Hebrew Apologies

The following is an example of an apology situation:

You completely forget a crucial meeting at the office with your boss. An hour later you call him to apologize. The problem is that this is the second time you've forgotten such a meeting. Your boss gets on the line and asks: "What happened to you?" ~ Cohen, Olshtain, & Rosenstein, 1986, p. 132.

If you are an Israeli Hebrew speaker, your culture may support two types of behavior in your reply. First, in this and similar situations you would emphasize the strategy of explanation -- more than an American would: e.g., "Well, I had to take a sick kid to the doctor and then there was a problem with the plumbing..." On the other hand, you would underplay the strategy of repair, because in the Israeli culture, it appears to be the boss who determines the next step. It would be presumptuous for the employee to suggest what happens next.

Here is example of an apology situation calling for modification of the speech act since the offense is relatively severe and the recipient is a friend:

In a cafeteria, you accidentally bump into a friend who is holding a cup of hot coffee. The coffee spills all over your friend, scalding his/her arm and soaking his/her clothing. You friend shouts, startled: "Oooh! Ouch!" ~ Cohen, Olshtain, & Rosenstein, 1986, p. 132.

As an Israeli Hebrew speaker, you may appropriately select the strategy of expressing an apology, but in selecting language forms to realize that strategy, you simply say, "sorry," a translation from the often used slixa of Hebrew. This would not sound at all like an apology to the ears of your scalded friend if he/she is a speaker of American English. Or you might say, "I'm very sorry," which would be a normal textbook answer, without being aware that in American English there is a difference between "very" and "really," with "really" implying more regret and "very" more etiquette. Thus, the apology may still not sound very sincere to your friend. Your friend is probably expecting something more like, "I'm really sorry. Are you O.K.?"

Even Hebrew speakers with advanced skills in English do not necessarily have control over particles such as "Oh!" and their absence in the discourse leaves a gap that signals nonnativeness.

(Cohen, Olshtain, & Rosenstein, 1986)


Cohen, A. D., Olshtain, E., & Rosenstein, D. S. (1986). Advanced EFL apologies: What remains to be learned? International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 62 (6), 51-74.

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