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. 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.
|وعليكم سلام (ورحمة الله وبركاته)
|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.
|أهلاً / مرحبتين / مية مرحبا / يا هلا
|ahlan / marḥabatēn / mīt marḥaba / hi
|Hello / Two marḥabas / a hunderd marḥabas / hi
To someone who just woke up
|May the sleep be healing
|May your body be healed
Greeting before noon
|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
|Evening of fortune
|Evening of light
|أهلاً فيك / أهلين
|ahlan fīk / ahlēn
|Welcome to you / Two welcomes
Also general filler in silences in the conversation.
|You have enlightened
|With your presence
When being introduced to someone
|We are honored
|May he increase your honor
|May God be with you
|(ما بدي إلا) سلامتك
|(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
|And I am happier
Good wishes on annual holiday
|كل عام وانت بخير
|kull ʿām w-enta be-xēr
|May you be well all year
|And may you be well
To someone in grief (at funeral (ʿaza))
|May you be compensated with well-beeing
|May God preserve you
|The lifetime to you
|May you live
To someone departing on a journey
|تروح وترجع بسلامة
|trūḥ u-terjaʾ be-salāma
|Leave and return in peace
|May God preserve you
To someone returning from a journey
|الحمد لله على السلامة
|el-ḥamdu li-llāh ʿala s-salāma
|God be praised for your wellbeing
|May God preserve you
Not so special occasions
|الله يسلمك / وإيديك
|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
|الله ينعم عليك
|aḷḷa yinʿam ʿalēk
|May God bestow grace upon you.
To someone who has performed the prayer (ṣalāt)
|May God accept
|From me and from you
Asking someone to be patient or to calm down
|الله يصلي عالنبي
|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
|[May you] always [have food]
|[I wish you] Health
To someone who is or will be eating or drinking
|صحة / صحتين
|ṣaḥḥa / ṣaḥḥatēn
|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
|aḷḷa yaʿṭīk al-ʿāfiya
|May God give you vigor
|May God invogorate you
To someone who has acquired an item (as a gift or through purchase)
|الله يبارك فيك
|aḷḷa yibārek fīk
|May God bless you
On hearing of the addressee’s ill health
|May God preserve you
On hearing that the addressee has children
|الله يخليلك إياهم
|aḷḷa yixallī-lak iyyāhum
|May God preserve them for you
|May God keep you safe
Ferguson, Charles A. 1997 . “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.