A list of Syrian Arabic politeness formulae

May 28, 2017
Tags: -linguistics
Length: long

In the different dialects of Arabic there are highly developed systems of polite phrases to be uttered in various situations. Many of these phrases have one specific appropriate response. For native speakers, this is simply part of language and it isn’t given much thought. When, for example, someone says naʿīman to you after you have had a shower you just automatically reply aḷḷa yinʿam ʿalēk. For a non-native speaker like myself, recognizing and learning these phrases can be challenging, and I hope this post may be of some help.

Introduction

Not giving the proper response to a politeness phrase can often lead to awkward social situations or is simply rude. As one scholar explains (Stewart 1996), these formulaic responses

signify an addressee’s acceptance of the phrase to which they respond, thus serving as an indication that communications of concern, kindness, or other positive emotion has been successful, or that a social obligation has been properly fulfilled and is appreciated.

Thus not properly responding, even if it because you as a non-native speaker do not know the answer, is a social mishap and one of the parties either have to save the situation, by diverting attention from the event or call out what has just happened and explain the situation.

A short anecdote may serve to illustrate this. One of the first people I got to know during my stay in Damascus always ended our telephone conversations by asking me if I wanted something (biddak ši?). I found this a bit odd, as if I was a costumer in his shop, and in my confusion typically answered something like “no, thanks” (lā, sukran). There was always something awkward about these exchanges. It was only later that I discovered that this was a formulaic phrase and that I was supposed to answer “your wellbeing” (salāmtak). When I tried this the first time I could proudly confirm that the conversation ended smoothly and that I had arisen to the occasion as a well functional social human being.

This formula (– biddak ši? – salāmtak) is only one of the couple of dozens or so phrases and responses that are in common use. Keeping track of all of them can be a daunting task for the language learner. A trick I figured out was that the response aḷḷa yixallīk ‘May God keep you safe’ is an acceptable response in most situations, even if there is another response that is more suited for that situation (cf. Stewart 1996:162)

Many formulaic responses include a repetition of the root of the main word in the phrase that it is a response to, producing a kind of wordplay.1 This means that often the same response is used for several different initial phrases that all include words with the same root. For example, to all of the phrases yislam īdēk ‘thanks’, sallim ʿala  X ‘give my regard to X’, and trūḥ u-tarjaʿ bi-salāma ‘may you leave and return in peace’, all including a word with the root SLM, the appropriate response is aḷḷa yisallimak ‘May God preserve you’. (See Ferguson 1997 and Stewart 1996 for further discussion.)


The following list includes politeness formulae as used by speakers from the Damascus area. The phrases are sorted under headings indicating the situation in which the initiator phrase is used. I have only included phrases that I have heard in use, and the list thus may have a bias to situations where a non-Arab male may find himself. The list is thus by no means complete, but I do believe it includes the most common phrases. Native speaker informants were consulted in a few cases where I was not certain of the form of the formula.

The phrases are given in Arabic script and then in EALL transcription (Reichmut 2006) as pronounced in Damascene Arabic. The translations provided are fairly literal. Many of the expressions have no or only partial equivalents in English anyways, and the humorous effects of literal translation was sometimes hard to resist. Each phrase is followed by its appropriate response. Some are followed by brief comments.

Note that the Arabic text is the wrong way around relative to the reading direction, with the initial phrase to the left and its response to the right.

Forward slash indicates alternative responses.

Parentheses indicate optional extensions to responses.

Square brackets indicate clarifications in the translation.

Greetings

General greetings

   
السلام عليكم وعليكم سلام (ورحمة الله وبركاته)
as-salāmu ʿalaykum wa-ʿalaykum salām (wa-raḥmatu allāhi wa-barakātuh)
Peace be upon you And upon you peace (and God’s greace and his blessings)

Islamic greeting signalling high degree of formality or allegiance to Islam. The pronoun -kum (2mpl) is invariable in the phrase and in its response.

   
مرحبا أهلاً / مرحبتين / مية مرحبا / يا هلا
marḥaba ahlan / marḥabatēn / mīt marḥaba / hi
Hello Hello / Two marḥabas / a hunderd marḥabas / hi

To someone who just woke up

   
صح النوم صح بدنك
ṣaḥḥ an-nōm ṣaḥḥ badanak
May the sleep be healing May your body be healed

Greeting before noon

   
صباح الخير صباح النور
ṣabāḥ al-xēr ṣabāḥ an-nūr / ṣabāḥ al-full
Morning of fortune Morning of light / Morning of rose

Xēr does not easily lend itself to translation. Wehr, the standard Arabic-English lexicon, translates it as “good thing, blessing; wealth, property; — good, benefit, interest, advantage; welfare; charity.”

Greeting after noon

   
مساء الخير مساء النور
masāʾ al-xēr masāʾ an-nūr
Evening of fortune Evening of light

Welcoming

أهلا وسهلا أهلاً فيك / أهلين
ahla wa-sahla ahlan fīk / ahlēn
Welcome Welcome to you / Two welcomes

Also general filler in silences in the conversation.

   
نوّرتو بوجودكم
nawwartu bi-wujūdkum
You have enlightened With your presence

When being introduced to someone

   
تشرّفنا يزيدك الشرف
tašarrafna yazīdak aš-šaraf
We are honored May he increase your honor

Parting

General goodbye

   
مع سلامة الله معك
maʿa salāma aḷḷa maʿak
With peace May God be with you
   
بدك شي؟ (ما بدي إلا) سلامتك
biddak ši? (mā biddi illa) salāmtak
Do you want something? (I don’t want anything but) your wellbeing

Said before the actual goodbye to signal the end of the conversation.

Parting before sleep

   
تصبح على خير وانت بخير / وانت من أهله
tuṣbiḥ ʿala xēr w-inta bi-xēr / min ahlu / min ahl il-xēr
Wake up in fortune And you are well / of the its people / of the people of fortune

Parting from someone you have met for the first time

   
فرصة سعيدة وأنا أسعد
furṣa saʿīda u-ʾana asʿad
Happy occasion And I am happier

Special occasions

Good wishes on annual holiday

   
عيد مبارك الله يبارك فيك
ʿīd mubārak aḷḷa yibārik fīk
Blessed festival May God bless you
   
كل عام وانت بخير وانت بخير
kull ʿām w-anta bi-xēr w-anta bi-xēr
May you be well all year And may you be well

To someone in grief (at funeral (ʿaza))

   
العواض بسلامتك الله يسلمك
al-ʿiwāḍ bi-salāmtak aḷḷa yisallimak
May you be compensated with well-beeing May God preserve you
   
العمر إلك تعيش
al-ʿumr illak tʿīš
The lifetime to you May you live

To someone departing on a journey

   
تروح وترجع بسلامة الله يسلمك
trūḥ u-tarjaʾ bi-salāma aḷḷah yisallimak
Leave and return in peace May God preserve you

To someone returning from a journey

   
الحمد لله على السلامة الله يسلمك
al-ḥamdu li-llāh ʿala s-salāma aḷḷa yisallimak
God be praised for your wellbeing May God preserve you

Not so special occasions

Thanking

   
يسلم إيديك الله يسلمك / وإيديك
yislam īdēk aḷḷa yisallimak / wa-īdēk
May [God] preserve your hands May God preserve you / And your hands

To someone who has cut their hair, shaved, or have had a shower or bath

   
نعيماً الله ينعم عليك
naʿīman aḷḷa yinʿam ʿalēk
Gracefully May God bestow grace upon you.

To someone who has performed the prayer (ṣalāt)

   
تقبل الله مني ومنك
taqabbal aḷḷa minni u-minnak
May God accept From me and from you

Asking someone to be patient or to calm down

   
صلي عالنبي الله يصلي عالنبي
ṣalli ʿa-n-nabi aḷḷa yiṣalli ʿa-n-nabi
Pray for the Prophet May God pray for the Prophet

Asking someone to pass a greeting

   
سلّم على فلان الله يسلّمك / بيوصل / صار عنده
sallim ʿala X aḷḷa yisallimak / byūṣal / ṣār ʿindu
Give my regars X May God preserve you / It will arrive / He got it

To host after finishing meal

   
دايما صحة
dāyima ṣaḥḥa
[May you] always [have food] [I wish you] Health

To someone who is or will be eating or drinking

   
صحة / صحتين على قلبك
ṣaḥḥa / ṣaḥḥatēn ʿala ʾalbak
Health / Two healths On your heart

ṣaḥḥa is also used to politely decline drink or food offered to you.

To someone who is working or exerting themselves

   
الله يعطيك العافية الله يعافيك
aḷḷa yaʿṭīk al-ʿāfiya aḷḷa yiʿāfīk
May God give you vigor May God invogorate you

To someone who has acquired an item (as a gift or through purchase)

   
مبروك الله يبارك فيك
mabrūk aḷḷa yibārik fīk
Blessed May God bless you

On hearing of the addressee’s ill health

   
سلامتك الله يسلمك
salamtak aḷḷa yisallimak
Your health May God preserve you

On hearing that the addressee has children

   
الله يخليلك إياهم الله يخليك
aḷḷa yixallī-lak iyyāhum aḷḷa yixallīk
May God preserve them for you May God keep you safe

References

Ferguson, Charles A. 1997 [1967]. “Root-echo responses in Syrian Arabic politeness formulas.” In Structuralist Studies in Arabic Linguistics: Charles A. Ferguson’s Papers, 1954-1994, edited by R. Kirk Belnap and Niloofar Haeri, 198–205. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Reichmuth, Philipp. 2006. “Transcription.” In Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics, edited by C. H. M. Versteegh, 4:146–56. Leiden: Brill.

Stewart, Devin J., 1996. “Root echo-responses in Egyptian Arabic politeness formulae.” In Understanding Arabic: Essays in Contemporary Arabic Linguistics in Honor of El-Said Badawi, edited by Alaa Elgibali, 157–80. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.

— 1997. “Impoliteness formulae: the cognate curse in Egyptian Arabic.” Journal of Semitic Studies, 42(2), 327–360.

  1. There are also formulaic impolite responses to common phrases that work in this way. For a fascinating and entertaining description of such responses in Egyptian Arabic, see Stewart (1997).