How to say hello

Eric Kendall, 23 April, 2018
In a country where footpaths often begin in one linguistic region and end in another, it can be tricky to know how to greet your fellow travellers. Our Swiss expert Eric Kendall has the answer...

Try walking from Engstlensee to Planplatten on one of the busiest days of the summer and you will discover three things:
• the mountains around Meiringen are stunning
• you are walking in the opposite direction to the majority (but it’s better this way – trust us, we’ve tried both)
• there are many ways to say ‘hallo’ in Switzerland

Part of the charm of getting even slightly off the beaten track around here is that locals often outnumber foreign tourists. But remember that entering into the spirit of things is mandatory in Switzerland, including greeting every single person who comes in the opposite direction. Ideally, you’ll make eye contact at the same time, though you shouldn’t risk falling off the edge of the path to do so; there are limits, even with the Swiss.

Having walked the route on what might have been the busiest day of the year, I think I’ve used up all my ‘Grüezis’, not just for a day but for a lifetime. This apparently basic Swiss greeting is actually rather complicated. You can say hallo more or less formally, depending on the look of the person coming at you. And you can say it in either singular or plural form, which is where it gets confusing. ‘Grüezi mittenand’  is a formal hallo to more than one person (although it simply means ‘hallo together’). So if there’s just one person coming the other way, use the singular: ‘Grüezi!'. Or informally you might say ‘Sali’, or ‘Sali-zsamme’ in the plural.

So far, so good. But you will hear many more variations, including what sounds like ‘Grüess-accchhhh’, with the emphasis on the second syllable, as if you’ve half swallowed a fly and are attempting to remedy the situation. This is plural – a version of the German ‘Grüss-Euch’; the singular would be ‘Grüss-Dich’ which on the face of it would seem to mean ‘greetings to you’ but is in fact a contraction of ‘Grüss Dich Gott’, more commonly expressed elsewhere in the Alps as ‘Grüss Gott!’.

This in turn is apparently confusing to northern Germans who assume it to be the imperative ‘Greet God!’, earning a sarcastic ‘if I see him’, or ‘I hope not too soon’, where in fact it is a contraction of a phrase meaning ‘may God greet you’. In the German of the middle ages, the word ‘greet’ also meant ‘to bless’, so essentially this greeting was an exchange of blessings from one traveller to another.

Of course, in these more heathen times, ‘Hallo ’, ‘Hoi ’, ‘Guten Tag ’, ‘Tag wohl ’ and a few others will also do. I find a brisk ‘Wotcher!’ draws admiring – if baffled – glances and neatly sidesteps the occasional issue in Switzerland of walking a path which starts in one linguistic region of the country and ends in another…

Further information

From the Eiger to the Matterhorn
Salutations aside, Switzerland's iconic mountain landscapes are a joy to explore. Our two-week walking holiday from Meiringen to Zermatt leads you along high-mountain passes, past glacial lakes and deep into forested valleys, bringing a real sense of fulfilment.
More about about our self-guided walking holidays in Switzerland >
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