Word! The Language Column “Servus” and “Salam”

The more we greet one another the better, exhorts our new columnist Hasnain Kazim. Different greetings are used in various parts of Germany, but they always signal respect and kindness – which we can never get enough of.

By Hasnain Kazim

Illustration: Person, hand raised in greeting Words of greeting often say something about the cultural background of the greeters themselves | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank
Ein herzliches Gott zum Gruße! Greetings, my dear readers! You should greet people when you meet them or begin a conversation. At any rate, that’s what we were taught as kids. “Say, ‘Guten Tag’” was an oft annoying but nonetheless appropriate commandment. And this column is, after all, a sort of meeting  between you and me. A greeting is a sign of respect, showing that you are aware of another’s immediate presence and recognize that person as your equal. 

“Moin”

Folks in Northern Germany, where I’m from, say “Moin!” Which is kind of funny because in Pakistan and India, where my parents are from, Moin is a given name. People in the Friesland district sometimes say, “Moin moin!” Which reminds me of an old joke about taciturn North Germans: 
 
Moin!” says one North German to another. 
Moin moin!” the other replies.
“Chatterbox!” says the first.
 
What’s also funny is that Moin-Moin happens to be the name of a Nigerian dish of beans, onions and chilli, so Mahlzeit! Enjoy your meal! By the way “Mahlzeit!” (lit. “meal-time”, but used to mean simply “a meal”) is actually a greeting, often used at lunchtime at building sites and in civil service cafeterias, and a remarkable one at that, seeing as expressions like “Schlafenszeit!” (bedtime), “Aufstehenszeit!” (time to get up), “Zähneputzenszeit!” (time to brush your teeth) and “Verdauungszeit!” (time to digest your food) haven’t caught on as greetings in German.
 
Moin”, on the other hand, is used at any hour of the day or night in Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Bremen and northern Lower Saxony. For years I, too, erroneously assumed that it’s a contracted or even diminutive form of “Morgen” in the phrase “Guten Morgen” (Good morning). Not true! Moin, according to the Duden dictionary, is from the Middle Low German moi(e), meaning beautiful, pleasant, good.
 
Words of greeting often say something about the cultural background of the greeters themselves. Someone who says “Moin!” is most likely a Fischkopp (lit. "fish head", i.e. someone from Germany’s northern coastal region). But this greeting has caught on far from the coast as well. Someone who says “Grüß Gott!”, on the other hand, most likely has a connection with southern Germany or Austria.

Religion? Doesn’t matter 

I have learned that even those who have no truck with God say “Grüß Gott” (God bless (you)) in Southern Germany. Saying “Grüss Gott” in Austria, on the other hand, outs you as a conservative: Social Democrats and lefties in general say “Guten Tag”, not “Grüss Gott”, a left-leaning neighbour of mine once informed me after I’d been greeting her with a cheerful and unsuspecting “Grüss Gott!” for years. But this greeting has as little to do with religiosity as “As-salamu alaikum” in Islamic societies, which simply means “Peace be upon you”, and to which the standard response is “Walaikum assalam” ("And peace be upon you"). Everyone says it in Pakistan, for example, even people who don’t care about religion or belong to a different faith. The exchange of greetings is often simply mumbled “Slaam” – “Waslaam”.
 
But if you greet people in Germany or Austria with the phrase “As-salamu alaikum”, they’ll automatically assume you’re Muslim, and some even that you’re an Islamist, which is an unfounded inference in most cases. Then again, people who use this greeting are likely to have an Islamic background of one kind or another. But what does that matter? It doesn’t.

From the heart

Even if this sounds like a retired schoolteacher’s sentiment, I wish we’d greet each other far more often – the way we used to! It’s an act of kindness, of which our world needs all it can get these days. There’s no need to make greeting an obligation, certainly not a legal one, as exists in Germany’s Armed Forces, which have very exacting rules on who is to salute whom, how, when and where – and where not: “The salute is not required if it would be hazardous or appears inappropriate under the given circumstances, especially when driving vehicles, on combat duty or in sanitary or leisure facilities.” A greeting, in other words the desire to say hello to someone, ought to come from the heart. Whatever the words.
 
And on that note: Namaste! Shalom!
 

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.