Obrigados / Obrigadas

According to someone who wrote to me today, the words obrigados/obrigadas are only used in Portuguese to mean ‘obligated’, and are not used to thank more than one person. However, according to João Rosa, who wrote the article Obrigado – how to express your gratitude in Portuguese, these words are used to mean ‘thank you’ when talking to groups of people.

Can anybody throw any light on this?

In the Gaelic languages there are different versions of thank you for singular and plural:

Irish: go raibh maith agat (sg), go raibh maith agaibh (pl)
Manx: gura mie ayd (sg), gura mie eu (pl)
Scottish Gaelic: tapadh leat (sg), tapadh leibh (pl)

The plural forms in Manx and Scottish Gaelic are also used when thank one stranger.

Zulu, Swahili and related languages have different forms of thank you for singular and plural, e.g. Ngiyabonga kakhulu (sg) Siyabonga (pl) – Zulu.

Do other languages have different forms of thank you that change depending on who you’re thanking?

14 thoughts on “Obrigados / Obrigadas

  1. It looks like João Rosa was saying that you use “obrigados/as” when you are *representing* a group of people – that is, when there is really more than one “speaker” is really more than one person, not when thanking multiple people! (It makes sense if you think about it; when you say “obrigados,” you’re literally saying that multiple people are “obliged” or thankful). Similarly with “ngiyabonga” and “siyabonga”: Ngiyabonga means ‘I thank you’, and siyabonga means ‘we thank you’.

    But in Swahili, you use “asante” to thank one person, and “asanteni” to thank more than one.

    Languages vary pretty widely on formalities like greeting and thanking. Japanese has different forms of ‘thank you’ varying in level of formality, among other things (e.g. arigatoo is less formal than arigatoo gozaimasu). In some cultures, greeting and/or thanking may be very common, while in others, one or both may be quite rare. For example, people just don’t greet or thank each other much in Malayalam, though they may ask ‘how are you?’ or some variation of that. When Malayalees nowadays want to say ‘hello’, ‘hi’, ‘thanks’, or ‘thank you’, they usually just say it in English.

  2. Well, this surprises me – I would expect that the plural form would be used when a group expresses gratitude, not when gratitude is expressed towards a group. (Analogically to the way how the masculine/feminine distinction works.)

    I would expect quite a lot of languages having inflected gratitude expressions, depending on both who is thankful and to whom. For example, in Czech:

    děkuji ti (one to one)
    děkuji vám (one to group)
    děkujeme ti (group to one)
    děkujeme vám (group to group)
    děkuji (one to undefined)
    děkujeme (group to undefined)
    díky (undefined to undefined)

  3. Prase, language is full of surprises! I can’t think of any languages that would have the inflected expressions you mention outside of Eurasia. (That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t exist). But yeah, it really could be expressing gratitude to OR from a group, or expressing gratitude (in)formally, or only expressing it when you really need to, or not expressing it at all, or…

    I believe there are also languages where you use certain forms depending on whether the *listener* is male or female, rather than on the speaker’s gender. (After all, titles in English like “mister” work this way; you use “mister” when the listener is a male, regardless of your own gender).

    (Also, just a correction on my previous comment: I meant to say “…when there is really more than one ‘speaker,’ not when thanking multiple people.”)

  4. Well, this surprise doesn’t count; I have been surprised that “obrigado” is declined according to the number of listeners, which, as you say, probably isn’t the case.

    And Eurasia is about half of the world after all. (But is it really true that no non-Eurasian languages express gratitude by some verbal form which naturally reflects the speakers’ number or gender? What about polysynthetic languages such as Inuktitut?)

  5. In Dutch there’s only the personal pronoun that changes:
    dank je wel = thank you (singular)
    dank jullie wel = thank you (plural)

    However, the second is hardly used and “dank je wel” is used for speaking to more than one as well. In writing, I would use “dank jullie wel” when thanking more than one.

    “Wel” means, well, “well” – as in good.

    Both are from singular and plural speakers. Derived from the sentence “ik dank je wel”, meaning “I thank you”. Although “we thank you” is “wij danken je” so the term should be “danken je wel”, this is not used.

    Then there’s the formal “je” that is “u”. Probably comparable to the English “thee”, but still used in Dutch. To thank someone who is older or a stranger, you say “dank u wel”.

    German has this formal pronoun as well (“du” and “Sie”). The weird thing is that I only now realize that in Dutch, “u” (the formal “you”) gets the third person singular of the verb while in German I believe it’s the second person plural. Weird, that…

  6. I think the confusion comes from thinking that obrigado/a refers to the addressee: in fact it refers to the speaker: (eu sou) (muito) obrigado/a.

    There’s a quite similar expression that is stereotypical of older southern US speech: “much obliged”.

  7. In Arabic it can be for singular or plural, and (naturally) for a male or a female. However, a simple phrase that would fit all situation would be: Shokran Jazeelan (Thanks a lot, thank (you) very much, ..etc) – شكراً جزيلاً.

    To a male: Shokran Lak شكراً لك
    To a female: Shokran Laki شكراً لكِ
    To males: Shokran Lakum شكراً لكم
    To females: Shokran Lakun شكراً لكن

  8. Prase, are ALL of those Czech expressions really used in everyday speech just to say ‘thanks’? If you’re asking whether languages have expressions that could mean ‘I thank you’ and such, well, yeah, probably a lot of languages do have that (both inside and outside Eurasia), provided they have a verb for ‘thank’. If you’re asking whether speakers of those languages actually USE those expressions on a daily basis, that’s another matter.

    Jerry, in German, “Sie” takes the third person plural form of the verb (if I remember correctly, this has something to do with the fact that the third person plural pronoun is also “sie”). So it only differs from Dutch in that “Sie” takes the plural form and “U” takes singular. The formal “Sie” can be used as a second person singular OR plural pronoun; I think “u” can only be singular, right? (And “thee” actually was the Early Modern English equivalent of “je” as an object pronoun; it was informal, not formal like “u”).

    Chris, yeah, I think you’re right. Good point. Obrigado/a does refer to the speaker, not the listener.

    TJ, I’ve never heard those expressions meaning ‘thanks to you’ (“shokran lak(i/um/un)”). Can’t you also just use plain شكراً (shokran) in all situations?

  9. I’m Brazilian and I agree with Marcelo Luiz, in our variant we don’t usually use the plural forms to say thanks. I might use them if I was nominalizing “thanks”, e.g. depois de dizer os obrigados, fui pra casa “after saying the thank-yous, I went home”. Not very common though.

    Chris and Vijay are right in that “obrigado” means (etymologically at least) “I am obliged; this has put me in your debt”, so logically “obrigados” should indicate many people thanking, not many people being thanked. However! Around here there’s a very informal, slangy use that says “obrigados” to thank, say, two friends who have both helped you. But it’s unusual to the point that it sounds jocular, as if you’re deliberately being ungrammatical. My wife says this at times.

    If I was speaking for a group and wanted to emphasize the collective identity, I’d use something like nós agradecemos a atenção (lit. “we thank[+1st. plural] [your] attention”), or nossos agradecimentos a… (“our thanks to…”), both [+formal].

  10. In Estonian ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are verbs so you have:

    Tänan/Täname Sind – I/We thank you (sg.)
    Tänan/Täname Teid – I/We thank you (sg. formal or pl.)

    Palun – I beg (please)
    Palume – We beg (please)

    For ‘thanks’ you say

    Aitäh! and you can add sulle/teile (to you)

  11. Even in a group situation, such as class of school kids, boys wil say ‘obrigado’ and girls ‘obrigada’ when speaking in unison – there is no collective ‘obrigados’.

  12. Vijay John, you’re right about “Sie” – it’s third person plural.

    Regarding “u” (which used to be written with a capital U until I think 1956), it’s used for both one addressee and more. But it’s always singular. Saying “ik dank u” (I thank you) is said to one person or more. Also: “u heeft” (you have) can be about one person or more.

  13. Vijay John, yes, those expressions are used on daily basis, although their frequencies differ and depend on the speaker and level of formality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *