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August 19, 2010 6:48 AM   Subscribe

Different "how are yous" in different languages?

In English, there are certain ways of asking how are you, which are only "allowed" in specific circumstances. For instance, "How are you going?", is acceptable any time. But "How are you feeling?" is typically used for someone you know who has recently been sick. It would be odd to say to a stranger. Conversely, "Are you OK?" is typically when someone's fallen or is hurt, but can be used with a stranger.

While the phrases are similar, they have quite distinct usages. What are some examples of set phrases for different circumstances in other languages? The more specific the circumstance, the better!
posted by dave99 to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is a good place to get started, for a baseline of "How are you" in ~425 different languages. The homepage says that the author eventually wants to collect common phrases in ALL the world's languages...which means he has about 6,500 more to go. Good luck to him!

I realize your question states that you want individual pragmatic sets of sentiment clusters within a particular language...but that question is HUGE. Like, astronomical. Keep in mind that you are also asking for lexical variation in a singular phrase, with all other things being equal (intonation, loudness, pitch, morphology, syntax, etc.). That narrows it down some, but will make it difficult to compare for sets where the language expresses those nuanced differences by any other means than lexical variation (i.e. The 'words' are the same, but the tone or intonation conveys the pragmatic difference). Just keep that in mind.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:03 AM on August 19, 2010

Can I ask why you are interested in this? That could really help narrow down some variables and get you a nice, clean set focused on the particular thing you're chasing.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:05 AM on August 19, 2010

These are greetings rather than literally meaning 'how are you' or otherwise inquiring after another person's well-being, but German has a few variations.

First, there's the Upper German greeting Grüß Gott!, which is widespread in predominantly Catholic areas of the German-speaking countries, but is unusual elsewhere. That's more of a dialect issue than a specific situation, though.

Then, there are a whole bunch of greetings specific to a particular sport, hobby, or other group. For example, an angler greeting another might say Petri Heil! and the other would respond Petri Dank! (in this context, Petri refers to Saint Peter, patron saint of fishermen, among other things).
posted by jedicus at 7:10 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Gah, sorry to keep commenting, but...depending on how precise you want to be with this, also keep in mind that you may run into an orthography (writing system) and language representation problem. For example, "How ya doin'" vs. "How are you doing" vs. "Howzit goin", etc. are different connotations of the same sentiment, restricted in viable usage by all sorts of different factors (dialect, geography, register, genre, and sometimes even other factors like race). BUT, for a lot of phrases that are colloquial, there are not viable or conventionalized written forms of the phrase. Especially for languages that don't have a writing system (or a very recent one), are diglossic (different writing systems for different class/political/genre purposes), don't use a roman alphabet, and on. This can make your sets somewhat unreliable, highly contextual, or difficult to compare.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:12 AM on August 19, 2010

In Turkish, one would say "Nasılsın?" and the expected reply would be "İyiyim" ("I'm good").
posted by ocherdraco at 7:14 AM on August 19, 2010

And to be clear, that's the basic "How are you?" as greeting.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:15 AM on August 19, 2010

"How are you?" is an Americanism, as a standard greeting, anyway. From my experience in Germany, asking a "wie geht's dir?" (how's it going with you?) to a stranger will result in confused looks. A friend of mine's sister visited her in Germany, knew some German and asked the H&M cashier, "wie geht's dir?" to which she respond "kennen wir uns?" (do we know each other?).
posted by Dukat at 7:18 AM on August 19, 2010

"How are you going?"
I'm in the US, and I've never heard this phrasing (assuming you didn't mean to type doing). Is it common in other English-speaking populations?
posted by BurntHombre at 7:28 AM on August 19, 2010

Seconding iamkimiam, this is a pretty huge question.

And Dukat as well, since asking "how are you" to strangers is Not Done in many countries (I can name Finland and France as other examples, they're the two I've lived in besides the US). In France, depending on how cheery you are about it with a stranger, it can in fact be interpreted as a come-on.

When you know someone, you usually say "Bonjour ! Ça va ?" in the same tone that "how're ya doin'" is usually asked in the US. You only drop the greeting ("bonjour" or "salut", for people you've known a while, though you can still use "bonjour" with close friends) at your own peril; it's seen as the height of impoliteness to not greet someone. It does happen, but usually the person only saying "ça va" without a greeting is very rushed. Or being purposefully cold/rude/whatever, depending on tone of voice. If someone's hurt, you can ask "Ça va ?" in a concerned tone, if you know the person; otherwise the more formal "Est-ce que ça va ?" or "Est-ce que vous allez bien ?".

That's in no way exhaustive, btw.
posted by fraula at 7:38 AM on August 19, 2010

I'm in the US, and I've never heard this phrasing (assuming you didn't mean to type doing). Is it common in other English-speaking populations?

Australians are weird and say this. They also, for some reason, think red hair looks blue, so a common greeting I get from Aussies is, "How're ya goin', bluey?"
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 7:43 AM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

"How are you going?"

I'm in the US, and I've never heard this phrasing (assuming you didn't mean to type doing). Is it common in other English-speaking populations?

"How are you going" is the normal way to greet someone in Australia. In conversation with a Melbourne taxi driver from Punjab, I commiserated that "how are you going" was initially a little confusing. He replied that it confounded him to no end when he first started working in Australia.

Rider: "How you going, mate?"

Driver: "I am going by taxi!".

His wife clued him in. Good times.
posted by qwip at 8:00 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

In Persian, there are numerous ways to phrase the question 'How are you?' (literally, they usually ask 'how is your health?'), due to the grammar of the language.

First of all, there's a formal/informal you distinction:
حال شما چطور است؟ Hâl-e shomâ chetor ast? (formal 'you') (this is the 'textbook' version of the question; I don't think many people actually say this in everyday speech)
حال تو چطور است؟ Hâl-e to chetor ast? (informal 'you')

Then, there are shorter suffixes you can use for possessives:
حالتان چطور است؟ Hâletân chetor ast? (formal 'you')
حالت چطور است؟ Hâlet chetor ast? (informal 'you')

There's also a colloquial shortening of the verb 'to be', so more casual:
حالتان چطوره؟ / حالت چطوره؟ / حال شما چطوره؟ / حال تو چطوره؟
Hâletân chetore?/Hâlet chetore?/Hâl-e shoma chetore?/Hâl-e to chetore?

More casual still, -ân becomes -un in colloquial dialect:
حالتون چطوره؟ Hâletun chetore?

And finally, you can just ask 'how are you?':
چطورید؟ / چطوری؟
Chetorid? (formal 'you') / Chetori? (informal 'you')
posted by Gordafarin at 8:08 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mongolian greetings are geared to the seasons. So you have phrases such as "saihan zusaj baina uu?" "are you summering well?" or "are you having a good naadam (summer festival)?"

Greetings can also be specific to the profession or activity of the askee, which are often immediately understandable even by strangers. If you see a trainer working with a horse, or know someone has racehorses, you can ask "is your horse fast?" "mor' hurdan uu"? You can ask a herder "are your livestock fattening nicely?" For someone who is in the act of traveling somewhere, you can use "sain yavj baina uu?" "are you traveling well?"

There are almost an infinite number of these, and they are used in exactly the same sense as "how are you?", "how's it going?" But they are specific to the time of year and activity or profession at hand. (You wouldn't ask "are you having a good autumn?" in the spring, or ask someone sitting at home if they were traveling well!)
posted by scrambles at 8:25 AM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

I was recently listening to this podcast by a gentleman named Marc Maron who relates his horror when someone asks him 'Are you alright?' after a stand-up comedy gig, as though this was akin to asking 'Have you survived?'. At least in the north of England this (or rather, 'y'alright?') is pretty much no more than a friendly 'hello'.
posted by robself at 8:28 AM on August 19, 2010

I think you are referring to a regionalized greeting. I don't imagine in Australia when you ask, "How are you going?" that you are asking about transport issues. You are just saying "hello."

Here are some websites that list these.
posted by JJ86 at 8:33 AM on August 19, 2010

At a Baptist chuch in the South, people would often greet me by "How's your mom 'n' 'em?" This was appropriate from someone who knew my family, but I'd think it would be weird from a stranger.

My friends and I would say "What it is, yo" to one another, but I wouldn't want to be greeted thus by someone less familiar.
posted by chicago2penn at 8:51 AM on August 19, 2010

In Cantonese, which I'm learning, the more formal version is "Nei ho ma?" But among friends, it will be "Dim ah" or Jo meh ah" both akin to "'Sup!"
posted by onegoodthing at 9:10 AM on August 19, 2010

I'll chime in to say 'jo meh ah' or 'lei jo meh ah' are more literally translated along the lines of 'watcha doing?'

In Mandarin, a basic greeting is along the lines of 'ni hao', where 'ni' translates to 'you' and 'hao' translates to 'good'. So you'd say 'ni hao, Person A' to greet them, but to actually ask 'how're things going', you'd put the signifier 'ma?' at the end of it. So:

B: ni hao, A.
A: ni hao.
B: ni hao ma?
A: wo hen hao. (I'm doing very well.)

Mind you, that's a very stiff meeting, and most ethnic Chinese I know don't do that. You can say 'Ni hao a~' wherein the signifier 'a' makes it much friendlier and changes the meaning to a looser 'how's you doing?' This you'd probably only use with friends, it's a bit too informal to be used in a business or work setting.

For Japanese, the first time you meet someone you say 'hajimemashite'. You only say it the one time to say that you're pleased to make [their] acquaintance.
posted by zennish at 10:37 AM on August 19, 2010

If I'm remembering my Hebrew with any accuracy, there are lots of ways to ask "How are you?" - and many of them have the same casual feel as English, where they're as much greeting as inquiry.

You can ask "Ma shlomekh?" or "Ma shlomkha?" (if talking to a woman/man), or "Ma shlomkhem?" to a group. Shlomekh is from the same root as the word shalom, so it's kind of like asking, "How is your peace?"

More colloquially, you might ask,
"Ma koreh?" (What's happening?)
"Ma khadash?" (What's new?)
"Ma ha'inyanim?" (What are the interests - i.e. what's going on?)
"Ekh koreh lach" or "Ekh koreh l'kha?" (for a woman/man, respectively; literally, "How does it happen for you?" or "How's it going with you?")
posted by bassjump at 11:04 AM on August 19, 2010

"How are you going?"
• • •
I'm in the US, and I've never heard this phrasing (assuming you didn't mean to type doing). Is it common in other English-speaking populations?
• • •
Australians are weird and say this.

Pfft. To me, it's not much different from the way Brits say (or did so in the past), "How d'you do?" To be pedantic, you could easily reply, "How do I do what, exactly?"
What amuses me is when people mistake a casual "How ya goin'", for an actual question as to how their day has been or their general wellbeing. Dude, it's a rhetorical question!
posted by mandrake at 11:40 AM on August 19, 2010


Hoe gaat het? / Hoe gaat ie? ==> How is it going?
Hoe gaat het met je? / Hoe gaat het met u?==> How are you doing?

Only the first sentence is used as in the American "How are you?" in the sense that no explicit answer is expected beyond a simple "Goed hoor."

The second version is much more literal, and it's the kind of question your mother or your doctor would be asking you if you called them up.
posted by monospace at 11:53 AM on August 19, 2010

In Tibetan one says "Kyerang gusu depo yin-be," which literally translates as "Is your body good?" Tibetans who've settled in the West have also adopted the greeting, "Tashi dele'," which literally means something like "Much happiness."
posted by aught at 12:49 PM on August 19, 2010

In Italian you might say "come va/vai?" for how's it going? (formal/informal) or "come sta/stai" for how are you? (formal/informal)
posted by CunningLinguist at 2:09 PM on August 19, 2010

Dude, it's a rhetorical question!

A "rhetorical question" is one encompassing an argument of some sort. It is thusly "rhetorical." "What's the point of voting when politicans are all crooks?" is a rhetorical question.

"How's it going?" is a greeting. And it is indeed a question, one that has an anticipated normal and, for those familiar with the idiom, a rote reply, something like, "I'm good."
posted by ethnomethodologist at 2:13 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

In Mandarin Chinese, "Have you eaten yet?" (ni chi fan le ma/你吃饭了吗?) is a really common way to say "How are you/what's up?" (you can even choose to not really answer.) People will also ask, "Where are you going?" (ni qu nar?/你去哪?) which is more of a greeting and a specific answer is not really expected.

On a daily basis, I rarely here Chinese friends/colleagues say to me , "ni hao ma?", although it is technically correct.
posted by bearette at 4:03 PM on August 19, 2010

oh, by "choose to not really answer", I mean you should answer whether you've eaten or not, but don't need to go into detail. And it's definitely not an invitation for a meal :).
posted by bearette at 4:04 PM on August 19, 2010

Thanks for all the answers so far, I'm sorry for not being really clear.

"Are you OK?" sounds vague, but as a cultural rule it is only permitted when a person appears distressed. If you use it as a general greeting, people are likely to get offended. But the possiblity of offense is not obvious from the phrase itself.

Are there polite set phrases like this in other languages, which are culturally only permitted in very specific scenarios, and this is not obvious from the phrase itself?
posted by dave99 at 5:45 PM on August 19, 2010

as bearette said, Have you eaten yet? is a standard greeting in China (though the dialect where I lived had it as "Ni chir de ma?" "Chir de" or, "Have you eaten yet?" "Yes I have.") I was told to always answer with "Yes I have" because to say no I haven't puts kind of a bind on the asker that they should take me to get something to eat, though that was becoming outmoded at the time.

In Japanese, it's not always part of the conversation to ask how someone is doing. You can, however, ask "Genki (desu ka)?" and the response will almost always be "Genki (desu). It's kind of like "Are you (in) good (condition/health/spirits)?" and "Yup, I'm (in) good (condition/health/spirits)."
posted by Ghidorah at 5:51 PM on August 19, 2010

Kiswahili (aka Swahili):

Hujambo? (to one person) Reply: Sijambo!
(lit. Is nothing the matter with you? Nothing!)
Hamjambo? (to several people) Reply: Hatujambo!

but, that's less commonly used these days in lieu of:

Habari ya...? if specific or general news is expected
(loosely. What is the news of...?)

The reply is always 'Good' which can be either 'Nzuri' or 'Njema'. Examples:

Habari ya nyumbani? What news of home?
Habari ya watoto? What news of the children?
Habari ya safari? What news of the journey?

The most commonly used is 'Habari yako' - loosely. What's new with you?

There's more common colloquial greetings like 'Sasa' (lit. now?) or 'Mambo' (loosely. 'sup?') which can be responded to by a simple 'Fiti' (fine) or 'Poa' (cool).
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:19 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mitä kuuluu? = something like "what's the latest news with you?"
Miten menee? = "how are things?" / how is it going (for you / in your life) ?
Miten hurisee? = same as above but more colloquial

All of these can be answered either with telling how things are going or just a simple "alright" or "could be better" etc. One would generally use these as a greeting with people one already knows. Between strangers these greetings might be interpreted in many different ways (flirty, a bit forward, jovial or even obnoxious) depending on the situation. Between strangers I would expect these to be used as conversation starters, whereas between acquaintances they can be merely a neutral greeting.
posted by severiina at 8:09 AM on August 20, 2010

Mandarin Chinese:

ni hao ma 你好吗? (you-good?) is a usual greeting.

ni zen me la 你怎么啦?(you-how?) is used when something's amiss, similar to "what's the matter with you?"

ni zen me yang a 你怎么样啊? (you-how?) is akin to "how's it going?" or "how are things?"
posted by hellopanda at 11:19 AM on August 20, 2010

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