Greetings are so important that every language on Earth has a different way to say hello. Have you ever wondered what hello actually means and why we greet people with it? What are some more colourful ways to say hello in other languages around the world? Are there languages where greetings don’t exist? Brian Loo Soon Hua, uTalk’s guest blogger, has investigated greetings across languages—and found some surprising results!
Despite how ubiquitous ‘hello’ is in English, there is something of a mystery surrounding its origins. Some believe that it comes from the French holà, meaning ‘hey there!’ and this in turn is related to the Spanish hola. On the other hand, some believe that ‘hello’ comes from an old Germanic word, halâ or holâ, which was, among other things, used for hailing ferrymen. If you’ve ever called out ‘hello’ to your taxi or Uber driver, you’re likely continuing a centuries-old tradition!
Many languages use ‘good day’ as a greeting, too. From French bonjour to Italian buongiorno to Spanish buenos días to German Guten Tag to Swedish god dag, wishing someone a good day is a simple and pleasant way to start up a conversation.
Chinese speakers say 你好 (nĭ hăo), literally meaning, ‘you good,’ while the Serbo-Croatian здра̏во or zdrȁvo means ‘health.’ When you greet someone in China, you are wishing them general well-being, while in the Balkans, you are wishing them to stay healthy.
Zulu speakers say sawubona, which literally means ‘we see you.’ Who are ‘we,’ you might be asking? Zulus say ‘we see you’ because they believe their eyes are connected with their ancestors’. When you let someone know that both you and your ancestors are seeing and thus acknowledging them, you are inviting the other person to participate in your life.
Muslims traditionally greet each other with the expressions السلام عليكم (As-salāmu ʿalaykum) or ‘peace be upon you’ while the typical response is وعليكم السلام (Wa ‘alaykum al-salaam), meaning ‘and upon you peace.’
Hindus often greet each other with नमस्ते (namaste), meaning ‘bowing to you.’ A more formal greeting is नमस्कार (namaskaar) or ‘obeisance, respectful greetings.’
Georgians do it rather differently. They say ‘victory’ or გამარჯობა (gamarjoba), instead. Perhaps this reflects the turbulent and often violent history of the Caucasus region.
Tibetans are even more unique: they say tashi deleg, meaning ‘auspicious blessings.’ But the most polite traditional greeting in Tibet is in fact done non-verbally. A Tibetan will respectfully stick his or her tongue out briefly at strangers as a greeting! This tradition began, according to legend, in the 9th Century, when a particularly cruel and vicious king imposed a reign of terror over his people. He supposedly had a black tongue and to show they were nothing like him, ordinary Tibetans began sticking out their tongues when meeting others for the first time. This was then passed down the centuries right to the present day. When visiting Tibet, do not be offended if a stranger sticks their tongue out at you! They’re just being polite!
New Zealand Māori have yet another unusual way of greeting one another. They press their noses together, in a traditional ritual known as hongi, in order to share the breath of life.
Arctic peoples, such as Greenlanders, greet loved ones and family members with a tradition known as kunik. This involves pressing the nose and upper lip against the skin (commonly of the cheeks or forehead) and breathing in, causing the loved one’s skin or hair to be sucked up against the nose and upper lip.
Do you know of any other unique and unusual ways to say hello? What do you do when you meet people from foreign countries who say hello in ways that might seem strange and exotic to you? Leave us a comment and let us know, and if you fancy learning hello in over 150 different languages, why not download the uTalk app and give it a try?