“Hola” vs. “Bonjour” — What’s hidden in hello

You have to love the Spanish greeting, “Hola!”

Perhaps the most welcoming of all salutations, the uplift in tone when spoken invites an immediate smile. Friendly to a fault, it works at any time of day or night in near-endless contexts. You can use it with friends via text message or you can use it with strangers on the street — it’s not discerning enough to judge.

Best of all, hola betrays nothing about who you are or where you’re from. Its simple pronunciation gives everyone a fair shot for at least another phrase or two before reality sets in.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.”

“Could have fooled me with that, hola,” they might think.

You beam a little ray of sunshine back at them. “How flattering! For you to look to me as a potential fellow Spanish-speaker!”

For this, hola contrasts the most with its common French rival, Bonjour, a phrase that tends to bring about nothing by critique.

It’s easy to lose with bonjour. The harder you try to get it right, the further away you sound. By the time the “B” has emerged from your lips, you’re already doing it wrong. There’s no fooling anyone.

“You’re clearly not from around here.”

Now it’s just a question of how far from the geographic center will they guess. As a native English speaker taking on bonjour, the worst is to be pinned down from the get-go as American, an insinuation that runs deep with classic French contempt. A little better, maybe is an assumption that you’re British.

You might think being mistook as Canadian is a compliment in France, given that the two countries share a common language. You’d be wrong. To a French native, Canadian French is about as far from their native tongue as you can get. You’re better off going for a bit more “gruff” tonality and praying you’ll be thought of as German, maybe even Swiss.

The biggest compliment I ever received from a French person still sticks with me to this day: “Are you from Belgium?”

It took a decade’s worth of studies on French grammar, phonetics, and pronunciation to earn that compliment. I’ll never forget it. (It’d take a decade more to be placed within the confines of their country — and even then I’d likely start out South, where the twang still rings a little more harshly against Parisian ears.)

But back to hola — the kind, the courteous, the naive. It’s little wonder that hola is spoken more in countries with a natural grace and ease about them. In the tropics, for instance, where you’re always happy to visit, and where locals are always happy to have you.

It makes me wonder what the way we say hello shows about the broader cultural norms of any group of people. If hola is friendlier than bonjour, then where do these fall on the spectrum from the even simpler Icelandic greeting, “hæ” to the ever-more-complex Russian salutation, Zdravstvuj? In Italy, where ciao is both hello and goodbye, what might this show about their concept of arrivals and departures? Of time itself?

As the entry point to a new culture or community, the way we say “hello” has many invisible components, not the least of which is how it encourages native speakers to respond. There’s something to be said for having the most common greeting of any language be a word that’s relatively accessible for newcomers.

And for that, it doesn’t get much better than hola.

Originally published at Bethany Crystal.

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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