Saying thank you: from obrigato to arigatou


By Sophie Shields

How many times have you heard or said “thank you” today? Gratitude is a universal sentiment, yet each language has its own twist when expressing thanks. Let’s take a look at the etymologies and nuances of “thank you” across the world.

The English word “thank” stems from the Latin word tongere, where tong means “think.” By the Middle Ages, it evolved to have a sentiment akin to “for what you have done for me, I think on you favourably.” Romance languages draw similar inspiration from Latin’s gratias agere, “to express thanks,” leading to Italian’s grazie and Spanish’s gracias. In other languages, words for gratitude reflect a sense of indebtedness towards acts of kindness. For instance, Portuguese’s obrigado comes from the Latin obligo, literally meaning “I am obligated [to you].” And in Japanese, arigatou originates from aru “to exist” and katai “difficult,” an acknowledgment that the favour for which one is saying arigatou is “something precious that rarely exists.” The striking similarity in sound between obrigado and arigatou has sparked a lot of linguistic debates – it remains just an intriguing coincidence from opposite ends of the world!

Cultural nuances further shape expressions of gratitude. In Indian culture, gratitude is conveyed through nonverbal cues; a child saying dhanyavaad (thank you) to a parent in Hindi could be perceived as over-distancing the relationship. In other languages, the word “thank you” is intertwined with formality and gender. For instance, in Thai, a male would add krub and a female ka to the end of khob khun (thank you) to convey politeness. Japanese, similar to other Asian languages, employs different layers of formality, from the informal doumo to the more formal arigatou gozaimasu.

So, whether it’s the favourable thought of thank you, the sense of obligation behind obrigado, the preciousness of kindness in arigatou or the nonverbal communication of Hindi, each language expresses a universal sense of gratitude in its own way. So, the next time you say “thank you,” take a moment to appreciate the rich history behind your words.

Sophie Shields is a Carleton grad working on her MA in Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College. She loves writing and learning languages, and speaks French, Ukrainian and German. 

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