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


One thought on “Hellos and Goodbyes (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Pingback: Ubuntu (Hellos and Goodbyes, Part 2) | Suheil Laher : Language and Literature Blog

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