Health, trees, and beauty – the origins of the Finnish words for “hello” | News

“Hei”, “terve” and “päivää” – in Finland, greetings come in various forms, drawing inspiration from neighbouring cultures and even more distant sources.

While the meanings and origins of most greetings are relatively clear, the etymology of one of the most common ones, “moi”, has long remained a mystery.

However, researchers have now managed to trace the roots of “moi”, according to Santeri Junttila, a linguist from the University of Eastern Finland. According to Junttila, it was used in trade between medieval Hanseatic cities in the 1300s and 1400s.

“The greeting ‘moi’ takes us back to Low German, which in the late Middle Ages was the common language of merchants and towns in the Baltic region. In the Middle Ages, most documents were written in Sassisch or Low German, even in Finland too. It was only in modern times that Swedish replaced it as the official language,” Junttila explains.

Low German is a different language from German and its dialects are still spoken in northern Germany and in some places in the Netherlands. Locals of those regions also still actively use the word ’moi’, or a colloquialized version of it.

“When I boarded a train in Hamburg one time, a passenger sat down next to me and greeted me with a cheerful ‘moin’,” Junttila says.

Previously, researchers had assumed that ‘moi’ had its origins in the German word ‘Morgen,’ meaning ‘good morning’.

However, it is now understood that ‘moi’ entered the Finnish language through the Low German adaptation of the original Dutch word ‘mooi,’ meaning or conveying something ‘beautiful’.

“So, the intention behind ‘moi’ was to wish for good and beautiful things. While the Dutch and Low German still use ‘moin’ to greet people, here in Finland we dropped the case suffix ‘-n’ for some reason. It’s funny to think that people in Finland have been saying ‘moi’ since the Middle Ages,” Junttila adds.

Origins of Finnish greetings also tied to health, integrity, wholeness

Another commonly used Finnish language greeting with an interesting backstory is the word “terve“.

In Finnish, “terve” means “health”, but there may also be a connection to the Finnish word “terva”, which translates to “tar”.

“[Finns] sometimes called a healthy, old person a tar pit. Tar keeps the tree healthy, and tar has also been used as medicine for a long time,” Junttila explains.

The term “terva” is a loanword originating from the Baltic or Scandinavian regions and dates back 1,000 to 2,000 years. In the Scandinavian and Baltic languages, this word denoted “tar”, as exemplified by the Swedish “tjära” and Lithuanian “derva”.

These words share a common root, originally signifying “tree”.

It is also possible that the term found its way into the Finnish language from the East. For instance, in Russian, the word здоровый (pronounced zdoroovyi), originating from the word for “tree,” also signifies “healthy”.

In any event, Junttila says, the term “terve” is rooted in tar and trees.

Siperianlehtikuusen ruskaväritys.

Many terms of greeting originate from words in different languages for “tree”. Image: Elina Ervasti / Yle

Meanwhile, the word “hei” is evidently borrowed from Swedish, where “hej” is still in use.

It is derived from a word also denoting health and belongs to the same linguistic family as Swedish “hel”, German “heil” and English “health”, all conveying the concepts of health, integrity or wholeness,” Junttila notes.

However, contrary to the assumption that there is a connection between ‘moi’ and ‘moro,’ the two are unrelated.

‘Moro’ finds its origins in the Swedish word “morgon”, initially meaning “good morning”.

“I believe the word’s spread is linked to the growth of the city of Tampere during the industrialization of the 19th century,” Junttila adds.

The greetings “moron” and “morjensta” also stem from the word “morgon”, just like the greeting “moro”.

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