paarden". We can learn from this misunderstanding that English speakers stress "par" and the Dutch "don". So don’t say Wat? when you’re not sure what someone just said, but say: ParDON or Sorry.

3. Neem me niet kwalijk

If you’re a beginner in the mastery of Dutch, forget this difficult phrase. If you make a mistake while trying to say it, you’ll only make your wrong deed worse.

Literally it means "take me not evil or badly". So something like "don’t blame me too harshly". The Dutch use it very frequently, because they seem to like the word kwalijk.

4. Excuseert u mij

Another polite word for excuseren is verontschuldigen (apologise) and if you say verontschuldigt u mij, you ask another person to clear yourself of a charge.

In other words: please discharge me. Schuld means "guilt" or "blame". The use of formal u already indicates that this is not a phrase you should use in daily traffic.

Both excuseert u mij or verontschuldigt u mij are highly formal. If Queen Elizabeth were to apologise to King Willem-Alexander for the Brexit in Dutch, she’d probably say: ik bied u mijn oprechte verontschuldigingen (or excuses) aan. (I offer you my sincere apologies). The word excuus or excuseer can also be heard and is less formal.

5. Vergeef mij

Yes, a wrong step in society requires retribution. If the offender realises that there may be consequences, he or she will immediately beg for forgiveness.

That’s why in Dutch you can vary your sorry expressions with the phrase: vergeef mij (forgive me). Usually it works, but only on the understanding that your voice and attitude are convincingly filled with remorse.

6. Het spijt mij

Instead of saying pardon or sorry, neem me niet kwalijk or vergeef mij you could also mumble: het spijt mij which literally means "it spites me" and expresses deep regret for the faulty action or utterance.

If you yourself are the victim and your wrongdoer says: sorry, pardon, excuus, vergeef mij or het spijt mij, it is customary to react by saying: het geeft niet (literally: it gives not), het maakt niet uit (literally: it makes not out), or het doet er niet toe (literally: it does not do to it). They all express that you’re the owner of a heart that is big enough to forgive the culprit. "It does not matter."

Practice makes perfect

So when in the Netherlands, practise these little phrases because they can make your stay in these densely populated cities so much less embarrassing.

And don’t listen to Shakespeare who made one of his actors in Midsummer Night's Dream (1600) say: "Never excuse: for when the players are all dead, there need none to be blamed."

Want to better understand Dutch language and culture? Sign up for one of the Direct Dutch courses!

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Ruud Hisgen


Ruud Hisgen

Ruud is teacher and managing director at Direct Dutch, he is also an author.

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