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.



1 – Vocative Proclitic


Rarely used

yā يا

Commonly used

2 – Case Change to Noun

No Change

Noun Ending Changes

3 – Different Expressions



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.




Hello, world!


Hello, ʻĀlam!

(The latter addressing someone whose name is ʻĀlam)

أهلاً يا عالَـمُ


Hello, world!

أهلاً يا أيُّها العالَـمُ


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.


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