Over appetizers of hummus and baba ghanoush in Riyadh, I asked two Chinese colleagues, “What’s the most frequently used word in Mandarin?” They were uncertain but ventured a couple of guesses. “No,” I disagreed, “but I know what it is.”
I’ve never looked at a Mandarin word corpus, nor have I ever researched the question at all. I’ve never even done a Google search. Nonetheless, I brashly affirm: The most frequently used word in Mandarin is:
If you mention the Mandarin language to an average Joe in the United States or Brazil, they’re likely to spew out, good-naturedly, the sum of their Mandarin mastery: “Ni hao!”
That’s as much as I knew when I began the Mandarin Experiment. But early on, as I watched movies and children’s shows, I quickly picked up that “ni” means “you” and “hao” means “good”. Therefore, I concluded, the greeting “Ni hao” developed similarly to the French, “Ça va?” or the Portuguese, “Tudo bem?”, rhetorical questions that are often used as greetings.
In movies, TV shows, and cartoons, I picked out one sound more than any other, and began to understand its real meaning. Its sounds like the word “how” in English, but, unintentionally, I eventually discovered the common spelling using the Roman alphabet: HAO.
Hao is more versatile than perhaps any word in the languages I know—English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French.
Hao means “good”, “great”, “fine,” “nice,” and “okay”, but can also be used with great flexibility to indicate agreement, appreciation, and admiration.
Hao can be used alongside many other words to express a variety of positive concepts. Below are a few uses that I have spontaneously deciphered from movies and TV shows.
I will write out the terms phonetically, not in pinyin, which I don’t study. I will also venture the pronunciation of each term, but I will do so from memory, and since I don’t take classes or have any feedback from actual Mandarin speakers, it’s probably all wrong. So have fun listening to my Mandarin, and if you are a Chinese speaker or student, you can tell me whether my crazy Mandarin Experiment is producing half-decent results. However, if you really want to learn proper pronunciation, pinyin, or Mandarin vocabulary, you’ll have to research it on your own.
|Hao||good, great, fine, nice, beautiful, wonderful; agreement, consent, appreciation, admiration|
|Ni hao||basic greeting; hello|
|Ni hao ma||How are you?|
|Tai hao||Really great|
|Hao pung(a)||Super duper|
|Hao ba hao||okay? (in the middle of an explanation)|
|Hao cher||delicious (good to eat)|
|Hao kan||pretty (good to see)|
|Hao ting||nice-sounding (good to hear)|
|Hao pung yo||good friend|
Additionally, hao can be used as an answer to a wide variety of commands and questions. It’s so versatile that I think you could practically get by in China as a laconic and agreeable person, just by answering hao to anything that anybody says. Here are a few examples.
- Somebody gives you a command (“Do this!”). You answer:
- Somebody gives you an explanation and you indicate that you have understood or agree by saying:
- Somebody asks you to do something. You agree:
- Someone asks you permission. You consent:
- Somebody shows you something beautiful or admirable. You express your appreciation:
- There is a tense situation and you need to calm someone down.
- Hao, hao, hao, hao, hao
The possibilities with HAO are endless!
And that is the Power of HAO.