There’s a use of Konjunktiv meaning politeness:

Ich hätte gerne (…)

First, I wish to know why does this form denote Höflichkeit. (My only guess – influenced by my native language – is that this form is used as a the tacit preamble in brackets:

[Wenn Sie mir das geben wollen,] hätte ich gerne (…)

instead of giving an order.)

Secondly, if this “being kind” is reciprocal, that is, if the person who is offering a service says e.g.

Hätten Sie gerne (…) ?

which effect does it have? The same politeness or is actually an undecisive way of offering something?

  • 1
    Isn't it just expressing a wish? A wish the other one can then fulfill? Anyway, I'll wait for more informed answers. I think you should try to use a different wording for "reflexive" ... it sounds too much like grammatical reflexive and should at least be taken out of the title
    – Emanuel
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 14:50
  • 1
    Compare also the use of "möchte" vs. "will". "Ich möchte ein Bonbon" is much more polite than "Ich will ein Bonbon". "Möchte" is Konjunktiv of "mögen".
    – elena
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 14:51
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    I assume the answer is quite similar to "Why in English do you say 'Would you mind'" and "Why in Spanish do you use 'quisiera' instead of 'quiero'". But I doubt that an elision is reason for this.
    – Em1
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 15:43

2 Answers 2


EDIT: @Em1 raised some good points in the comments below. My answer is very specific to the given example and similar constructs, and I’m not sure it holds much water in a more general way, so take it with a grain of salt. Below is my original answer:

Emanuel is correct, the Konjunktiv here (“Ich hätte gerne …”) is, strictly speaking, only expressing a wish (literally translated: “I would like to have …”).

I say ‘strictly speaking’ because it is usually used to make an order, like “Ich hätte gerne ein Bier”, but it is much more polite than using an imperative (“Gib mir ein Bier!”) because you don’t order people around — at least not literally. While there is an implied expectation that the barkeeper will fulfill my wish by giving me a beer, in the words themselves there is no order or anything besides the statement that, you know, a beer would be really great to have right now.

The other side is basically just the question version of this, as a polite way of offering something.

  • 1
    I strongly disagree. If Konjunktiv is only used because it's a wish, then why do we say "Dürfte ich ihnen noch etwas anbieten?" or "Ich könnte ihnen ... empfehlen." Both are not wishes at all. So, I'm afraid but this doesn't answer the question.
    – Em1
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 20:01
  • @Em1 : I think christian is specifically referring to the Konjunktiv in the example (he used the word "here"). You're right, that it doesn't have to be a polite question though.
    – Emanuel
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 22:42
  • @Em1 : You have a point. I was so fixated on this specific example that I didn't think much about other cases. On the other hand, while questions like your examples don't fit this explanation, I have a hard time thinking of any non-question construction where you use a polite Konjunktiv and which is not in some way a wish. All I can think of are things like "Ich hätte gerne", "Ich würde gerne" or something like that, but maybe I've got a blockade in my mind? Not sure. Maybe my answer is true for statements, but not for questions?
    – Christian
    Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 9:13
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    Off the top of the head I can't come up with any other examples neither. But it's necessary to examine both parts equally and figuring out if, for example, one of them influenced the other one. The question is actually very complex. I didn't find anything on the web, just an explanation for the English would. I'd guess it's worth to look into that deeper but I think that's rather a master thesis we're talking about. Anyways, as your answer stands right now, it's fixed onto a specific kind. While the guess sounds reasonable at first glance, I'm not sure if you'll stand corrected. We'll see.
    – Em1
    Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 11:42
  • I've added a disclaimer about this to my answer. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.
    – Christian
    Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 12:26

On Google Books, I found a 2010 book on Mood in the Languages of Europe consisting of scholarly articles by various experts. The two German Konjunktiv forms, like the English subjunctives, are examples of irrealis moods. Here is a relevant quotation from the article on Mood in Latvian and Lithuanian:

Requests and expressions of opinion are frequently in the irrealis form for reasons of politeness. […] Yet the suggestion of politeness may be achieved not only by representing the act of volition, opinion etc. as unreal, but also by depicting the object of an act of volition as unreal, or just possible.

Here is another from an article on Mood in Modern Georgian:

The optative [a form of irrealis mood] can be explained in the vein of politeness theory, where indirectness is a form of (negative) politeness: while the imperative is a “direct” expression of volition, the subjunctive does not necessarily require the speaker to be the addresser of an imposing request.

Another from a paper on Mood in Czech and Slovak:

The hypothetical, “non-impositive” semantics of these main clauses is loosely associated with politeness in Czech and Slovak; thus, a 1st person conditional declarative may be used as a polite offer, and a 2nd person conditional interrogative as a polite request.

One from Mood in Swedish:

A further, cross-linguistically well attested use of the preterite subjunctive is to indicate politeness.

Mood in Dutch:

The indicative counterpart of (19) [“this background may serve as introduction”], given in (19') [“this background serves as introduction”], is merely a factive statement and does not suggest any of the ‘hope of approval’ that was expressed by the speaker in the original utterance.
Likewise, the speaker in (17) and (18) would definitely be less polite if he had used an indicative rather than a subjunctive form without applying some alternative politeness strategy.

Mood in Estonian:

The pragmatic use of the condition[al] to express politeness is widespread; it often occurs together with a modal verb […]

I think it’s pretty clear from these quotations what the linguistic position on the phenomenon is: It’s very widespread (though in some languages such as Greek or Russian it doesn’t exist at all or is quite different), and the use of irrealis moods for politeness tends to be related quite logically to other typical uses.

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