You’ll probably learn guten Morgen (literally “good morning” in German), guten Tag (good day) and guten Abend (good evening) in your first German lesson. You might also learn Hallo (Hello) for more informal situations and, luckily, Hi in German works just as well. But that’s child’s play. Let’s get those easy-peasy introductions out of the way so we can turn our attention to the more interesting, nuanced world of the German greeting.
|Guten Tag||Hello (lit. Good day)|
|Guten Morgen||Good morning|
|Guten Abend||Good evening|
There are a myriad of subtleties to the way you greet, address and speak to different people in different contexts. Judgement of register — the way you adjust your written and spoken words, and your body language, to fit a certain situation — is one of the hardest things to learn in a foreign language. Indeed, many people struggle with it in their own language, and it very often starts with the humble hello. You don’t walk into the bank and fist bump the clerk, nor do you greet your doctor with a “Yo, what up?”, or enter the pub, tip your hat to your best friend and ask him “How do you do?”
You’re well equipped for formal situations with a carefully enunciated Guten Tag, wie geht es Ihnen? (lit. Good day, how are you?), regardless of whether you’re addressing one person or several people. That’s the easy bit. To advance to the next level, you’ll have to learn how to crank it up a little with your salutations, and how to accommodate for regional variances.
How To Say Hello With Flair
German also has a tendency to dandify its Hellos and Goodbyes. Hallo can become Hallöchen (-chen denoting the diminutive, so a kind of little hello), and Tschüss (bye) often becomes Tschüssi. Both these salutations commonly leave the mouths of beefy German men with a beguilingly fluffy, upward intonation. More common than Hallöchen is the ubiquitous Na? — a two-letter phatic exclamatory question that carries so many different meanings that it deserves an entire semester of German lessons to itself, and yet it isn’t covered at all. This is perhaps the single greatest travesty of modern language education.
The Many Meanings Of “Na?“
Back in the ’90s when I was at secondary school in England, we’d commonly greet fellow students with a grunted “alright,” that was often contracted to “’right,” and always met with a similarly intoned “‘right.” When I first encountered the word na (within about 68 seconds of arriving in Germany), I assumed it meant something like this, and I wasn’t so far off. It’s a contracted way of saying Hey, how ya doing? which ensures an equally contracted response — most commonly “na?”. When saying hello to one another, Germans often don’t say hello. They eye up one another silently in a salutation-standoff, before one folds and emits a precisely enunciated “na?” To add an extra degree of affection to your na, you can append du, for a sweet-sounding “na du?”
Aside from greeting, na can also be used to tease a response from a hesitant speaker, or it can be a dismissive exclamation when combined with ja (na ja), or an expression of reluctant acceptance when combined with gut (na gut). Good luck mastering this little two-letter devil.
Vary Your Hello To Match The Time And Place
Besides na, there are other ways to climb down the ladder of formality to meet your peers at eye level. If you like, you can kill the guten and simply throw in a Tag, or Tach. Similarly, in the morning, you can simply say Morgen.
There are a few notable regional differences: in Hamburg, you’ll often be greeted with a chirpy moin moin or moinsen, and in Bavaria with a stout Grüß Gott, or Servus! In Switzerland, a Grüzi may also be employed. Sei gegrüßt! and Glück auf! are two further, regional modes of greeting in the south. Finally, you can use Mahlzeit (lit. meal time) to greet colleagues in passing during the lunch break, and Hallo zusammen when you say hello to a group of people and want to avoid having to individually greet each person with a handshake.
Now you’re down with the German “hello,” why not discover some of the coolest compound nouns in the world? And if you’re fed up of learning German words which actually exist, why not read about these ones which don’t? The German language: it’s still completely awful, but in a rather lovely way.