Hellos and Goodbyes (Part 1 of 2)

Words have fascinating stories, and languages have personalities. Is one simply attracting someone’s attention by saying “Hello,” or is it also a promise of hospitality? And does “goodbye,” merely signal parting company, or something deeper? This post will explore the English words, “hello,” “world” and “goodbye,” and their Arabic equivalents. I hope to have a follow-up post soon in which I continue with some general reflections and comments about what role language might play in society.

English Hello, World, Goodbye

“Hello” is a generic greeting which we use innumerable times in our daily lives, especially on the telephone (which was instrumental in popularizing the word). You might think it does not carry much specific meaning beyond a generic initiation of dialogue, and indeed etymologists tell us that the English word “hello” comes from medieval European words meaning “to shout in the chase,” or “to hail (e.g. a ferryman).” (But more on that soon!) The word “world,” also seemingly innocuous, actually comes from Germanic roots with a literal meaning of, “the age of man”. And the quotidian word “goodbye” is originally a 16th century contraction of the phrase “God be with you,” although few people nowadays, even among the religious, intend or are even conscious of this meaning.

Arabic Hellos

Google translate renders, “Hello, world,” as مرحبا بالعالم . But common alternatives one encounters are ahlan wa-sahlan أهلأ وسهلا (or its contraction ahlan أهلا) for “hello,” and dunya دنيا for “world.” Note that none of the Arabic “hello” words has the meaning of shouting or hailing that underly the English “hello.” One might hazard a guess that there is an onomatopeic dimension to the English word, in which case, interestingly enough we do find an Arabic parallel. Ibn Faris defines the fundamental meaning of the Arabic root “H-L-L” to be “raising the voice.” Ibn Manzur and others mention the following exclamations that might onamatopeically be sisters of “hello”:

  • halan هلاً : used to rebuke a horse or camel)
  • hālin هالٍ: to command the horse to approach
  • halā هلا : a command, “hurry!”
  • hallā هلّا : an exhortation or urging

Nevertheless, the Arabs did not commonly use these expressions to greet one another upon meeting. Instead, they used the expressions we mentioned above, which have the following literal meanings:

  • ahlan wa-sahlan أهلاً وسهلاً : a family and a soft plain (the implication being, “You have found family (i.e. don’t think of us as strangers) and a soft plain (not a hard, rugged, inhospitable piece of land)”
  • marḥaban : space, or abundance (the implication being, “You have found space and abundance,” (i.e. don’t be worried, you are welcome and will be taken of).

We can also mention the Islamic Arabic greeting

  • al-salām ʻalaykum : “peace [be] upon you”

Arabic “Worlds”

  • ʻālam عالَم comes from same root as ʻilm (meaning knowledge), with the fundamental meaning of the root having to do with making something distinct, and hence a world is something with a distinct identity [Ibn Faris]. This is remarkably close to one meaning of the modern English “world,” namely, “A particular group of living things,” or similarly, “All that relates to a particular sphere of activity.
  • dunyā دنيا on the other hand, comes from the root d-n-w, connoting closeness, and hence dunyā is the immediate world (as opposed to the world after death). Other close roots include d-n-a and d-w-n, which connote lowness. There is a parallel to Irish and Old Slavonic words for “world” that derive from the root for “bottom, foundation”; not very remarkable.

Arabic “Goodbyes”

  • wadāʻ وداع , Google Translate’s default version of “goodbye,” simply means, “parting,” and would be used more as the noun (as in “say a quick goodbye,”) than a greeting.
  • Maʻas-salama مع السلامة , an alternative, literally means, “with safety,” i.e. “Go with safety.” This is clearly closer to the original sense of the English “goodbye,” even though the Arabic is not explicitly religious.

Two other, less common, expressions are closer, in this respect, to the original “goodbye:”

  • Allāh maʻak الله معك is literally, “God [be] with you,” (and hence the literal equivalent of “goodbye,”) and is used by some people.
  • Fī amān Allāh في أمان الله : “In the safety of God.”

Well, that’s it for this post. But since I hope to see you again soon for the conclusion of this, I will not say goodbye, but rather:

Au revoir! Auf wiedersehen!

– Suheil Laher

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Hello, world!

Words, and languages, have dynamic lives with depth and complexity. Take the ostensibly simple statements, “Hello, world,” and “Goodbye.” We casually use these terms daily. The computer programmer’s major concern might be to illustrate how to display these characters on the screen (in the first case), or to signal to a user that a piece of software has terminated (in the second). But for the student of language(s), these two simple statements are a trove of meaning (and even of social history), especially when one attempts to translate these subsequently not-so-simple statements into another language (I will discuss Arabic in particular).

A statement as simple as, “Hello, world,” is sufficiently ambiguous that translating it into Arabic is not straightforward. There are semantic ambiguities, and different approaches to translation. Since all of these issues would be too much to cover in one post, I will spread the discussions over multiple posts.

In this first post, I will focus on the ambiguities of the vocative aspect of “Hello, world!” I will therefore (somewhat arbitrarily) choose the Arabic words ahlan أهلاً for ‘hello’ and ʻālam عالَـم for ‘world,’ although I may revisit that lexicological (to do with meanings of words) choice in a later post.

A vocative expression involves directly addressing a person. The vocative in English differs from the vocative in Arabic in three major respects:

  1. In English, it is rare (nowadays) to include ‘O’ before the vocative (as in ‘O world!’). This ‘O’ (not to be confused with the exclamation of pain or surprise ‘Oh!’) is called a vocative proclitic. Arabic has numerous vocative proclitics, but the most common is yā يا , and it is used more commonly than the English ‘O.’ Note that in both languages, the proclitic is an adjunct; it can be omitted without making the sentence ungrammatical.
  2. In English, there is no change to the noun that represents the person/thing being addressed in the vocative expression, whereas in Arabic (since it is a cased language) the ending of the noun changes.
  3. In English, there is only one basic form of the vocative (although the proclitic might vary : ‘O’, ‘Hey,’ or (in informal speech), ‘Yo,’ whereas in Arabic there are multiple forms, each with accompanying rules of case (see #2 above), and nuances of meaning.

ENGLISH

ARABIC

1 – Vocative Proclitic

‘O’

Rarely used

yā يا

Commonly used

2 – Case Change to Noun

No Change

Noun Ending Changes

3 – Different Expressions

1

3

So, to wrap up this post, I will illustrate three common forms of vocative using our Arabic version of “Hello, world.” Note that I am including the proclitic yā in all cases, although it could optionally be dropped.

ENGLISH

ARABIC

A

Hello, world!

OR

Hello, ʻĀlam!

(The latter addressing someone whose name is ʻĀlam)

أهلاً يا عالَـمُ

B

Hello, world!

أهلاً يا أيُّها العالَـمُ

C

Hello, [any] world!

(e.g. if you were broadcasting a general message to all of the recently-discovered multiple earth-like planets, without having one specific world in mind, but rather to greet any world that might respond)

أهلاً يا عالَـماً

Note that expressions A and B look and sound different in Arabic, but are translated the same in English. According to the renowned scholar Fakhr al-Din al-Rāzī (d. 606 H /1209 CE), their meaning subtly differs in one of two ways. B is more emphatic, and indicates either that the matter is important, or that the addressee is inattentive.