Spring 2000 (8.1)


Sociolinguistically Speaking - Part 6

by Jala Garibova and Betty Blair

You are welcome to reproduce these Sociolinguistic articles for individual or educational study.

All societies have verbal formulas and patterns to express regret and apology, but it seems Azerbaijanis often apologize on occasions when people in other cultures, especially Westerners, wouldn't consider it necessary. Of course, as with any tradition anywhere in the world, you'll discover variations in speech patterns and practices based on a number of factors including status, gender, age, education and geographic location.

Photo: The wealth of friendship, Sabirabad Refugee Camp

For example, Azerbaijanis often apologize for using words or expressions that denigrate another person or are considered taboo. For example, if during a normal conversation, they feel the need to use harsh or rude words to describe a person or situation, they may apologize before pronouncing the questionable word: "He is such a - excuse me - bastard."

Azerbaijanis also apologize when they mention certain parts of their body such as feet, legs or back, especially in conversations with people who are outside their close circle of friends and relatives. It sometimes will even occur in conversations with their doctors: "I have a sharp pain - excuse me - in my right leg."

In rural areas of Azerbaijan where more traditional practices are followed, men may apologize when they refer to their spouse: "My wife - excuse me - does not work."

Again, people from very traditional backgrounds may apologize when they mention their bedroom, shower room, toilet or refer to a person taking a shower. For example, "The water faucet is not working - excuse me - in the bathroom."

However, it should be noted that younger people these days, especially in Baku, are not likely to observe such rules.

It's common for women to apologize if they put on make-up in front of others, especially in front of men and older people. And men may apologize if they smoke in front of women and older people.

If a man has taken a seat on public transportation and can't, for some reason, offer it to an elderly person or a woman who is standing nearby, he's likely to apologize and offer a reason. For example, "So sorry I can't offer you my seat, I'm holding very heavy stuff."

Expressing Regret
The usual words for "Sorry", "I beg your pardon", "Excuse me", "I apologize" are and. The expression literally means "Forgive me" and is the more formal expression. is more informal and literally means "I want an excuse."

Regret about what has been done or said is also expressed through the following words and phrases:

I didn't mean that (literally, I did not know).

I didn't expect it would turn out so.

I should not let it be so (literally, it should not have been so).

It's my mistake/fault.

It's my guilt.

We will correct our mistake ("we" really meaning "I").

We will never let such things happen (Again, "we" really meaning "I").

Now let's do what you tell us to.

We will arrange everything (literally, we will put everything in its place).

Sometimes these expressions are used without the word , as some people have difficulty directly admitting fault and it's difficult for them to say or .

Explaining the Reason
Azerbaijanis have an expression that comes from Persian: meaning, "Apology is worse than the fault". There is a very clever anecdote from the ancient sage, Molla Nasraddin, that illustrates its meaning.

Here Teymur refers to Tamerlane or "Timur, the Great", who conquered much of the region from Mongolia to the Mediterranean in the 14th century. Molla is the great legendary comic sage who always made astute, often humorous, observations about human behavior. As the story goes:

Once Teymur asks Molla: "What does

Molla replies: It means that "an apology may be worse than the original fault".

Teymur asks: "What do you mean? I don't understand."

Molla replies: "Assume you do something wrong and then apologize. But your explanation is even worse than your fault."

Teymur still doesn't understand. Molla tries very hard but Teymur can't comprehend what he means.

So Molla comes up to Teymur and pinches him in the buttocks. Teymur yells back: "Are you crazy? What are you doing?"

Molla replies: "Oh, sorry, your Majesty. I thought I was at home and you were my wife."

This makes Teymur even more furious: "You must be out of your mind. Do you understand what kind of things you are telling me?"

Molla explains: "Don't get angry, my Lord. I was just trying to show you what

Despite the fact that this anecdote is well known, Azerbaijanis consider it appropriate to offer an explanation why some mistake or inconvenience has occurred. To explain the true reason is considered the polite thing to do so that the other party doesn't get hurt. So it's quite usual for Azerbaijanis to provide explanations why they are late or why they missed a meeting or a party.

I'm sorry I couldn't come to your party because...

Response to an apology usually is directed at easing the discomfort of the person who has apologized.

May God forgive you.

Such things happen.

Everything happens.

That's OK (Literally, "May you be healthy and sound" meaning, whatever has happened is nothing to me in comparison to your health).

Take it easy (Literally, don't take it to your heart).

It doesn't matter (That's OK).

People make mistakes.


Not all apologies signify that an error has been made. People also apologize when they think that what they are going to say or do will inconvenience another person. These situations occur when Azerbaijanis interrupt a private conversation, stop someone in the street to ask something, or enter somebody's private room - even after knocking. Again, they use the phrase, "Forgive me" or "Excuse me".

Excuse me, how can I get to the Opera Theater?

In such situations, the word expressing an apology is sometimes followed by the expression:

Sorry for disturbing you, do you know...

In such situations is the more informal expression and is the more formal expression.

Sorry that I'm interrupting you, do you know if...

If the interruption occurs in a formal meeting, is the more common expression:

I beg your pardon, I have one thing to add.

Certain situations - such as turning one's back on someone or forgetting someone's name - also require an apology:

A. Excuse me, I turned my back on you.
B. That's OK. Don't worry / Sit comfortably.

People apologize when they have to inquire about someone's name that they feel they should already know. They will also apologize the first time that they ask someone's name.

Excuse me, what is / was your name?

For the sake of politeness, Azerbaijanis often apologize when no apology is needed. For example, they may even apologize when they ask a shop assistant about the price of goods.

Excuse me, how much is this coat?

Refusing an Offer

Azerbaijanis have a proverb:

"The one who requests gets ashamed once, the one who rejects - twice [ashamed]."

Azerbaijanis find it difficult to give a direct "no" to any request. To ease the psychological discomfort, they are likely to apologize for the refusal or rejection and add an explanation:

Sorry, I can't come, because...

Sorry, right now it is impossible, because...
(Note that
is more formal than .)

Mostly explanations are followed by the confirmation of the impossibility used in the conditional or subjunctive:

I wish it were possible.

If it were possible, I would do it.

To leave some hope for the person who has made the original request or offer, Azerbaijanis tend to reply by making some vague promise:

In the future, it may be possible.

If God wills, next time.

It is not unusual for Azerbaijanis to invent excuses for refusal or rejection rather than offer the true reasons that might offend.

Children and Apologies
When adults hurt or cause inconvenience to a child, they apologize, but the apology is usually followed by expressions of care, for example:

Did I hurt you?

Where does it hurt? (Literally, "did").

Then adults almost always try to help the child out of the inconvenient situation (for example, if they have accidentally spilled water on their toys, they will dry them.)

If children do something wrong, they are expected to apologize, especially to grown-ups. If they don't, their parents make them do so. Of course, parents also try to make their children apologize to peers as well. But they consider it unacceptable for their child to wrong an older person. They'll try to help their child understand the situation by saying, "How can you say this to someone who is older than you? You must apologize" or "How can you behave like this to someone older than you? Go apologize."

Apologizing for others
Azerbaijanis apologize for damage or inconvenience caused by someone for whom they feel responsibility. If something goes wrong between two kids, the parents of the child at fault may initiate an apology to ease the fractured relationship.

Apologies are very important in Azerbaijani society. Psychologically, Azerbaijanis are sensitive about offending or hurting someone. Culturally, they don't like to have to say "no" to any request. A popular Azerbaijani proverb says:

"Your enemy treats you with stones, you treat your enemy with pilaf."

In other words, even if your enemy attacks you, you should extend hospitality to him.

Azerbaijanis depend upon long-term relationships for mere physical survival. It's for this reason that apologies have become such an integral part of social behavior, and why they are so important in fostering and maintaining friendships. In Azerbaijani society, you can't go wrong by saying, "I'm sorry."

Back to Sociolinguistically Speaking

From Azerbaijan International (8.1) Spring 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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