We have a number of set phrases in English which we use in a rather automatic and semi-obligatory way at particular times and in specific social situations – such as ‘good morning’ and ‘good evening’, ‘happy birthday’ and ‘happy new year’.
There are rules about how to use these formulae. We can say ‘good afternoon’ as a greeting at the appropriate time of day, but we can’t use ‘good night’ in the same way: this can only be uttered as a leave-taking phrase when going home at the end of the evening or heading off to bed. In Catalan, though, bona nit (‘good night’) can be employed as a greeting if you meet someone after dark.
English speakers do not seem to have so many formulaic expressions at their disposal as many other Europeans, and those we do have are probably more optional than in several other languages. One example is the not-very-optional French phrase bon appétit: some French speakers seem to be almost totally unable to start eating their meal until their hostess or some other appropriate person has uttered this phrase.
Many other languages have an equivalent expression which should be used at the beginning of a meal, and which can also be used to greet anyone you come across who happens to be eating. In Polish it’s smacznego, the Dutch equivalent is smakelijk, the Italian is buon appetito, in Spanish it’s buen provecho, and Swiss German speakers say en guete. In Greek, the equivalent is kalí óreksi – but if you come upon someone who’s just finished eating, you can still proffer them your good wishes by saying kalí xónepsi, ‘good digestion’!
In English we really have no equivalent to bon appétit – we just begin eating, or perhaps wait for some other person to start first. Some hosts do now say ‘Enjoy your meal’, but there’s no long-established tradition for this in British English.
Some Americans use the Yiddish-English expression ‘Enjoy!’, but for most British people that sounds ungrammatical because for us enjoy is a verb that requires an object: we wait to be told what it is that we are expected to enjoy.
There are many other potential ritualised greetings which we can see that English speakers miss out on if we compare English with, say, Greek or Turkish: these languages seem to have a quasi-compulsory formula, if not for every conceivable occasion, then at least for many occasions which we would not even conceive of as being occasions.
In Turkish, when somebody arrives, you are supposed to say hos geldiniz, ‘well you came’, and they are supposed to reply hos bulduk, ‘well we found you’. And when speaking to someone who is ill, you should say gecmis olsun, ‘may it be past’. In English we can also, of course, say ‘get well soon’, but the point is that we don’t have to, and there are many other things we could utter instead, like ‘hope to see you up and about before long’.
In Greek, it is very usual on the first day of every month to greet people by wishing them kalo mina, ‘good month’. On Mondays people may wish each other kalí vdomáda, ‘good week’. You can express the hope that a pregnant woman will have kalí lefteriá, ‘good freedom’; and you can even say to people who are about to go to sleep kaló ksiméroma, ‘good dawning’.
In Norwegian, it is really rather expected that when you meet up with somebody after having not seen them for a while, you should say takk for sist, ‘thank you for (the) last (time we were together)’. And you should certainly utter the phrase takk for maten, ‘thank you for the food’, when you leave the table after a meal.
If you are now going to carry on reading the rest of this week’s New European, then I wish you, as Greek speakers might, kalí synécheia, ‘good continuation’!
Peter Trudgill is professor emeritus of English linguistics at the Université de Fribourg/Universität Freiburg, Switzerland