Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Ni Hao Ma" (你好吗) is not a native Chinese greeting

I keep hearing non-native Chinese speakers greet a native Chinese with a friendly "Ni Hao Ma?" (你好吗?). It's time to set this straight: "Ni Hao Ma" is not native Chinese. It sounds so artificial that a native speaker immediately envisions a foreigner speaking with a big smile but drifting tones. I'm not sure why this 3-character greeting is not used by the Chinese but mostly used by foreigners. I think it has to do with a direct translation of "How are you?" What else could be a better translation of this 3-word English phrase?

So what's the native Chinese greeting? It's a simple "Ni Hao!" (你好!). Why do the Chinese people not like to append a "Ma" (吗)? I don't know. Whoever invented "Ni Hao", perhaps during the Vernacular Chinese Movement a hundred years ago, probably didn't like to make this frequent greeting phrase any longer than necessary.

If you do need to ask the question as if saying How's your situation?, "Ni Hao Ma?" certainly makes sense. That is, this 3-character question is used in an inquiry, not greeting. But in that case, "Ni Hai Hao Ma?" (你还好吗?) or "Ni Zuijin Zenme Yang?" (你最近怎么样?) may be just as or even more common. Similarly, you ask the plural "you" with "Ni Men Hai Hao Ma?" (你们还好吗?) or "Ni Men Dou Hai Hao Ma?" (你们都还好吗?).

[2012-06 Update] A Taiwanese pointed out to me that "Ni Hao Ma?" is said among Taiwanese. I don't recall hearing them say that in a greeting; I can't imagine two native Chinese/Taiwanese walking toward each other and both saying "Ni Hao Ma?" to each other, shaking hands. But it may be because I haven't had enough greetings with them. If "Ni Hao Ma?" is more common among Taiwanese and "Ni Hao" more common among the mainlanders, again, in greeting, not inquiry, then this posting may be titled something like "Ni Hao Ma?" is not a native mainland Chinese greeting. (After all, there's not one single Chinese linguistic authority in the world, but as many as the number of regions where the majority of the population speak Chinese.)

[2013-05 Update] In case a reader is still confused, I'd like to briefly emphasize the main point: The single Chinese word "问候" has two meanings, greeting and inquiry. In the sense of greeting, "你好!" is the choice. In the sense of inquiry, "你好吗?" is a perfect question sentence. This short note is about greeting, as when two friends run into each other on the street and neither had any recent incident that would worry the other. Saying "你好吗?" as a greeting sounds foreign, or causes confusion or misunderstanding.

32 comments:

Malu Majestic said...

I can tell you: Ni Hao = Hello.
And: Ni Hao Ma = Hello, how are you?

So, I'm not a Chinese girl, but I've a friend, who's Chinese :)

Yong Huang said...

Malu, thanks for reading. I agree, "Ni Hao Ma" is equivalent to "How are you?" The gist of my blog posting, though, is that "Ni Hao Ma" is rarely said by native Chinese, even though it is grammatically correct and makes perfect sense.

Anonymous said...

If you want to know if it's ok you only say
"Hao ma"?

Yong Huang said...

To Anonymous: Yes, "Hao ma?" means "Is it OK?" But that's a completely different sentence, not in any way related to a greeting or an inquiry discussed here.

Anonymous said...

I will just enjoy my noodles.. lo mi

Mickey Mud Turtle said...

A native Taiwanese, whose native language was Mandarin, told me back around 1986 that "Ni Hao Ma" is a more polite version of "Ni Hao."

Yong Huang said...

To Mickey Mud Turtle, thanks for that comment. Generally, mainland Chinese consider Taiwanese more polite in speaking. Appending "Ma", the question marker, to a sentence adds a sense of non-intrusiveness. But do you happen to remember if your friend told you "Ni Hao Ma?" was used in an inquiry or a greeting?

Artemus-Earl Valencia said...

Ni ma! Leave the "hao" out of it, is the correct way. Gengki Deska.

Yong Huang said...

To Artemus-Earl Valencia: Are you sure "Ni ma!" is a proper greeting, or even a sentence? Any reference? Or in what context did you hear that?

Anonymous said...

Chinese is not a language. Mandarin or Cantonese are Chinese languages.

Anonymous said...

what do they say then???

Anonymous said...

Ni Hao!
Understood, but, what do you say if you want to add something like "how are you? or "How have you been?".
Cheers

Yong Huang said...

> what do you say if you want to add something
> like "how are you?" or "How have you been?"

An inquiry, as opposed to a greeting, can definitely be "你好吗?" But it may be more common to say "你最近还好吗?", "你还好吗?", "你最近怎么样?". A very formal "别来无恙?" (literally, "No ailment since we parted?") is an old equivalent.

Froggie said...

I was taught "Ni Hao Ma" by a Chinese woman in a Chinese culture and language class....so was the Chinese woman incorrect?

Yong Huang said...

To Froggie, since "问候" is a Chinese word that combines two distinct meanings, greeting and inquiry, I suspect that even a Chinese teacher subconsciously mixes the two and literally translates the English "How are you?" into "你好吗?" I would appreciate it if you could ask her if "你好!" is significantly more common in greeting so she'll make an effort in thinking over this distinction. (Imagine two native Chinese that run across in the hall way and say the first sentence to each other.) If she still thinks "你好吗?" is just as good or common as "你好!", then it may be a regional difference.

Jay said...

I was told by a chinese friend of mine that "Ni Hao" is just directed towards people of no relations whom you meet on the streets and "Ni Hao Ma" is directed towards relatives and close friends? Wanting to know how you've been "literally"?

Yong Huang said...

To Jay, your friend has an excellent observation. It comes down to the distinction between greeting ("Ni Hao!") and inquiry ("Ni Hao Ma?"). You care more about (the health and well-beings of) your family members or relatives more than say hello. But to people you barely know, you greet them with no intention to inquire about their health. There's no line that clearly separates them. But I would say, statistically, that distinction exists.

ScrewFearMe said...

If you know a little bit more about asian people you usually don't see them shaking hands as they walk past eachother, they will just bow to eachother after a greeting.

They will shake hands if its a relative or something like that but rarely do you see two asian strangers in asia shaking hands.

Just from my observation

Bernard Clabots said...

Hi, my Chinese guide explained to me that Ni Hao Ma was the logical response when someone you know tells you Ni Hao!

mizrahind said...

Tell me please if "ni mousee ma" have the same meaning and can be used in the same circumstances as it is "ni hau ma"? I mean, it can be a greeting and an inquiring?
Thank you!

Yong Huang said...

Hi mizrahind, by "ni mousee ma", I assume you mean “你没事吧?” (pronounced "ni3 mei2 shi4 ba" where the numbers denote tones). It's a very common way to inquire about somebody's situation after his possible involvement in an accident. It's definitely not a greeting.

If you mean “你没事吗?” ("ni3 mei2 shi4 ma", literally "You don't have matters?"), that doesn't sound right. But it could be used in a special case, as the parent tells the child, "You don't have anything to do? Look, you have lots of homework".

Anonymous said...

I am a Chinese guy, but I am not good in Chinese. So how to say "你好嗎" in Cantonese?

Yong Huang said...

To Anonymous: I'm not good at Cantonese. According to http://www.omniglot.com/language/phrases/cantonese.php and http://www.cantonese.sheik.co.uk/dictionary/words/14707/, the written words "你好嗎" are used in Cantonese just like in Mandarin, but with a different pronunciation.

But I guess your question really is, "If '你好嗎' is not a native Chinese or Cantonese greeting, then what *is* the native greeting?" I believe it is "你好", pronounced "néih hóu" in Cantonese. Reserve "你好嗎?" for inquiry only.

Jensen said...

I agree 'Ni hao ma?' sounds rather foreign. I am a native speaker from China but I never ever use it.
The fact that some native mainlanders greet others this way is an indication of the dynamics of the language: It may be the Chinese version of English 'How are you?'. It is also possible that the greeting has been in circulation in Chinese for ages, but the use is restricted to certain regions or a segments of population. This is an interesting issue that merits investigation.

Yong Huang said...

Well said, Jensen! It's indeed possible that "你好吗?" is a calque back translated from English.

Anonymous said...

'Ni hao ma' means "how are you?" 'Ni hao' is just hello. Ma makes it practically 'are you good?' Get it?

Anonymous said...

I live in the U.S. and have visited mainland China and Taiwan. If I'm meeting someone for the first time, I say "您好!" which is the polite version of "你好!“

In addition, I use "早!“ and "晚安!” when appropriate.

If I'm hosting an event, then I say ""歡迎!“

I agree that "你好嗎?” sounds awkward unless, of course, I was having a conversation and wanted to know how the person is doing.

Twenties girl from Taiwan said...

yeah,just like what you said,你好 or 你好嗎 sounds artificial!

I only say 你好(or您好) when I'm talking to my customer,superior or elders,generally the young people say 嗨(hi) or 哈囉(hello) instead of 你好.

Also,you could just say 早安(good morning),午安(good afternoon),晚安(good evening/good night) it's okay.

In my opinion,你好 is a little bit too formal,and 您好 is even more polite than 你好,so I don't use it anyway,it's too artificial for me.

Yong Huang said...

Anonymous and "Twenties girl from Taiwan": Thanks for confirming the use of 你好/您好 instead of 你好吗/您好吗 for greeting in Taiwan. That was something I was not very sure about.

Anonymous said...

also, could u use nin2 hao3? laoshi says thats being polite. is she right?

Anonymous said...

oh wait, i just saw the other comment. sorry, just got into chinese 1. xiexie!

Anonymous said...

I leanred to greet someone with 你好 and then ask 你好吗. All you are saying is that you should no use 你好吗 to greet someone, which is dumb anyway. You typically greet someone with hello not how are you right away...