The Many Meanings of 'Bitte' in German

Mom giving family cake
"Ein Stück Apfelkuchen bitte." (A piece of apple cake please.). Mint Images / Getty Images

Bitte is used a lot in German. The many meanings of Bitte include:

  • Please
  • You're welcome
  • Here you go (when handing something over)
  • May I help you?
  • Pardon?

The challenge is determining what the speaker or writer means when using the word: It all depends on the context, tone, and other words expressed along with Bitte

Saying 'Pardon Me?'

You can use Bitte when you are trying to politely express that you did not understand or hear something the speaker has just said, as in "Pardon me?" The following brief dialog shows how to express that sentiment in a courteous manner.

  • Ich bin heute einkaufen gegangen. > I went shopping today.
  • Wie Bitte? > Pardon me?
  • Ich habe gesagt, dass ich heute einkaufen gegangen bin. > I said, I went shopping today.

Expressing 'Here You Go' and 'Please'

A host might use Bitte when handing something, such as a slice of pie, to a guest, as in: "Here you go." Or, a customer and a waiter might both use Bitte in the following exchange:

  • Customer: Ein Stück Apfelkuchen bitte. > A piece of apple cake please.
  • Waiter, serving the cake: Bitte sehr. > Here you go.
  • Customer: Danke. > Thank you.

Note how in this exchange, the customer uses Bitte to mean "please," while the waiter uses the same German word to mean "Here you go."

Saying 'Please' and 'Yes Please'

Bitte can also mean please in other contexts. For example, you can use this handy word to ask for help, as in this example:

  • Kannst du mir bitte helfen? > Can you help me please?

You can also use Bitte to mean please as a polite imperative, as in this brief exchange.

  • Darf ich Ihnen den Mantel abnehmen? > May I take your coat?
  • Bitte! > Yes please!

Asking 'May I Help You?'

You will often hear a waiter say Bitte, Bitte sehr, or Bitteschön? (please, Here you go, and Here you go) in a restaurant when she is delivering a dish. For instance, waiters will often use the word when they approach your table, as in:

  • Bitte sehr! > Here you go!

  • Hier, Bitteschön. > Here you go.

Note that Bitte by itself still means you're welcome, but in this context, the word is used as a shortened version or Bitteschön or  Bitte sehr. This makes sense, because if the  waiter is carrying a hot plate and wants to set it down—but you are busy talking or drinking your coffee—he certainly would want to use as few words as possible to get your attention so you'll free up some space and he can relieve himself of the scalding plate.

Saying  'You're Welcome'

If someone thanks you for a present, she might say:

Vielen Dank für Ihren Geschenk! > Thank you very much for your present!

You have several ways to say you're welcome, in addition to using the word Bitte. You can express it formally, as in:

  • Bitteschön
  • Bitte sehr
  • Gern geschehen. > It was my pleasure.
  • Mit Vergnügen > With pleasure

Or you can express yourself informally by saying:

  • Bitte
  • Gern geschehen. > It was my pleasure.
  • Gern (shortened form of Gern geschehen.) > You are welcome.
  • Nichts zu danken. > Don't mention it.