Countries that Say Ciao

My German is incredibly elementary. I can say hello, goodbye, Apfel… and a few other basic words. So it took me aback when I heard people, in the course of normal ending of a conversation, saying “Cheers!”

Cheers? They say “Prost” in Germany…

Upon asking, I learned that people were actually saying “tschüs” or “tschüß.” This is a less formal way than “auf Wiedersehen” to say goodbye. And although it’s not also used to say “hello,” the cute and enthusiastic way people were saying it reminded me of the Italian “ciao.”

In the US, we only use it to mean “goodbye,” so I was very surprised when I learned it can be used as “hello” as well here in CZ, just like “ahoj.” I was also surprised to learn it was spelled čau. (Good old Czech, it’s written exactly as it sounds.)

Read also: How to Learn a Foreign Language: 24 Firsthand Tips

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With a little research, I learned that “ciao” has been adopted into the languages of at least 38 countries worldwide – and not just in Europe! In Germany, for example, it can be spelled ciao or tschau.

So how did this word become an international greeting?

Here’s a clue to the phrase’s fascinating origins from Wikipedia, emphasis mine:

The word derives from the Venetian phrase s-ciào vostro or s-ciào su literally meaning “I am your slave”. This greeting is [like] the medieval Latin Servus[, which] was not a literal statement of fact, but […] a promise of good will among friends (along the lines of “at your service” in English). The Venetian word for “slave”, s-ciào ([ˈstʃao]) or s-ciàvo, derives from Medieval Latin sclavus, deriving from the ethnic “Slavic”, since most of the slaves came from the Balkans.

This greeting was eventually shortened to ciào, lost all its servile connotations and came to be used as an informal salutation by speakers of all classes.

Whoa, that slave thing hits a lot closer to home than I’d ever imagined. Who knew the words “slave” and “Slav” shared a root? (It reminds me of how my study abroad teacher taught us the interesting root of the word “barbarian” – taken from the “barbar” sound of foreign speech Ancient Greeks couldn’t understand – when I was in Greece.)

Read also: Why Are You Really Here – in Czech Republic? 

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And how did the word spread so far abroad?

Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms (1929), which is set in northeast Italy during World War I, is credited with bringing the word into the English language.

That Hemingway. He really knew how to make an impression with language.

Lastly, “ciao” is not alone in the world or double-use greetings and farewells.

Its dual meaning of “hello” and “goodbye” makes it similar to shalom in Hebrew, salaam in Arabic, annyeong in Korean, and aloha in Hawaiian.

It’s interesting how well-known all these are, perhaps with the exception of Korean. Maybe such a unique linguistic feature doesn’t stay in obscurity for long. And it’s not a secret that Hebrew in particular is a passion of mine. I also plan to study Arabic and Korean somewhere in the blurry future 🙂

Read also: The Three Stages of Language Faux Pas

I simply love language – it’s an endless exploration of what makes us wonderfully different, and what we share in common as well. Plus, linguistic exchange is more fun than Sudoku to keep your brain active every day!


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