When learning a new language, we first learn how to greet people since our interactions with others usually start with a greeting. In texts, emails, on the phone, and in-person, we start with “hello,” which is common across all languages, including Spanish.
In Spanish, the correct way to greet people is with the word hola, whether it be in a formal or informal setting, Hola means hello, but the “h” is silent, so we say /ola/. In fact, the word ola in Spanish actually means wave. But that’s not all — if you are learning Portuguese, the correct expression for hello is olá.
So, to answer which is correct: hola or ola, really depends on the language you are speaking and the context in which you want to use these words. This article will take a closer look at the expressions hola and ola and their uses.
What Is the Difference between Hola and Ola?
Let’s get back to our question and understand the difference between hola and ola.
The Meaning of Hola in Spanish
Some scholars maintain that hola came to the shores of Spain with the Arabic Moors, who occupied Spain in 711 and stayed there until about 1609. The idea is that it’s a form of the Arab word Allah.
This occupation of Spain is why there are so many Arabic influences not only in the Spanish language but in the religion, farming methods, and architecture that are still evident today.
Others believe the Visigothic warriors brought the word hola when they invaded Spain. They say that it was a command for troops to stop.
So, a chieftain would raise his hand and shout hola! Locals probably took this as a greeting instead, and that’s where they derived the word.
Still, these theories remain mostly unproven, so the origin of the Spanish word hola is still a mystery.
Some linguists believe it is related to the Germanic expressions “hello” in English and “hallo” in German. It seems that there are also links to other European greetings, such as the Old High German halā, holā, or French holà (source).
One thing we are sure of is that hola means “hello” in Spanish with a few other languages that have also borrowed this word for a greeting — this includes English. You can actually use hola to greet people in Asturian, Catalan, Dutch, Esperanto, and Ido.
As for spelling, in Spanish, you spell the word H-O-L-A without any accent marks.
The confusion between hola and ola comes in the pronunciation of these words because you say them exactly the same!
Yes, in Spanish, the “h” is always silent. But just because we don’t pronounce the “h” in Spanish words doesn’t mean that this silent letter does not have a role to play in the words in which it appears.
The Handy H
Now the question is why there is an “h” in Spanish if we never actually pronounce it. Well, the reason is word history or etymology. Language is as old as the human race and has evolved a lot over time.
The ways we pronounce and write words have changed so much that you wouldn’t recognize them from a hundred years ago, nevermind a thousand.
In a nutshell, the Latin /f/ sound in the Romance languages changed to an /h/ sound as time went on. Then, at some point in late Roman history, they lost this use of the /h/ since none of the Romance languages use it that way today (source).
But even with the loss of the sound, the symbol or letter is still present, and there are specific reasons for that. Let’s take a closer look at the handy “h” in Spanish.
When “h” appears next to “c,” it creates a new sound, “ch,” which is the same as in English, like chocolate, chair, or change.
Here are some Spanish examples:
|Spanish word with “ch”||Pronunciation||English Translation|
|Chulo||choo-loh||Cute or cool|
|Chillar||chee-yahr||To cry / to scream|
An “h” at the start of certain words helps us to differentiate other words that sound the same — case in point, hola and ola. In this case, the “h” in hola helps us to understand the word “hello” instead of ola, which means “wave.”
This handy letter also helps vowels that appear next to each other. Often in Spanish, two vowels next to each other become one sound, so we can use the “h” to separate the sounds.
The same applies to words with two strong vowel sounds or double vowels that can make pronunciation difficult. “H” helps us to differentiate the sounds.
For example, without the “h,” we would pronounce vehículo (vehicle) bai-coo-loh instead of the correct bay-ee-coo-loh.
Or, in the case of albahaca (basil), it would only be natural to pronounce the two a’s in the middle of the word as one. The “h” is there to make sure we don’t do that.
So, even though we do not pronounce the letter “h” in Spanish words, we do see that it is not a wasted effort to write it. Now that we understand the dynamics around the word hola and why there is an “h” that no one pronounces, let’s look at the word ola.
The Meaning of Ola in Spanish
Ola is a word we find in many languages, but let’s examine the Spanish word word compared to hola.
The origin of ola is unknown, but there is speculation that it comes from the Latin undula, which means wavelet or, possibly, from hāla for surge (of the sea, waves) or fright (source).
In Spanish, we can use ola in three ways:
- Literally a wave on the surface of water or other liquid
- Figuratively for the sudden appearance of something big, i.e., ola de calor (heatwave)
- In the term “Mexican Wave”
Let’s try this word out in some examples to make the meaning clear.
- Las olas son demasiado grandes, no podemos surfear hoy.
(The waves are too big, we can’t surf today.)
- La segunda ola de la enfermedad fue la peor.
(The second wave of the disease was the worst.)
- La multitud apoyó al equipo con una ola*.
(The crowd supported the team with a Mexican Wave.)
*Mexican Wave can also be translated as ola de estadio or ola mexicana (source).
To summarize, the Spanish word ola refers to a wave, whether it is figurative or literal, and we spell the word O-L-A.
We also pronounce each letter as we see them. Because ola and hola sound the same when we say them, they are what we call homophones.
The only unanswered question is whether ola is a greeting or not. Let’s have a look at one of Spanish’s close cousins.
Is Ola a Greeting?
Portuguese and Spanish are both Romance languages with a common language ancestor. These two languages share about 89% lexical similarity, so there are many words that are similar.
Still, just because these two languages are close family members does not mean that they are the same. Your very first encounter with a Portuguese speaker will prove this in the way they greet you.
Let’s look at how greetings in Portuguese differ from some greetings in Spanish.
|Spanish Greeting||Portuguese Greeting||Translation|
|Buenos días||Bom dia||Good morning|
|Buenas tardes||Boa tarde||Good afternoon|
|Buenas noches||Boa noite||Good evening|
|¿Cómo está?||Como está? / Como vai?||How are you?|
|¿Cómo estás?||Tudo bem?||How are you?|
|¿Qué pasa?||E aí?||What’s up?|
|¿Aló?||Alô? / Está? / Estou sim?||Hello?|
As you can see, the Portuguese greeting olá has an acute accent mark on the “a,” so the spelling is different from the Spanish word ola (wave) because we do not have an accent mark.
Even though the words might seem the same, we pronounce them differently. Greetings in Portuguese stress the last syllable, and the Spanish word will have the stress on the first syllable. This is what that would look like:
How Do You Greet a Person in Spanish?
Romance languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, and French, use pronoun variations to address people formally or informally. The formality you use to address different people is part of the cultures of the language speakers.
It is important to understand the relevant structures so as not to offend people when speaking to them. Let’s look at the word “you.”
In English, we use “you” to speak to everyone and anyone: our parents, neighbors, children, friends, teachers, presidents, royalty, etc. It doesn’t matter who we are addressing; we only have the word “you.”
In Spanish, there are two words that mean “you”:
|Informal||tú||For friends or familyIf someone specifically gives you permission to address them informallyYour peers|
|Formal||usted||For people that are older than youAnyone in a position of authority|
For example, when you leave your friend’s house, you could say:
¡Que tú tengas un buen día! Have a nice day!
But, if you are leaving the office, you would say:
¡Que usted tenga un buen día! Have a nice day!
Formal and Informal Greetings
Understanding that there are different levels of formality in Spanish is essential because it is part of the Spanish and Latin American culture.
It is impossible to learn a language separately from the relevant culture because these two go hand-in-hand. You learn more about a culture when learning the language and vice versa.
This difference in culture is also why greetings are so important — remember, first impressions count for a lot! So, let’s look at how to greet people in Spanish.
In the list below, you can start with “hello” or “good morning” and combine them with any of the other expressions, depending on your situation.
|Buenos días||Formal||Good morning|
|Buenas tardes||Formal||Good afternoon|
|Buenas noches||Formal||Good evening|
|¿Cómo está?||Formal||How are you?|
|¿Cómo estás?||Informal||How are you?|
|¿Cómo están?||Both||How are you? (Plural)|
|¿Qué tal?||Informal||How’s it going?|
|¿Qué pasa?||Informal||What’s happening? / What’s up?|
|¿Qué hubo?||Informal||What happened?|
|Mi casa es su casa||Formal||Make yourself at home|
|Mi casa es tu casa||Informal||Make yourself at home|
|¿De dónde eres?||Informal||Where are you from?|
|¿De dónde es usted?||Formal||Where are you from?|
|¿Cómo te llamas?||Informal||What’s your name?|
|¿Cómo se llama?||Formal||What’s your name?|
|¿Adónde vas?||Informal||Where are you going?|
|¿Adónde va?||Formal||Where are you going?|
|¿Dónde has estado?||Informal||Where have you been?|
|¡Hace tiempo que no te veo!||Informal||It’s been a while since I’ve seen you!|
Looking at this list of expressions, for an old friend that you haven’t seen in ages, you can greet in this way:
¡Hola, hace tiempo que no te veo!
If you are welcoming your husband’s mother for a visit, it would be in your favor to greet her like this:
Hola Mama, bienvenidos — Mi casa es su casa.
As you can see from the examples above, you can use the greeting hola for both formal or informal conversations.
When we are speaking Spanish, hola and ola are both legitimate words. Asking which one is correct ultimately depends on the context in which you use the words. Hola means “hello,” and you can use this word to greet anyone in Spanish, in any Spanish country.
It is a well-known word, and you can use it in any situation, formal or informal.
Ola refers to a wave and is not a greeting in Spanish. It is, however, a greeting in Portuguese, but with a completely different way of saying it. So go ahead and greet the people around you!
Just remember the handy Spanish “h” when you are writing your greetings.