I am no linguist but some of the discoveries about language in Africa that I stumble over seem fascinating to me. Perhaps in another lifetime, I would have made a linguist of sorts. My most recent discovery is that the Ugandans in my area, who speak two native tongues, Lusoga and Luganda, have no word for Hello.

As I travel to different tribal groups in Uganda in the future, I will be sure to ask how they say Hello to see if they too have no word for it. Now to be clear, they have most of the same phrases English uses to say Hello: How are you, Good morning, Good afternoon, the ever famous HowYU doin?, etc. Ugandans who speak these two very similar and often identical tribal languages of Lusoga and Luganda include most of these phrases in their language (well, maybe not that last one).

But while English speakers use these other phrases, they also have Hello for a simple greeting, and have even expanded that vocabulary by riffing off of it toward the informal: Hi, Hey, etc. English speakers also have a formal Hello in the use of Greetings. And as far as I know without extensive research, other Western languages have words for Hello: Hola in Spanish, Hallo and Sei gegrüßt (be greeted) in German. The French say Bonjour for Hello which technically means Good Day, a shortened form of Have a good day, but they also have the more informal Salut just for Hello or Hi.

So I find it odd that these two very common and widespread languages in Uganda have no basic word for Hello. In my ignorance, I was told early in my Ugandan odyssey that Kale (Okay) is used to greet one another, and so since 2011 I have greeted individuals and groups in this manner, thinking I was speaking good Luganda and blending into the culture so no one would notice I am a musungu. Only this week, finally, as the subject came up in conversation as we drove a long distance to reach our destination, I was chagrined to be told that this is not the correct way to say Hello.

My assistant, Alfred, who has been with me a year, said, “I wondered why you always greeted everyone this way.” And my friend Pastor Waisana agreed with him that it seemed odd to him also, and he has been with me since 2011. But did they tell me this useful information? No, they just observed and thought I was odd! Ouch! And apparently, so did everyone else along the way. Ouch again!

So now, as I quizzed them mercilessly to find out the correct way to greet people, I find all the normal phrases, but no word for the sole purpose of greeting someone. I have even checked in a Luganda-English dictionary and the closest I find are words like Kale, which I now know is only for responses to greetings but not for initiating a greeting. Others in this category are Wangi (roughly What?) , which they use to answer the telephone, but which can’t be used to initiate a greeting, oliotiya and mulymutiya for How are you to a single person or a group respectively. And then, of course, the wide range of phrases for different times of day, inquiries after your health, etc., just like English.

So I am confused. I have no way to say just plain Hello. I am nervous when I greet people now, and feel a little like I have regressed rather than progressed. How can a culture as friendly as the Ugandans have no word for Hello? Does this phenomenon have a cultural or anthropological significance? What does it mean to have no word that initiates a greeting and only has words that respond to a greeting. I’m sure some linguist or anthropologist out there has written a paper on this subject, and if so, would someone please send it my way?

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