In 2015, Adele’s comeback single “Hello” skyrocketed to #1 on the Billboard charts and broke Vevo’s record for the most viewed video.
Pretty dope, huh? So let’s talk about that at length in this post. Ha! Nope—just kidding.
We’re not here to discuss Adele or her record-breaking single, but rather the simple yet profound word “hello”—often the very first vocabulary word uttered in any language course, podcast, textbook or YouTube instructional video.
There’s really more to “hello” than meets the eye.
It All Starts with One “Hello”
All cultures have that word—that one word in the language that breaks the ice, demolishes walls, generates smiles and creates an instant, if momentary, bond between total strangers. It’s nothing short of magic, really, how a simple greeting could generate so much goodwill in the streets or make somebody drop anything they’re doing and give another their complete attention.
It comes in different forms and sounds in different languages. It could come with a bow, a nod, a handshake or a wave, but they all somehow signify the same thing—a recognition of another, a way of saying, “I see you.”
We look into 12 ways of saying just that in this post. So that’s 12 ways of turning complete strangers into friends, 12 ways of endearing yourself to others in different parts of the planet from Madrid to Calcutta, 12 ways of doing magic.
How to Say “Hello” in 12 Different Languages
1. 你好! (Nǐ hǎo)
Language: Chinese (Mandarin)
The Chinese greeting is 你好, pronounced as nǐ hǎo.
你 means “you” and 好 means “good.”
As you may well know, Chinese is a tonal language full of dips, rises and curves in intonation. The two characters (你好) are pronounced using the third of four tones where you pronounce the syllable initially with a falling tone and round it up with a rising tone. Hence the symbol (v).
You have to be careful with Chinese pronunciation because you might call somebody’s mother a horse (as both “mother” and “horse” are pronounced as ma but with different tones).
You also need a special “hello” when you want to be polite. So, instead of greeting with nǐ hǎo, you’ll say “您好” (nín hǎo).
Now, that pronunciation may just have a one letter difference in pinyin, but it speaks volumes! The second greeting is more formal and should be used when greeting a person more senior than you. Otherwise, you’d come off as haughty and disrespectful. Chinese is big on respect, and not just for persons of authority, but most especially for elders.
When you want to ask a person how they are, you say “你好吗?” (nǐ hǎo ma?).
The ma at the end turns the whole thing into a question form. So from the literal, “you good,” it now becomes “are you good?” In fact, it would be quite easy to spot Chinese questions in conversation because they often end those sentences with a ma.
Your answer to this particular one should be a quick “我很好” (wŏ hĕn hǎo xièxie). Which means “I’m fine, thank you.”
Many Chinese greetings might seem odd when taken literally. For example, instead of asking “how are you?” Chinese speakers will often say, “你吃了吗?” (nǐ chī le ma?) which means “Have you eaten?”
No, they’re not really asking about your stomach per se. It’s a way of showing care for you and your well-being, so don’t go on a soliloquy about what you had for breakfast or that you’re going to the grocery store to get some stuff. Simply say, “吃了你呢?” (chī le, nǐ ne?) which means, “I’ve eaten, how about you?”
That’s small talk, Chinese style.
Konnichiwa is the general, widely-used term to say “hello” in Japanese. You can use it at any time during the day or night, and it would be appropriate for both formal and informal settings.
But if you want to be time-specific, you can use “お早うございます” (ohayō gozaimasu) in the morning, “今日は” (konnichiwa) in the afternoon and “今晩は” (konbanwa) in the evening.
When meeting a person for the first time, you want to say “初めまして” (hajimemashite), which roughly translates as “nice to meet you.”
Bowing is deeply ingrained in the Japanese culture. While handshakes often signify warmth and welcome, the bow is a sign of respect and dates back to the 5th century.
The Japanese bow in many different settings. It punctuates and lubricates social interaction. They bow when meeting a person, to say hello and goodbye, when thanking, apologizing, asking for a favor and when beginning and ending a meeting or event (like when ending a Skype chat!).
When meeting a person, the general rule is that the higher the status of the person you’re meeting, the lower you should bow. We’ve got the 会釈 (eshaku), which is a kind of bow you give to acquaintances, coworkers and people of equal social rank. An eshaku is approximately a 15° waist bow. For greeting people who are higher in status than you, like bosses, elders and government officials, you do the 敬礼 (keirei) which is around 45°.
You should remember that when you bow, that’s not an excuse for your back to get lazy and slouch. That’s not really a picture of respect, is it? So don’t curve your spine. Bend from the waist and keep your spine straight.
In addition to status dynamics involved, by bowing you’re placing yourself in a vulnerable position to prove that you have no ill intent to the other person. Just as shaking hands proves you’re not concealing a weapon or blade in your palm, by bowing and exposing your neck, you put yourself, in a way, at the mercy of the other person.
If you’ve listened to any Korean conversation before, you’ve probably heard 안녕하세요 (anyeonghaseyo). That’s because it’s the standard Korean greeting for practically any occasion and any time of the day—morning, afternoon or night. They have alternatives to anyeonghaseyo but they rarely ever use these.
You can use anyeonghaseyo when you greet practically anybody. You can use it with friends and elders alike. It’s a polite greeting which roughly means “please be well.”
But make no mistake, just because you can anyeonghaseyo with practically anybody doesn’t mean the Korean culture is relaxed on seniority, elder respect and honorific expressions. On the contrary. Of the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, I’ve seen that it’s the Koreans who most strictly observe the rules of elder respect and seniority.
For example, it’s really not rude to ask about someone’s age when you first meet them because it’s the only clear way of establishing who’s older and younger between the two of you. And once established, this will affect virtually every interaction you’ll have with each other. You may be the same age, but if they were born a week ahead of you then they’re your senior, and you should be using honorific expressions when interacting with them. Another interesting note is that Koreans tend to romantically pair themselves, as much as possible, with someone their age because they don’t want to fraternize with someone their junior.
Okay, going back to anyounghaseyo, if you want to dial down the formality a bit, especially when you’re with friends and people that you know well, you can drop the haseyo and simply say “anyeong.”
But what if you want to dial up the formality, like when you welcome an esteemed guest at your house or when the boss of your boss happens to walk into the elevator? You drop the “haseyo” and exchange it with hashimnikka. So the expression becomes a very formal and a very polite anyeonghashimnikka. It still means “please be well,” but in a more formal form.
Let’s say you just landed in Paris and are psyched to see all the sights. You just hopped off the taxi a few seconds ago and are now in the hotel lobby, excitedly walking towards that lady over at the reception. How would you greet her? (Or how would you have greeted your taxi driver?)
Bonjour! That’s how.
It’s the French word for “hello.”
Bon means “good”—as in bon appétit (good appetite) and bon voyage (good journey).
Jour means “day”—as in soupe du jour (soup of the day)—and so bonjour literally means “good day.” The term is flexible and can be used both for formal and informal settings. Moreover, it can be conveniently blurted out in the mornings and in the afternoons. So you don’t have to have that awkward English experience of, for example, greeting someone with “good morning!” and then looking at your watch, realizing your mistake and saying, “oh, I’m sorry, I meant good afternoon.”
How about at night? Well, you simply say, “bonsoir.”
Soir means “evening.” And with just your bonjour and bonsoir, you’ve got the whole 24 hours covered.
Another way of saying “hello” is salut. The final letter is silent, just like in Champs-élysées or Paris. (The French don’t pronounce the s in Paris.) Salut is appropriate for more informal settings and is often used with one’s close friends. Think of it like the English word “hi.”
Now let’s say you’ve just done a whirlwind tour of Paris and you’re slumped lifelessly on the hotel bed when, suddenly, the phone rings. How do you answer it? Well, when you answer the phone, remember that you don’t use bonjour or bonsoir. Use allô, with the stress on the second syllable!
There are 21 countries in the world that speak Spanish—that is, as their official language—and there are still more Spanish-based languages like those in Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Guam and Northern Marianas. In total, Spanish is spoken natively by around 442 million folks on the planet—at least.
In fact, Spanish is the second most widely used language in the world, after Chinese. English comes third.
Spanish is a widespread language today because when Spain was a world superpower in the 16th to the 18th centuries, its explorers traveled far and wide in search of spices and gold and they established numerous colonies from Latin America to Asia.
So now you’ve got a case where learning to say “hello” in Spanish has become a requirement for modern life. There’s a big chance that you’ll be meeting and hanging out with a native speaker in your lifetime.
But not to worry, saying “hello!” in Spanish is simple enough. We almost all know to say “hola.“ Just remember that the letter h is silent in this case, just like it is in the English word “heir.”
To be time-specific, you can use buenos dias (good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon) and buenas noches (good night). But, of course, you can use hola in both formal and informal settings, at any time of day or night.
This is often the first word you say to any native speaker, pairing it with two cheek kisses (starting with their right cheek).
Spanish is largely a cheek-kissing language. In Latin America, for example, cheek kissing is a pretty much standard greeting between a man and a woman or between two women. In Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, male friends greet and congratulate each other with cheek kisses.
If you are uncomfortable with such a gesture, then a firm handshake or a friendly wave is just as good. What is required, though, is that great smile of yours that’s worth a thousand cheek kisses.
Saying “hello” in German is really very easy. It’s Hallo.
This is an informal way to greet one’s friend or folks you’re familiar with. But when it comes to greeting someone formally, like a business associate or someone who’s a bit more senior than you, the trio of Guten Morgen! (good morning), Guten Tag! (good day) and Guten Abend! (good evening) would be more appropriate.
German, like many other languages, distinguishes between informal and formal communications. Only use informal language when talking with someone you really know and someone who really knows you. Just to be safe with anyone else outside that group, and especially in business situations, use the Guten trio and pair them with a firm handshake.
Remember also that, just like their English cousins, these three greetings are time-sensitive. Guten Morgen is only good until about 12 noon, Guten Tag is appropriate until around 6 p.m. and after that it’s all about Guten Abend.
In real-life situations, conversations often don’t end after the hellos. You wouldn’t want to break the ice with a hearty German Hallo or Guten Morgen then act all silent and weird, right?
Move the conversation forward by asking “how are you?” For informal settings, ask “wie geht es dir?” For those in positions of authority or those folks you don’t know well enough, the more formal “wie geht es Ihnen?” is more appropriate.
Listen also for those very lines so that you can courteously reply if you get asked. Reply with, “Gut, danke.” (I’m fine, thank you.)
And when you get asked how you are, it is only proper you ask how they are in return. Say, “Und Ihnen?” (And you?)
In fact, make that part of the previous line. When you get asked how you are, say, “Gut, danke. Und lhnen?” (I’m fine, thank you. And you?)
Ciao, (pronounced “chow,” as in food) is probably the most recognized Italian greeting. It’s an informal interjection and can mean both “hello” and “goodbye”—just like aloha in Hawaiian, shalom in Hebrew or salaam in Arabic.
If you’re saying it to a group of friends, you would say, “ciao a tutti.” Tutti means “everybody,” so the phrase literally translates to “hello to everybody.”
Ciao does have a colorful history. It’s from a Venetian phrase that literally means, “I am your slave.” (Really, it’s more like, “I am at your service.”) But that’s not why you shouldn’t use ciao with your boss, teacher or anybody who’s your elder. Ciao is informal and reserved only for close friends and for people who you already know.
When meeting people for the first time, the safest route, and this goes for practically any language, is to go formal. Italian does have three time-specific ways for more formally greeting others.
In the morning, you say “buongiorno.” Buon means “good” and giorno means “morning.” Literally, it translates to “good morning.”
In the afternoon, it becomes buon pomeriggio, (although some may use buongiorno even in the afternoon). In the evening, it becomes buonasera. Buona means good (feminine form) and sera means “evening.” At night (later than the brief early evening time) you will hear buena notte (good night).
Note that these expressions can also be used when leaving to say “goodbye.”
When in Italy, you answer the phone by saying none of the above—instead, say “pronto.” It means “prepared.” You’re not being discourteous or demanding, you’re merely telling the other person that you’re prepared to listen to her speak. After talking, you end the conversation by saying—um, what else?—“ciao!”
If you’re in the Indian subcontinent, you can get away with greeting everybody with just one word: Namaste.
Hindi greetings are not time-specific, so you can use this one any time of the day or night. You use it to begin and end interactions with both friends and strangers, young and old.
Namaste comes from the Sanskrit words namah and te, which mean “bow” and “to you” respectively. Namaste is a greeting of respect and humility. You’re not only acknowledging the presence of the other person, but also acknowledging the totality of his humanity. There’s a strong spiritual element and namaste reminds people of the divine that exists in everybody—the life force, the “god-in-me” that exists in every person they meet.
The expression is paired with a slight bow of the head. Place both palms in front of the chest in a prayer-like position. As you say “namaste,” bow your head slightly. This gesture is called the pranamasana gesture.
And talking of gestures, probably the most misunderstood of Indian actions is the head wobble. It’s this nonverbal signal where they shake their head side-to-side. Westerners have a hard time deciphering this one correctly because the Indian head wobble looks very much like saying “no.”
Say, an American asks his guest, “Would you like some ice cream?”
The Indian friend displays a smile and a head wobble.
What would he make of that? It’s like he’s saying “no.” Or worse, it looks like a “maybe.” It’s like the other person is weighing his options, looking at pros and cons.
But the glisten in his eyes says something else entirely.
In reality, the head wobble is an expression of agreement. It’s a “yes.” Indians use it to say “yes,” “okay” and “I understand.” What is exactly meant depends on context, but it’s generally a very positive kind of gesture, and the more vigorous the wobbling, the more positive it is.
So remember that the next time you invite an Indian friend over for dinner. If his head wobbles, he’s going to come.
Say “yassas” to say “hello” in Greece.
Greeks are very informal and easygoing with their greetings, so much so that a handshake may not be offered. There are no required bows or cheek kisses.
But don’t misinterpret this. The Greeks are actually very friendly and open. Visit the country for one day and you’ll find this to be true. They’re just used to having tourists around, so they usually just get out of their visitors’ ways as they also go about their ordinary days.
Make the first move and you’ll soon have somebody eager to help you get where you need to go or tell you what you need to know. And if you throw a little Greek into the mix, like, kalimera (good morning), kalispera (good afternoon), kalinita (good evening) and efxaristo (thank you), you’ll really open yourself up to a friendly, rousing conversation.
Latin was the dominant language of the Roman Empire from 6th century BC to 600 AD.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, Latin evolved in the former constituent nations into the various languages that we know today. Romance languages like French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Romanian consider Latin as their parent tongue.
Much of the classical literature we study in school was originally written in Latin. Examples are the timeless classics penned by Virgil and Cicero. Latin, although not spoken as widely as before (save perhaps by the Vatican, which considers it one of its official language), exerts a solid but indirect influence in the modern world. For example, it’s said that as many as half of English words are derived from Latin.
That being said, would you like to know what it would be like to greet someone during Roman times? You’d say, “salve.”
That’s hello when talking to one person. If you were talking to several people, you’d say, “salvete.”
That’s what they would say to you if you lived in Gaul (France) in those times. That’s what the Apostle Paul would have said when he visited churches across the Roman Empire. That’s what much of Western Europe used to say.
11. ᐊᐃᓐᖓᐃ (Ainngai)
Inuktitut is an Eskimo-Aleut language spoken in Arctic territories and the topmost span of North America including Alaska and Northern Canada.
The nearest equivalent to hello in the language is ainngai, which can be used to signify both “hello” and “goodbye.”
“Good morning” is roughly translated as ullaasakkut, while “good afternoon” and “good evening” are unnusakkut and unnuaqsakkut respectively. Literally, they mean “In the morning/ afternoon/ evening…”
The Inuit culture doesn’t have a traditional class structure. One’s social standing aligns directly with one’s special abilities that help the community survive under extreme climatic conditions. For example, a great hunter is a prized member of society—so is a great seamstress.
In the Inuit culture, private property is very limited. Everything except one’s hunting gear and clothes are considered communal property.
It’s also interesting to note that Inuktitut has no word equivalent for “please.” Uttering the English word “please” in these territories makes the speaker come off as being arrogant and demanding. Just something to keep in mind in case you wind up up North in one of your travels.
Language: Tsalagi (Cherokee)
Interestingly, the English name for this language, Cherokee, comes from the word chelokee, which means “speaker of another language.” (And speakers of another language they are!)
The Cherokee are a Native American tribe indigenous to Southeastern states like Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Osiyo is how the Cherokee say “hello.”
If you hear someone say “dohitsu?” it means he is asking “how are you.” (You’ll find that in the Cherokee language, many times, a single word can be a full sentence.)
Your reply to dohitsu should be to say “osda, ihina?” This roughly means, “I’m fine, and you?”
The Cherokee are a warm and welcoming people, and you may find yourself needing to say, “wado” (thank you) many times to their hospitality.
Well, that’s it for now.
You’ve got a dozen diverse ways to say a hearty “hello.” Don’t stop there—feel free to get out there and learn even more about these languages.
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