Awkward silence is awkward in any language, but one way to avoid being tongue-tied on foreign soil is to brush up on your chitchat. To communicate on the most basic level, add a bit of small talk to your arsenal, starting with the local greetings.
As part of our January challenge, we've covered Japanese, Lakota Sioux, Igbo, Spanish, Hindi and Quechua; Indonesian, Italian, Pashto, Burmese, Swedish and Vietnamese; and Korean, Swahili, Polish, Navajo, Mandarin and Greek. Now, for our final installment, here's how to say "hello" in Hebrew, Haitian Creole, Turkish, French, Amharic, German and Filipino.
Dating to Biblical times, and indeed to the Bible itself, Hebrew is one of the world’s oldest languages, a Semitic tongue that flourished in ancient Palestine dozens of centuries ago. Today, there are some 9 million Hebrew-speakers in the world, and it’s the official language of Israel – a designation it shared until 2018, when a controversial nation-state law downgraded Arabic from an official language to one with “special status.”
שלום (shalom) - shah-LOHM - A word meaning “peace,” shalom is also used to say hello and goodbye.
Cultural tip: Hebrew may be an ancient language, but it fell out of use as a spoken one – liturgical purposes aside – in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE. It wasn’t until the 1880s that a conscious effort to revive the mother tongue began in earnest, and by the time Israel declared statehood in 1948, Modern Hebrew was its official language.
Haiti’s official languages are French and Haitian Creole, and the two bear more than a passing resemblance. Between the late 1600s and early 1700s, Haitian Creole emerged as a lingua franca between French colonists and the enslaved Africans working on the country's plantations, and the vernacular took hold; it became an official language in 1987, and it’s spoken by the vast majority of Haitians today.
Bonjou - bohn-ZHOO - Just like its French cousin, this greeting means “good morning,” and it’s used throughout the day.
Bonswa - bohn-SWAH - Along the same lines, this means good afternoon or good evening.
Usage tip: When answering the phone, you can also say “Alo” (pronounced ah-low).
An Altaic language spoken by more than 80 million people worldwide, Turkish is the official language of Turkey and one of two official languages in Cyprus; it’s also common in pockets of Europe and the Middle East.
Selam - sell-AHM - This casual Turkish greeting translates to “peace,” but it’s also used to say “hi” or “hello” – just like Arabic’s selam and Hebrew’s shalom.
Merhaba - MAIR-hah-bah - To greet someone you don’t know, use this “hello” – it’s slightly more formal.
Cultural tip: While Turkish is spoken as a native language by 95 percent of Turkey’s population, the country’s minority languages include Kurdish, Arabic, Circassian, Greek, and Armenian.
A Romance language widespread throughout the world thanks to colonization and a massive diaspora, French is an official language in 29 different countries, and the sixth most frequently spoken language on earth.
Bonjour - bohn-zhoor - As familiar to the English-speaking ear as ciao or sayonara, this is one of the most common ways of saying hello in French.
Cultural tip: An estimated 300 million people speak French across the globe, a number that includes native speakers as well as those fluent in French dialects and creoles.
An Afro-Asiatic tongue with ties to the liturgical language Geʿez, Amharic stood as Ethiopia’s sole national language until last year, when four others – Oromo, Somali, Tigrigna, and Afar – were granted “official working language” status. A host of additional languages are spoken within Ethiopia’s borders, including Sidamo, Wolaytta, and Gurage; English is taught in schools, and Arabic is spoken in some quarters as well, particularly within Muslim communities.
ሰላም (Selam) - SEH-lahm - A phrase that translates to “May peace be upon you,” this casual “hello there” is a genderless greeting that can be used for all.
ጤና ይስጥልኝ (Tena yistilign) - tay-NAH-still-in - A formal “hello” that can be tough for non-native speakers to pronounce, this phrase means "May God give you health."
Cultural tip: Amharic may be Ethiopia’s official language, but it’s not the country’s most commonly spoken tongue. That honor falls to Oromo, the official working language in the state of Oromiya, where it’s spoken by nearly 34 percent of Ethiopia’s 110.9 million people. Amharic, on the other hand, is spoken by just 29 percent of the population.
Internationally, more than 130 million people speak German as a first or second language, making it the 11th most popular tongue in the world. It’s the official language of Germany, obviously, where it’s spoken by 75 million of the country’s 79.9 million residents, but it also has official status in Austria, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Switzerland.
Hallo - HAH-loh - Just as it sounds, this greeting means “hi” or “hello.” A nonchalant “Na?” can also be used to convey, “Hey, how are you?” in casual fashion.
Guten tag - GOO-ten TAHG - In more formal situations, use this phrase, meaning “good day.”
Cultural note: The vast majority of the German population speaks the mother tongue, but Danish, Frisian, Sorbian, and Romani are also recognized as official minority languages.
Also known as Pilipino, Filipino is the official language of the Philippines alongside English, and it's spoken by the majority as a first or second language. Based on Tagalog, it's one of eight major dialects spoken across the archipelago, the remaining seven being Cebuano, Ilocano, Hiligaynon, Bicol, Waray, Pampango, and Pangasinan.
Kumusta (koo-moose-TAH) - Deriving from the Spanish ¿Cómo está?, this the colloquial “hi” or “hello.” Between friends, it’s often abbreviated to the super-casual musta (moose-TAH) or musta na (moose-tah NAH).
Kumusta po kayo (POH kah-yo) - To greet an elder, someone you don’t know like a taxi driver or a salesperson, or a person of some status like a teacher, doctor, or government official, use this phrase meaning “How are you?” (For peers, friends, and relatives, use the more familiar "Kumusta ka?")
Usage tip: You may hear mabuhay (mah-BOO-hay) as well, but that greeting literally translates to “Long live!” and should be reserved for formal welcomes, congratulations, or special occasions – not as a stand-in for “hi” or “hello.” (Fun fact, there’s no literal translation for “hello” in Filipino.)
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