A list of Syrian Arabic politeness formulae

May 28, 2017
Tags: syrian-arabic
Length: long

Update 2021-01-12 — Transcriptions sligthly modified to better reflect Syrian pronunciation of vowels.

Update 2020-03-15 — Correction: yizīdak aš-šaraf -> yizīdak šaraf. Removed: ʿīd mubārak (too formal).

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 a 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 automatically reply aḷḷa yinʿam ʿalēk. For a non-native speaker like myself, recognizing and learning these phrases can be challenging. I hope this post may be of some help for others in the same situation.


Not giving the proper response to a politeness phrase can often lead to awkward social situations, or it may simply be 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 is because you as a non-native speaker do not know the appropriate reply, is a social mishap. One of the parties then have to save the situation for example by diverting attention from the event or by calling 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 (beddak 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, šukran). 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 risen to the occasion as a well functional social human being.

This formula (– beddak 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

all including a word with the root SLM, the appropriate response is aḷḷa yisallemak ‘May God preserve you’, which also contains this root. (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 in the translation indicate clarifications.


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 signaling high degree of formality or also 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 en-nōm ṣaḥḥ badanak
May the sleep be healing May your body be healed

Greeting before noon

صباح الخير صباح النور
ṣabāḥ el-xēr ṣabāḥ en-nūr / ṣabāḥ el-full
Morning of fortune Morning of light / Morning of rose

Xēr does not easily lend itself to translation. Wehr (1994) translates it as “good thing, blessing; wealth, property; — good, benefit, interest, advantage; welfare; charity.”

Greeting after noon

مساء الخير مساء النور
masāʾ el-xēr masāʾ en-nūr
Evening of fortune Evening of light


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 شرف
tešarrafna yezīdak šaraf
We are honored May he increase your honor


General goodbye

مع سلامة الله معك
maʿa salāma aḷḷa maʿak
With peace May God be with you
بدك شي؟ (ما بدي إلا) سلامتك
beddak ši? (mā beddi 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
teṣbaḥ ʿala xēr w-enta be-xēr / min ahlu / min ahl el-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

كل عام وانت بخير وانت بخير
kull ʿām w-enta be-xēr w-enta be-xēr
May you be well all year And may you be well

To someone in grief (at funeral (ʿaza))

العواض بسلامتك الله يسلمك
el-ʿewāḍ be-salāmtak aḷḷa yisallemak
May you be compensated with well-beeing May God preserve you
العمر إلك تعيش
el-ʿumr ellak tʿīš
The lifetime to you May you live

To someone departing on a journey

تروح وترجع بسلامة الله يسلمك
trūḥ u-terjaʾ be-salāma aḷḷah yisallemak
Leave and return in peace May God preserve you

To someone returning from a journey

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

Not so special occasions


يسلم إيديك الله يسلمك / وإيديك
yislam īdēk aḷḷa yisallemak / 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
sallem ʿala X aḷḷa yisallemak / 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 yibārek fīk
Blessed May God bless you

On hearing of the addressee’s ill health

سلامتك الله يسلمك
salamtak aḷḷa yisallemak
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


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.

Wehr, Hans. 1994. A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (Arabic-English). New York: Spoken Language Services.

  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).