One of the first things French students are taught when they learn English is how to say ‘hello’.
Even people who don’t know much English at all, are aware that the translation of bonjour is ‘hello’. So much so that it is rarely questioned and they go on to use the word in any and all circumstances without a care in the world.
The problem is, in reality, few anglophones actually use the word ‘hello’ in everyday conversation to wish bonjour. They employ a range of other expressions instead. Read on to find out how to really say « hello » in English.
Bonjour literally means ‘good day’
A direct translation of bonjour is not really hello at all, but good day.
In Spanish, « bonjour» would be translated as buenos dias and not holà — the more direct translation of hello. It is even thought that the word hello could have originated from holà.
You could argue, quite rightly, that good day is very rarely used at all these days, and a lot less so than hello. In Britain or the USA, it is indeed considered very formal and antiquated, and used very infrequently.
In Australia, however, good day or rather g’day is not at all seen as pompous and is used regularly by anyone and everyone.
A full day is too long
Whilst outside Australia, it may seem a bit too much to wish someone a ‘good day’, it is common practice to wish someone a good part of the day!
An anglophone often greets a friend, associate or business person with a friendly ‘good morning’, ‘good afternoon’ or ‘good evening’, depending on the time of day.
It is also good manners to address a partial or complete stranger in this manner, say when crossing their path on a country walk.
If the other person is well-mannered too, he’d reply with the same greeting, and perhaps a smile, and both of you would be on your way. If you decided to say ‘hello’ though instead, things are likely to go less smoothly.
The other person would quite probably think you wanted something, like directions to go somewhere, and would prepare themselves for an interrogation. A moment of confusion could then arise when you just continue on your way without a further word, probably a bit disheartened because you didn’t get a very cheerful reply.
Informally these greetings can be shortened to simply:
« … morning »
« …afternoon »
or « … evening »
To really sound credible, or even to be understood at all, you can’t just say the greetings in a monotone fashion – you really have to master the different intonations used by anglophones.
Anglophones often put extra emphasis on the first syllable as if to highlight that there is a word (good) missing:
« Mornin »
« Aftanoon »
or “ Evenin’ »
Some people even melodically sing the word to emphasise that it really is a nice morning e.g. « morn-iiing » or « even-iiing »!
While this concept is quite alien to a French person – whose bonne matinée or bonne après-midi wishes come at the end of an encounter – its regular use can help you appear credible and natural or even “just so English!”
Getting « Hi »
French people are often pretty familiar with the word “hi”, but are quite reluctant to use it. Often considered to be a direct replacement for the informal greeting: salut, they would reserve it mainly for close friends.
Originating from the USA, “hi” is used regularly in spoken English throughout the world – and not just among friends.
Anglophones are a lot less formal overall than Francophones in general and have few problems addressing strangers, such as shop assistants, taxi drivers, colleagues, or even bosses or business contacts with a confidant “hi”. It is like it communicates that there is no difference in status between you both – and shows that you are ‘down to earth’.
“Hi” is certainly used more regularly than “hello” today. However, if you don’t feel very confident using it, it’s probably best to start with friends, and people you know, before using it directly in a business environment, where a “good morning” or “good afternoon” would be safer.
The word “hi” nowadays is even considered relatively formal for many. To make people feel at ease, some adapt it to “hi-ya” or use other forms such as “hey” (or “hey up” in northern England).
How are you?
In English-speaking cultures, it is normal to follow up a greeting with a swift « how are you? » This is used more often than in France and not just reserved for friends or family.
In order to save time, many people combine the two formulas.
A simple « alright? » in Britain means « hi, are you well? »
In the USA, “howdy” – a favourite expression of cowboys – condenses the phrase « hi how are you » into one word. Today, however, you are more likely to hear « what’s up » or the more informal « wassup ».
In and around London, the similar greeting « watcha » or « wotcher » is thought to be an abbreviation of the old-fashioned expression « what cheer? » It is more often than not interpreted nowadays as a way of saying, « what are you up to? »
Be careful using these expressions though as they can be considered as not very sophisticated by certain people. Avoid using them in formal contexts or with people you don’t really know.
Hello? What about the word hello then ?
It may come as a surprise for many to discover that « hello » is actually quite a new word. It only appeared in the Oxford Dictionary for the first time in 1827!
« Hello » became common place in the 19th century with the invention of the telephone when it became the standard greeting. Allo in French is still exclusively reserved for this purpose.
For much of 19th century Britain, the word « hullo » was actually used more frequently than “hello”, with the Germanic « hallo » also heavily employed. All three versions still exist, although “hello” is used by pretty much everyone.
Nowadays, as in Alexander Graham Bell’s era, « hello » is often used simply to get someone’s attention rather than a straightforward greeting.
Hello – Is it me you’re looking for?
Think of Lionel Richie’s famous song “hello”. The song isn’t about somebody wishing somebody else a good day. It is in fact about someone falling in love and reaching out to a blind person to see if the feeling is reciprocal. “Hello – is it me you’re looking for?”
For those who find that song a bit dated, Adele’s more recent nostalgic ballad of the same name is about someone reaching out desperately to people from her past:
« hello, it’s me »
« hello, can you hear me? »
« hello from the other side… »
« Hello » then is used more often than not to attract attention:
« Hello – is there anybody there? »
« Hello – can anyone help me? »
« Hello? » is often used sarcastically too if you feel like you are being ignored or neglected.
Say you’ve been waiting in reception in a hotel for ages and the two receptionists are chatting away amongst themselves as if you didn’t exist, it may be appropriate to release an exasperated « hello? »
Or, if you’re not getting served in a restaurant:
« Hello – can someone take my order please? »
‘Hello’ can also be used in a similar way to tell somebody to ‘wake up’ if they don’t seem very attentive or able to understand a simple concept. As this is pretty rude, we wouldn’t, of course, recommend it!
Finally, ‘hello’ is also a good way of expressing surprise:
« Oh, hello, I wasn’t expecting to see you here! »
« Hello – what do we have here then? »
So next time you want to say ‘hello’, think:
« Hello? is this really what I want to say? »