I'm Sorry: The Limitation of Language

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the words, "I'm Sorry." For the past year, I have been processing a breakup. There! I said it, on my blog. It's of course a private matter, but it is also the central issue that has shaped my experience over the past 12 months, and plays largely into who I am now. It has catalyzed immense sadness and joy, introspection and growth. For anyone who has aver broken up, surely you know what a vast land of emotion lies within that small phrase. In fact, I could easily get off course here, arguing how "break up" is a misnomer, as in fact it is more like "the slow untangling of our threads, the startling separation of our hearts."

But that, my friends, is another post. Throughout this process, the words "I'm sorry" have come up countless times. To provide you a minimal backstory, it has been "the perfect breakup" (yes, quotes): Relatively not-messy, generally agreeable, but hard work nonetheless. At times it has been filled with sparkling light, fresh air, the memory of my deepest self. At other times, it has been deep and watery, like the oceans, thick with salt and tides.

In certain moments, I have been appalled that the only English phrase to succinctly convey my sorrow is - indeed - "I'm sorry." It is so odd that this phrase, so short, so easily tossed around (I'm sorry I'm late, I'm sorry I ate the last chocolate) is the same phrase that we are supposed to use for: "I'm sorry that my love for you has transformed me so much that I have outgrown you;" or "I have never felt this deeply with anyone before, and going through this painful process with you breaks my heart open; watching you suffer your own grief makes me cry a thousand ancient rivers."

This follows with any process of grief. How uncomfortable it can be when a friend's beloved relation dies - the term "I'm so sorry" is all that we are given in these moments. It is the only word that English has so far developed (after all these years!) to encapsulate these things we try to convey. "I'm sorry" is like a lone woman, trying to do the work of a large and interconnected village.

Most remarkable for me, and the reason I'm writing this post, is that in a language so complex that we are constantly confusing one another, how have we not developed more ways to say I'm Sorry? Is it because we are afraid? Is it because it hasn't been a priority? Or is it because sorrow is most often talked about behind closed doors, in private, with our closest people? Perhaps it is so vulnerable to articulate our sorrow, that we just haven't done it much as a community; we haven't been able to start a trend.

I feel like there should be different sizes of Sorry. a junior size, a small/medium/large, and of course, the supersize sorry. but they all come out the same. we can of course bolster them with other words, more explanations, embraces, tears, and piercing glances. 

Sometimes I wish there was another special phrase to explain the sorriness in my heart, the depth that it reaches, the width it spans, and the many lives through which it's traveled. I make do: I create other ways of saying things, I speak not just with my words but with my many other means of communication. Heart-speak is comforting, for those of us who use it. 

How about you? Have you ever wondered these same things? Have you ever, in the midst of something major and sad, wished that there was another way to say it?

photo: easy tiger


  1. What a beautiful post my dear. English is a very limited language that way. I it's because it's used by so many people and slowly the sheer number of users who have learned it secondhand has gradually ground of the eloquent edges. You are right. There should be a different word for "I'm sorry I'm late." (Which re: video below, I know women apologize too much and that we need to not trivialize the word, or put ourselves down, but I also think it's important that we acknowledge our small transgressions towards others.) and another for "I'm sorry your mother died." Like "I love you.", "sorry" has lost a little bit of it's edge and when used sparingly it gains more meaning. But like you said, there are other ways of saying it. Saying kind, comforting loving things in other ways sometimes sounds hokey compared to these simple statements, yet can be so much more touching.

    It's funny. Both of those statements in Finnish have much more gravitas, because as a generally taciturn people we don't toss them around easily. (We're also very rude, no one ever says I'm sorry, or pardon when they bump into you on the tram.)

    I'm going to go practice. There's someone I have to tell I'm sorry today. Love ya.

  2. i know exactly what you mean. i've been witness to friends and family getting divorced and dealing with sick children. and i often want to utter "i'm sorry" over and over again, but try to refrain from constantly doing so. i think sometimes touch is a better way to say "i'm sorry", more full of meaning. i also think that, as a woman, there is this ingrained habit to apologize for just about everything, something else i try to avoid.

  3. Or perhaps, those words are more powerful than given credit for. If not said too often...regarding lateness, and with just the right expression, one really can be sorry. Gosh, that uncomfortable "I'm sorry" for death....more often than not I end up saying "I don't know what to say....I wish you didn't have to go through this" inevitably followed by "I'm sorry, even though I didn't do anything, I'm sorry, you know what I mean" Yes Sadie, I truly am that crappy with words that I fumble and fall over myself and then take myself into the next room before I offend anyone. Nice post, it's thoughtful, and as clear as sunlight.

  4. love this. you should now brace yourself for hearing things from me like "i'm junior size sorry I'm late."


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