The languages where you greet like pirates?

Greetings. Probably the second thing you learn in a new languages just after the swear words and profanities. Across Europe, you would hear something along the lines of “hello”, “hi”, “good day”, and the like. But there is this area in Europe that has a more, well, maritime-sounding greeting.

Meet the languages of Czech, Slovak, and Slovene. Mostly spoken in Czechia, Slovakia, and Slovenia respectively, they use a rather interesting greeting, in addition to the good old “dobrý den” (and its Slovak and Slovene counterparts). That is, ahoj.

You know, pronounced like “ahoy”, the word in English so often associated with pirate-speak. Being spoken in a region with rather limited coastline access, with Slovenia being the only country with mainly Slovene speakers having a coastline, and Czechia and Slovakia being landlocked, this definitely seems like a rather interesting anomaly.

The greeting ahoj finds its roots from the English word “ahoy”, which in turn derived from the Middle English greeting “hoy”, used sometime in the 14th century. This is a cognate with the “hi” we use today. But back to “ahoy”. As an interjection, “ahoy” is used to hail a ship, boat, or a person, or to attract attention. The first two cases suggest that this could be the source of a rather strong maritime or nautical association, eventually finding its way into pirate-speak in pop culture, and even Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

So, having an idea of its meaning and its brief history, begs the question, how did “ahoy” find its way into Czech, Slovak, and Slovene, countries that do not really carry a connotation of nautical history?

The issue is, when searching up the history behind this greeting in Czech, Slovak, and Slovene, there are not really much promising leads. Not even the Institute of the Czech Language could state how the greeting entered the Czech language, except its use in more informal settings (with dobrý den probably being more appropriate in formal contexts). In fact, the most boosted page which could, but not necessarily, lend credibility is an article published on expats.cz. With no concrete leads provided by the respective language institutes, it is time to dive into speculation, some which are mixed with some history, others, not so much.

One of these theories kind of reminds me of how the English word “goodbye” came to be, as a contraction of the phrase “God be with ye”. Although it does not really translate one for one in this theory, some have proposed that the word ahoj could have been a contraction, or more rather, an abbreviation of the Latin phrase ad honorem Jesu, or “in honour of Jesus”. While there are strong Christian associations with the region across history, having a greeting based off an abbreviation rather than a contraction makes this theory seem a bit too outlandish. Phonologically speaking, contractions are more likely to happen over time (and hence the words “goodbye”, or more recently, “imma”, short for “I am going to”) as compared to articulation of abbreviations (even though we say “lol” to mean “laugh out loud”, but that is another phenomenon altogether).

However, another theory proposed ties this with a more geographical justification. Just because Czechia and Slovakia are cut off from the Mediterranean or the North Sea does not necessarily mean these countries completely lack nautical capability. Rivers cross through these countries, like the Vltava in Czechia, and the Danube in Slovakia. With much economic dependence on such rivers to transport goods in and out of Bohemia, this could be where a nautical tradition could have originated and grown. With spatial limitations in navigating rivers, there could be a possibility that vessels, ships, rafts, and boats needed to alert one another on approaching vessels. This allowed the word ahoj to creep into regular use in Bohemia. And it stuck on, alongside dobrý den. But why it stuck on is not really quite known either.

Perhaps one interesting bit I found when reading up on this topic is how Alexander Graham Bell wanted greetings on phone calls to be “ahoy”, although it never really caught on. Who knows how the way we greet would have changed if it actually did.

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