Since childhood, Transylvanian Romanians hear the word “servus” being used among families and friends as a greeting form. Moreover, in the same Transylvanian ambiance, anyone can quickly find that, in slightly modified forms, this term is used by Hungarians and Germans (Swabs), as many (just few) as we still have around here.

The word is, without a doubt, Latin and can be translated in Romanian as “slave”, with variations such as “serf” (inherited in Romanian from the Latinservus, -i, of 2nd declination), “bondsman”, “slave” etc. At its origins, the modern word “servus” is an eclipse (remain of an expression, obtained by suppressing some words that are not indispensable for obtaining the wanted meaning) of the expression Ego servustuussum! Which means “I’m your servant!”, in the way of “I’m at your service!”, “I’m ready to serve you!” etc. The expression was used in the roman antiquity, in the Roman Empire (definitely in the provinces of Dacia, Moesia and other Danubian provinces), as a curtesi formula, among elites (patriciate especially, but not only) and it has to be connected to another one, which is Servus humillimus! Translated literary as “I’m the most humble slave!” or “I’m the overly obedient servant!” or “Overly humble servant!”. This greeting was then used only between men and only from inferior to superior.

                It’s been thought by some that this salute comes to us directly from Latin and that there’s continuity in its usage from antique times up till the modern era and, implicitly till today. That is not the case, because in the Romanian’s case, by the natural evolution of the language, “servus” became “serf”! Such a performance was succeeded – from all the roman nations – only by Italians, through the citizens of the Veneto region, that have the well-known “ciao!” salute, inherited from the old Latin “sclavus” (synonym with “servus”). “Sclavus” from “sclavo” became in Venetian “sciavo”, then “sciao” and finally “ciao”. But the greeting formula “servus” – which theoretically could’ve been inherited, in adapted ways, in the Romanic languages – got lost at the end of the antiquity era and hasn’t been currently used in the Middle Ages. Only in the Renaissance was it rediscovered and resurrected, but not through Romanic nations but through nobles and German sages. In the Germanic world of the 16nth and 17nth centuries, powerfully influenced by the ideas of humanism, there was a tendency to revive antiquity and even mimic it (it happened almost everywhere at the end of the occidental middleages). The first ones were the scholars that graduated university, which struggled to sometimes talk with each other in Latin or at least exchange some words in the language of Cicero and Caesar, starting with the salute. The German nobles – especially those of the Catholic German states in the south and especially in the Austrian provinces – have then learned, wishing to behave like romans, to salute with Servustuus! meaning “I’m your servant!”From them (Austrians and Germans) the fashion rapidly flew to the neighbor nobles, that the habit quickly penetrated the Czech and Slovak elites, Slovenian, Croatian, Polish, Hungarian, Romanian (from Transylvania), and Ruthenian (from western Ukraine). In other words, this polite form of greeting from among the superior classes, although coming from romans and the Latin language, reached us through Germans and the German language. It should be noted that even though it’s found in so many languages, the original form of the Latin word was kept, in a writing manner, only in German and Romanian – “servus”, In Polish is “serwus”, in Hungarian “szervusz” etc. The Hungarian (absurd) choices are also “szevos” or “szia” which, although similar but derivate forms from Romanian (“serbus”, “sevos” or “serus”), should be avoided. Also, in Hungarian, a new form was recently reached, which is “szervusztok”, which is a plural and means “greeting to all of you” so, to a Latin word (of Latin form) they added a Hungarian termination, which is not precisely recommended, but the live languages don’t take into consideration grammar rules!

           Regarding this salute form we can find some other common mistakes. The most frequent one refers to the belief of some that it comes from the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but this two-headed state existed in history for 51 years, between 1867 and 1918. Another mismatch with the truth is the belief that this salute comes from the Hungarian nobles, from where Romanian later copied it. But, as we’ve seen, the greeting comes from Austria and southern Germany   (Bavaria), taken from Latin in the religious noble environments, intellectuals and then spread throughout Central Europe and Oriental-Central Europe, in Czech and Poland, but also in the former countries of the Holy Crown of Hungary (Croatia, Slovakia, Transylvania, Banat, Partium, Galicia etc.) The Hungarian nobles were quite heterogeneous as origin and some of them were – as amply demonstrated in the last decades – of Romanian origins. They, the Romanian nobles, knew the cultured Latin and used Latin letters in writing, with the Cyrillic ones. In other words, among the Transylvanian nobles that took the habit in the 17-18-19th century (concomitant with some Hungarian ethnics), there were definitely Romanians also. Under the influence of the Latinism practiced by the Transylvanian School and the belief that they were the only true descendants of the romans in the area, took the tradition further with even more tenacity and conviction, in such manner that in the Modern Era, all the inhabitants of Transylvania – from a certain cultural and economic level up – greeted each other with “Servus!”

            So, greeting with “servus” is profoundly Transylvanian and of Cluj, taking to consideration the fact that the “Treasure City” was, in the Modern Era, the capital of Transylvania and a concentration spot for the intellectual values of the country. The 20th century Cluj – by will of the majority, along with all of Transylvania, Banat, Crisana and Maramures, integral part of Romania – carries further the good traditions of the province, it’s openness to the world, towards tolerance, dialogue and understanding. Through “servus” the citizens of Cluj encourage guests from everywhere to not feel embarrassed, to feel at home, because they will be handed the best of what the host has to give, as the unwritten laws of hospitality require. That’s why “servus” is part not only of our common European history, but also of the civilization we’ve built and that we carry further together, here. By “servus” we open our hearts and show ourselves to the world with a certain courtesy, with availability and dignity, as it ought to be.


Cluj, 14 March 2014

Acad. Prof. univ. dr. Ioan-Aurel Pop

Rector at „Babeș-Bolyai” University of Cluj-Napoca

Photo source: www.ubbcluj.ro