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Germans usually learn at a very young age that a transaction among polite people requires two words: "danke" ("thanks") from the person who receives something, and "bitte" (roughly translatable to "you are welcome") from the person who gives something. So "bitte" is a really important word! Later they also learn that "bitte" can be used to ask for a favour. And yet later they may find out that many other languages have two different expressions for bitte and that one should use one expression during transactions and another one when asking for a favour, and never confuse the two (I am extrapolating a bit here from having gone through these steps myself).

Given that the verb "bitten" has the sense of "ask for a favor", I would assume that the original meaning of "bitte" is the same as "please". But how did "bitte" become such an important part of transactions? Is it an abbreviation for "please do not thank me", or for "please take this", or for both?

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    There are also languages like Finnish that do not have a word for "bitte" as in "please". While there might be an etymological background, it's quite common for words two have multiple meanings, so I don't see this as something extraordinary compared to other languages. – infinitezero Feb 13 at 23:29
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    @Jan "Later they also learn that "bitte" can be used to ask for a favour." Usually they learn that meaning first, and "Bitte" as response to "Danke" much later. – mic Feb 14 at 7:39
  • Years ago I was told that Greek also uses the same word for both meanings. – Volker Landgraf Feb 14 at 9:09
  • @mic I will try this out with the next toddler i come about. My impression is that they learn "bitte" together with "danke" at around two or two and a half and the other one some months later. But this is just from a very small sample and I my memory may be unreliable. – Jan Feb 14 at 9:51
  • @Volker Landgraf: Iranians often say xahesh mikonam (I ask you [not to thank me]) when you thank them for something. But I think they only use it after you have thanked them. – Jan Feb 14 at 9:54
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I find your question very intriguing and pertinent. The fact that we do encounter this phenomenon in other languages as well does not contribute any account for it in the least. I have been doing a bit of reasearch on etymological sites without finding any clues. Now, my hypothesis is that "bitte" as "you are welcome" should be seen in conjunction with "bitte schön/sehr" with which it frequently co-occurs. So it might originally been have an imperative of intensifying/empathic nature via adverb "do ask me intensely/in a nice way" with the implicature "and you will get it". The mapping onto a non-imperative use could be explained via metonymy, that is the effect ("giving with pleasure") stands for its cause ("having been asked nicely/intensely").

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  • Thank you, that is a really interesting hypothesis :) However, the observation that the usage of "bitte" is so symmetrical to "danke" makes me assume that it might be 1st person singular rather than an imperative. – Jan Feb 14 at 20:24
  • What do you mean by "symmetrical"? "Danke" does not display an use where someone asks, differently from "bitte", but only a responsive one, so to say. What makes your assumption difficult is that you will hardly find "ich bitte schön" in a declarative first person sentence. Another hypothesis that occurs to me if we follow your assumption would be an ellipsis along the lines of "Ich bitte dich (darum, dich nicht dafür zu bedanken": I'm asking you (not to thank me for this since that's the least I could have done). This is very far-fetched, but could also fit in. – Nico Feb 14 at 20:38
  • -1 as this just a hypothesis. See also this meta post. It seems a bit of a stretch and if you only do a favour after telling the other person to "ask you nicely" it loses the politeness aspect of "bitte" in the first place. I find OP's hypothesis more convincing. – infinitezero Feb 15 at 22:32
  • This finds an explanaition in *bhe- as a verbal root, I find. to be also reflects with short i in bin. *-t* is reconstructed as suffix to one of the moods (-t subjunctive in Latin, IIRC), whereas optative reflects personal pronoun markers, hence ?büdde schön correctly with umlautung from optative -i- marker. Hope I did not confuse anything. – vectory Feb 23 at 0:53
  • cp Lat capito, singular future active of capio, "catch"; also, I should check fuit, Sanskr bhuit, ... – vectory Feb 23 at 1:02
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"Bitte"is a form of "bieten," which roughly translates into English as "to bid."

In English, one can "bid" (ask) someone to do something. That would be the "please" meaning of bid, or "bitte."

One can also "bid" (offer) someone adieu (goodbye) or other "states." The term "You're welcome" would fall under "other states" indicated by "bitte."

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  • That is an interesting point. It would also explain how you can say "bitte" before "danke".Weil man etwas anbietet. – Jan Feb 21 at 9:29
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See https://bastiansick.de/kolumnen/fragen-an-den-zwiebelfisch/bitte-danke-bitte/

Quotations:

Das „bitte“ ist die Verkürzung von „Ich bitte Sie“ oder „Ich bitte dich“, gefolgt von einem (gedachten) Halbsatz wie „kein Aufhebens davon zu machen“ oder „meinem Gefallen keine Bedeutung beizumessen“.

Etwas so vollkommen Höfliches und Ritterliches wurde wahrscheinlich nicht in Deutschland erfunden. Einiges spricht dafür, dass wir diese Formel von den Meistern der eleganten Form, den Franzosen, übernommen haben. Auch im Französischen kann der Dank mit einer Bitte erwidert werden: „Merci!“ – „Je vous en prie!“ Und auch hier ist die Bedeutung: „Bitte danken Sie mir nicht.“

In "modern" German the response bitte to danke is frequently replaced by gerne. It seems to be a German version of the Spanish con mucho gusto or as I heard mucho con gusto.

The word bitte is, however, "multifunctional".

  1. Response to a previous danke.

  2. Response when you are asked for a permission. Example: "Darf ich mich hinsetzen?" The answer "bitte" seems to be short for "ich bitte darum, dass Sie das tun" oder "natürlich, machen Sie bitte kein Aufheben davon".

  3. Reaction when you are asked for a favour. Example: "Kann mit bitte jemand die Butter reichen?" Your answer when doing it is "Bitte". This is probably only a special case of

  4. Phrase when offering or returning something. It is used also without having been asked previously for a favour, for example by a host or a waiter when giving something to you. This is similar as the English "here you are" or "here you go".

  5. Response to an excuse. Example: If you accidentally bump into a person, you say "ich bitte um Entschuldigung" and the answer may be "bitte" (which is perhaps outfashioned now).

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    This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review – Volker Landgraf Feb 15 at 13:03
  • ¿Mucho con gusto? It makes sense (exclusively as a pun meaning a lot & glad!) but I have never heard it (being native speaker of Spanish) and a non-native saying this would be considered as somebody who makes a mistake, due the rareness of the phrase. – c.p. Feb 15 at 20:20
  • @VolkerLandgraf Does it make sense now? – Paul Frost Feb 16 at 0:20
  • @c.p. I can't argue with a native Spanish speaker, I can only report my personal experience as a person only speaking very little Spanish. Some years ago I was on holiday in Costa Rica and the standard response to my "gracias" was "mucho con gusto" or rarer "con mucho gusto" where I expected "de nada". After my return I asked a colleague whose parents migrated from Spain to Germany in the 1960-years about the phrase. He told me that his grandparents who were tenant farmes in the area of Malaga frequently used it, especially when talking to "more senior" people. – Paul Frost Feb 16 at 0:56
  • His opinion was that it is an old-fashioned expression, but still in use. But, to be honest, I can't remember whether he meant the "con mucho gusto" variant or the "mucho con gusto" variant. – Paul Frost Feb 16 at 0:56

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