“Would you please hand me that pencil?”

A typical enough sentence — polite, but not strangely so. Now consider this one:

“Would you, I bid, hand me that pencil?”

Certainly, this is rather less typical. However, my actual point is obscured by the slightly archaic “bid.” To put the same idea a different way:

“I request, would you hand me that pencil?”

The meaning of this and my first example is largely the same, insofar as both express the speaker’s desire that someone give him “that pencil.” But, to what extent does the substitution “I request” (focus on “I”) for “please” (a totally nebulous adverb, synchronically) affect the interpersonal force?

How about if we removed the polite subjunctive “Would you”?

“I request, hand me that pencil.”

Strangely, or not, this is the way to say please in German: “bitte” is, literally, “I ask.” The verb bitte, infinitive bitten, is cognate with English “bid.” The tone can be further softened by the use of “can,” “would,” or “could,” as in English. But, fundamentally and transparently, to say “please” in German is to say “I request.” Likewise, Mandarin Chinese uses the verb “qing,” or “to ask,” in the way we use “please.”

Through all this linguistic ambiguity, we have to ask: what exactly does please mean? As I pointed out before, the word bears no further meaning beyond its polite function. However, we do have another way of using “please”: as in “it pleases me.” How are these functions related?

Now we must turn to history. One possibility, a misinterpretation, though perhaps not unwarranted given the equivalents in German and Chinese, is that please is an imperative: “Please me, hand me that pencil.” This is the right track, but our we’re wrong about whom is being pleased. “If it please you [the person being asked, that is]” is (approximately) the original idea, shortened to “so please you” or “please you” and finally just “please.”

The real question, however, is whether any of this actually makes a difference. Does using a purely interpersonal, phatic adverb like “please” give a different impression to native English speakers than the use of “bitte” or “qing” gives native German or Chinese speakers? Or is the simple equivalence which we learn in textbooks actually correct?

Naturally, this is difficult to answer, as it’s hard to separate ourselves from our own native cultural-linguistic perspectives on politeness. Certainly, when I speak Chinese, “qing” is no different to me than “please.” But I am an English speaker. Am I merely imposing the English meaning of “please” on the Chinese word? I can hardly ask a Chinese speaker, since he might likewise impose the meaning of “qing” on our “please!”

Consider German. Why does a culture, relatively similar to then-contemporary English culture, especially when these polite forms were becoming standardized, take the phrase “I ask” to be polite? It had to start somehow. In other words, at some point in the history of the German language, prefacing a request or command with “I ask…” was per se polite, rather like, in modern English, saying “I’m sorry to bother you” is both polite and carries a clear meaning. In the mean time, no parallel usage developed in a closely related language just across a small sea. Indeed, saying “I ask, hand me that pencil” probably strikes most of us as presumptuous at best, and downright odd at worst.

As is often the case in my columns, I do not have the answer, but the question, I think, is worth asking. Think about the languages you speak, and if you’d please, drop me an e-mail instructing me “How to Say Please” in them. Politely put, this is a question worthy of a sequel.

J. Max Mikitish is a sophomore in Silliman College.