“I’m Sorry Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That.”

On Sunday, I naturally found myself thinking about how scary a mummy actually is, as a horror character. I think I’m with Homer Simpson on this one:

Ooh, pretty creepy. Still, I’d rather have him chasing me than the Wolfman.

Even more naturally enough, for me anyway, this in turn got me thinking about how we talk about being afraid in English. It’s quite easy to translate adjectives like afraid, scared and frightened into other languages because fear is such a primal feeling that we tend to think of it in the same way across languages. Terror and horror might be more complex, but the basic sense of fear is one we all recognise. A sentence like…

I’m afraid of spiders.

… isn’t hard to translate, or for a learner of English to understand. But what about this famous line from 2001: A Space Odyssey:

I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that. 

Imagine you’re an English teacher and you have to explain a) what I’m afraid means in this case, and b), why we specifically use I’m afraid instead of other phrases. The first task’s not too bad: you could just say it means I’m sorry, and that’d be good enough. But what about explaining why we use it?

Continue reading

Sorry Seems to be the Easiest Word

Yesterday evening I bought myself some Hammerite Kurust rust converter (we all need a treat on a Friday). When the sales assistant forgot to give me my €1 change I instinctively said Sorry, could I get my change please?

Why did I say sorry? What did I do to him? It took him a few moments to open the till, but apart from that I didn’t inconvenience him that much. English can be quite polite at times, but it does seem a little bizarre that our first instinct is to apologise  in a lot of situations. Continue reading