The loanword mei(j)u in Finnic languages.
The Finnic people have a custom to bring home birch saplings and green branches for spring/summer festivities, especially for Midsummer Day. In Finland and Karelia Midsummer celebrations required that young birches (juhannuskoivut) be placed in the yard and on either side of the steps to the front door. In Northern Karelia and in some places in Finland birch boughs have been used to decorate the living room as well. In some homes fresh leaves were scattered over the floor and under the bed (SMSA; Vuorela 1979: 270).
The Estonian tradition of bringing home birches mainly associates with Midsummer Day (St. John's Day) or Whitsun (Pentecost). Single reports also mention Ascension Day. The saplings were mostly placed in dwelling-rooms, especially at bedheads, less frequently in outbuildings, but the yard, eaves and the village green also got their share of the decorations. In some places people would even stick birch twigs in their cabbage bed or, as in Setumaa, in the grave mounds. Besides birches, bird cherry branches and spring flowers could be used or even junipers in the Isles of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa (EMSUKA; ERK III 210-211, 220-221, 330-331; http://www.folklore.ee/Berta/).
The custom of bringing home birch saplings dates back to pre-Christian times, and it was primarily found within the nations of Germanic Europe when celebrating the beginning of summer. The original semantic context of the rite is unknown, although it has been speculated that it had some importance in the Germanic paganism. Later, when many folk holidays were redefined as Christian ones, Midsummer Day was dedicated to St. John (Finnish juhannus etc., Estonian jaanipaev). As a result, the old customs were still practised, but their original meaning gradually fell into oblivion. The Whitsun custom of decorating homes and churches with green branches, called meien (pl.) etc. in Low German, is believed to have become general in Germany in the 11th century. Apart from that, in many places, Estonia included, young men would bring a birch sapling under a girl's window or behind her door as a sign of liking (Schiller, Lubben 1877: 57; ERK III 221; IV 48-49).
Medieval Europe used to celebrate the beginning of summer either on May Day Eve, the first Sunday of May, Whitsun (Pentecost), or Midsummer Day round the may-tree (or maypole, Germ. Maibaum). A dictionary of modern German presents the entry Maie and the following explanation: "junger Baum, bes. junge Birke oder Birkenzweige, die am ersten Mai, zu Frulingsfesten oder Pfingsten als Festschmuck dienen" (WbDG 2425).
The Finnic peoples usually did not make a maypole, but the Swedes living in Finland and Estonia are known to have erected decorated poles for Midsummer festivities, called maj-stang, missammarstang etc. in Finland-Swedish dialects, and mitswma-stak, mitswmar-stong, mitswmas-stong in Estonian Swedish dialects, cf. Sw. maj-, majastapg, midsommar stang (Danell 1951: 272; Isberg 1970: 205; OFSF IV 320, 385-386, 494, SAOB s.v. midsom-mar(s)stang).
The mei-stemmed names of holiday birches in Finnic dialects
Although the tradition of bringing home birches was common throughout in Finland and Estonia, a special mei-stemmed name for the holiday birch or bouquet of twigs was used in a small area only. In Finnish, meiju is used in the dialects spoken in southern and south-western Hame and also in some places of Kymenlaakso and Varsinaissuomi dialect areas, while meiju and/or moiju have been reported from Laihia dialect in southern Ostrobothnian and from some dialects of western Satakunta. The reported meaning is 'birch sapling or a leafy branch of birch (also of rowan, bird cherry or some other deciduous tree), or a bouquet of twigs or flowers brought home for Midsummer'. There are also compounds juhannus-, juhan(n)i-, juhanin\meiju (< juhannus 'St. John's Day') and meiju\koivu (koivu 'birch') (SMS 5: 295, 299; SMSA; SKES 339; SSA 2: 156-157). Verbs such as meijuttaa, moijyttaa, moijata meaning 'decorate with birches or branches' and meijustaa 'fetch holiday birches or green branches' are much less frequently found in dialect usage than the nouns (SMSA). The dictionary of modern Finnish published in 1954 contains meiju with the label "dialectal", meaning 'leafy branch, Midsummer birch' (NS 3: 425). The word cannot be found in newer dictionaries of standard Finnish (e.g. PS; SESS; SSRS).
The Finnish meiju made its first appearance in 1551, in the Bible translated by Micael Agricola: Caunistacat site Juhla meijnlehdille 'decorate this holiday with meijn-', where there is believed to be a spelling error of meijn-pro meiju- (Jussila 1998: 157; SSA 2: 156). In Lonnrot's Finnish-Swedish dictionary (1958 : 1050) we find meiju explained in Swedish as ungt loftrad helgdagslof 'young deciduous tree as holiday decoration'. As part of Midsummer celebrations, the Finnish people occasionally built a temporary bower outside, which they called meijumaja or lehtimaja (< 'leaf' + 'house'). The last mentioned term is also used in the Finnish-language version of the Bible as equivalent to the German Laubhutte.
As to the recently leafed young birch or branch brought home for holiday in Estonia it has been called meig in Saaremaa, mei in Muhu and Reigi, and meiu in some other patois (Jamaja, Reigi, Martna, Juri). The genitive singular form from all the nouns is meiu and nominative plural meiud. A diminutive form with kene-suffix has been reported from Keila subdialect: Meiukestest tehti luud, paar kolm tukki pandi uhte 'A besom was made of the meiu-branches, bundling two or three twigs together'. The birches brought home for Midsummer Day have occasionally been called jaanimeiud (< Jaan cf. John). Pentecost has sometimes also been called kasepuhad 'birch holidays' or meiud (ERK III 209). The verb meiutama, with a factitive suffix, meaning 'decorate with birches' has been used in Muhu patois, e.g. Juaniba piab aa meiutama 'St. John's should be decorated with birches'; asemed meiutati aa 'beds used to be decorated with birches'. In the Island dialect of Estonian the month of May is called meiukuu (< kuu 'month') (EMSUKA; ERK IV 48). The dictionaries of modern standard Estonian present the words meig (gen. meiu, part. meigu) and meiukuu (EKSS 3: 386, 388; OS 533). The Estonian standard of the early 20th century uses the nouns mei and meiu 'tree with young leaves, especially birch, as symbol of health and fertility', meiukuu 'May, the month of leafing out', the verb meiutama 'decorate with meiu-s' and the deverbal noun meiutus (EOS I 486). Records of the 17thcentury Estonian contain Meijkuu (also Meykuh) together with the vernacular equivalents nellipoha kuu and Suij kuu (? < Est. suistekuu 'Whitsun month') denoting the month of May, and the German Meye (Pfingstmeyen) for Whitsun birches (Goseken 1660: 79, 294 and "Erratis Gravioribus"). The Estonian-German dictionary by F. J. Wiedemann gives mei from the Island dialect with German explanation as Maie, Maibirke, meiukuu = Maimonat, and, in a separate entry, maius g maiuse, maiuseku from Parnumaa (Wiedemann 1973: 566, 593).
In Livonian the holiday birch etc. is called mei, pl. meijod (Sjogren 1861 : 61; LW 219). The following example represents Ire (Mazirbe) subdialect: i'l' su'is-pivad puskantob va'aridi un tubidi meijodoks 'for Whitsun (Pentecost), the gates and rooms are decorated with mei-branches ' (LW 368). Although Livonian has a borrowed term mai (ku) (< Latv. maijs, dial. mai < Germ.) for the month of May, in older usage we find vernacular compound nouns such as su'izzi-pivat-ku (Piza) 'literally Pentecost month' and li'edot ku or led! ku 'literally month of leaves' (Sjogren 1861: 277; LW 192, 215, 368).
The Finnish meiju has been attested as a Swedish loanword: < Sw. maj ' leafy branch', FSw. dial. maijor, moijor (pl. tant.). The Swedish noun as well as the verb maja, maje erect maypoles, adorn with leafy branches has been borrowed from (Middle) Low German < LGerm. mei, meije, verb meijen id. (Ojansuu 1918: 53; Hellquist 1922: 449; SKES 339; SSA 2: 156-157). In Finland, the words are mainly used in the neighbourhood of Swedish-speaking areas.
Swedish dialects have many phonetic variants from maj-, mai-, mej- or moj-stem meaning 'leafy branches placed next to stairs, doors and windows by Midsummer Day'. The associated verbs are maja and moja 'to place birches, erect maytrees' (OFSF IV 366, 494; SAOB, s.v. maj, maja; SSA 2: 156-157). A comparison of the phonetic shapes and areal distribution of the Finnish and Finland-Swedish dialect words reveals that the Finnish dialect of Hame and the Finland-Swedish dialect of Nyland share the -ei- diphthong in the stem (Fin. meiju, Sw. dial. meijo pl. meijar). The Ostrobothnian dialect of Finland-Swedish uses -oi- like in moij, moijo, moja, etc., pl. moijar. This is close to the Finnish dialect form moiju used in Laihia and Western Satakunta. The variant meiju may have spread in Satakunta either on the example of the Swedish maj- stemmed word, in which a is pronounced more like e, or on that of the Finnish meiju.
The Livonian mei, meij, meijoz 'holiday birch, leafy branch', must have been borrowed either directly from the Low-German word or as mediated by Latvian (Sjogren 1861: 61; LW 219; Suhonen 1973: 157). Latvians are also known to have brought home birches for Whitsunday and Midsummer Day. Both the noun and the verb have been used in Latvian: meija '(usually pl.) green birch bough or a bouquet of twigs used to decorate house and yard' < LGerm. mei 'ein gruner Birkenzweig, welcher im Fruhling zur Ausschmuckung der Hauser dient'; meijat, meijet, meijuot 'decorate with meija' < LGerm. meijen 'Maijen schneiden' (ME II 591; Sehwers 1918: 124; 1953: 78). The nouns such as meij/a 'holiday birch', the diminutive meijina and the verb meijat 'deliver and lodge holiday birches' have been recorded from the Ergeme dialect of Latvian (EIV 2: 290).
The current Estonian name mai of the month of May is not vernacular (see e.g. ERK III 150-151; Vahtre 1991: 26; Viires 1993: 79-80). It has been regarded either as a German < Germ. Mai (EEW 1484), Swedish < Sw. maj (Wiklund 1915: 9, 15-16) or Low German loanword (Liin 1968: 304; SKES 339). According to the Estonian etymological dictionary the Estonian word meig, mei(u) denoting a holiday birch has its source in the Low German word mei, meige 'May' (EES 279). It seems likely, though, that originally the source word used to stand for a holiday birch. According to the several earlier publications the Estonian meig has been borrowed from a Low German word meaning 'young birch; green bough brought home for a holiday' (see Hupel 1818: 139; Ariste 1937: 136; Liin 1968: 304; SKES 339; EEW 1524). As the Estonian nominative form mei does not anticipate meiu as the genitive form Paul Ariste has suggested that the -u imparts a diminutive nuance.
Considering, on the one hand, the phonetic shape and areal distribution of the Estonian words in question and, on the other hand, the lexical usage of the neighbouring peoples as well as the traditional areas of linguistic influence, the Estonian terms could possibly have been borrowed from different sources. The great number of the phonetic shapes of the word recorded from Low German and Early High German suggests that the borrowing might occurred from different word shapes. The meig of Saaremaa is obviously a loan from a Low-German word meaning 'holiday birch'. According to Julius Magiste the consonant -g could have been introduced in the strong-grade forms due to analogy, cf. e.g. Est peig gen. peiu (EEW 1524). It seems more likely, though, that the variant with -g was also borrowed from Low German dialect usage, cf. LGerm. mei(ge), meygh (Grimm, Grimm 12: 1474; Schiller, Lubben 1877: 57). Notably, the Baltic Germans often used between front vowels the sound j instead of g. As immigrants arrived in the Baltics from several Low German areas, some of them probably used g, while some others used j (see e.g. Ariste 1972: 94). The meiu of the Northern Estonian coast seems likely to originate from Finland-Swedish or Finnish dialects spoken in the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland. For the terms used in the Isle of Hiiumaa and in Laanemaa the immediate source of borrowing is difficult to ascertain, but here too a Swedish background would be expectable.
Relations between the Low German words for 'May' and 'May tree'
As can be concluded from the above the Finnic dialect names for holiday birch originate in Low German words denoting the concepts of 'May' and 'holiday birch (or other herbal decorations)'. The last mentioned category covers young trees (birch, beech, spruce), green boughs and saplings brought in for the festivities as well as bouquets or wreaths made of herbs or flowers. The spelling of the noun in Low German (and Middle Low German) texts varies: meie, meije, meye, mey, meygh, meige, meyge, maig, maie, maye (Grimm, Grimm 12 : 1473-1475; Weinhold 1869: 50; Gutzeit 1887: 228-229; Schiller, Lubben 1877: 57). The terms for holiday birches etc. have been believed to originate in the name of the month of May, based on the argument that young leaves and other fresh plants are "Erzeugnis des Mais" 'product of May' (Grimm, Grimm 12: 1475, http://woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB/maie). Part of the equivalents given to the Low German words in etymological dictionaries are month names: Germ. Mai, Sw. and Dan. maj, Nor. mai, Eng. may, Fr. mai etc., while the other group consists of nouns for holiday-birches and green boughs for adornment': Germ. Maie, Dan. maj, Fr. maie, It. majo etc. The origin of both groups is associated with the Latin month name Maius (Hellquist 1922: 449; Kluge 2002: 454; NR III 6; SAOB, s.v. MAJ; Sehwers 1953: 78). Besides the noun the Germanic languages as well as Latvian display a verb of the same stem: Germ. maien, Sw. maja (dial. meja, moja, maja), Dan. and Nor. maie (Old Dan. maje), Latv. meijat (Hellquist 1922: 449; ME II 591; SAOB, s.v. MAJA). The verb is also considered a Low German loanword. According to August Lubben the Low German verb meien means 'Eintritt des Sommers feiern; sich (im Freien) erlustigen' (Lubben 1993 : 223).
Although the month name and the terms for holiday-birches are phonetically close, their mutual relations are unclear. Earlier the Low German words have been used both with a masculine and a feminine article. In the 16th-18th centuries the masculine article became fixed to the month name: ein maie, whereas the feminine article became a feature of the noun for holiday birch etc.: eine meye (meie, maie, maye) (Kluge 2002: 454-455). In Grimms' dictionary the sense 'holiday birch etc.' of the entry maie has been divided into four subsenses: (1) tree, usually birch, in places also beech, spruce etc., (2) (usually pl.) green (birch) branches as room decoration, (3) bouquet or wreath, (4) sapling (usually birch) (Grimm, Grimm 12: 1475, http://woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB/). As we can see, three of the subsenses refer to a tree or part of it, while only one refers to herbs (most of the examples come from southern Germany).
The phonetic equivalents of the month name mai are rare in medieval German sources, mainly occurring in poetic usage (Gutzeit 1887: 229). According to Karl Weinhold's study "Die deutschen Monatnamen" the oldest German calendars date from the 16th-17th centuries, but the Low German month name mei first appears in a 15th-century Latin-German dictionary (Weinhold 1869: 8--9). The earlier folk calendar of the Germanic peoples was based on natural conditions, while church dates were added a little later (Weinhold 1869: 18-19). The term mey has also been used to refer to a longer period of time, covering the whole spring: mey = Fruling: de beghynnet in sunte Peters daghe, de summer in sunte Urbans daghe (today from February 22 to May 25). The month was specified with the compound word meiman (meimaen, meimane, meigman) 'May + month'. Sometimes the name may has been used for two calendar months: der erst may 'May', der ander may (ander meie, ander meige) 'June' (Weinhold 1869: 50). A. Lubben distinguishes between three senses of mei, meig: 1. 'der Monat Mai; Fruhling; fig. Blute, Flor.'; 2. 'Maifest'; 3. m.d. Pl. meige, meigen 'gruner Festzweig, Reis von Birken etc. zum Schmuck der Kirchen u. Hauser in den riden das Maifest feiern' (Lubben 1993 : 223).
It has been considered questionable just why a tree, esp. birch (in places rarely also some other trees) should have been called the "product of May". Spring, after all, is the time when all herbs sprout, most flowers bloom and all deciduous trees leaf out. Moreover, plants differ in the northern and southern regions of the German language area, depending on natural conditions (see e.g. Gutzeit 1887: 228). Could it be that a mei-stemmed word was once used to refer to a tree, especially a young birch? In some North German dialects maie (LGerm. meie) really functioned as the general term for birch (betula), but its origin is associated with a word for holiday birch (ALE 1986: 93, map 24). In Grimms' dictionary the Latin equivalent for the German compound word birkenmeie is betula 'birch' and the German birkmai is translated as ramus betulaceus 'birch branch' (Grimm, Grimm 2: 39). In northern Germany birch wood has been called maienwald (Grimm, Grimm 12: 1480). It deserves mention that the dialect word maie as a common name for 'birch' has been recorded from the former East Low German area of Sachsen-Anhalt (LGerm.: Sassen-Anhalt). This is namely the same region where Martin Luther's two home towns (the so-called Lutherstadten) Eisleben and Wittemberg are situated. Hence it is possible that the noun meie meaning 'birch' has spread in the area as mediated by M. Luther's translation of the Bible. In the opposite case, i.e. if M. Luther had used a birch name known from his home dialect in his Low-German translation of the Bible, the association of the word with the month name would be somewhat surprising.
Semantic equivalents of meiju in Finnic dialects
Most Finnic dialects do not have a special term for the holiday birch, branches or bouquet. The entities are referred to by common names for tree and branch and words denoting birch (seldom some other tree). If specification is necessary, compounds are made up, using the term for Midsummer Day as the first component. The most common Finnish term for the holiday birch is juhannus-, juhannes-, juhan(n)i- or juhan(n)in\koivu, in the dialects of Varsinaissuomi and South Satakunta juhannuskaski (SMS 5: 298). Often the branches of various other trees brought home for Midsummer have also been termed as juhannuskoivu 'St. John's birch', but other words can also be found in the position of the second component of the compound, e.g. juhannus- orjohaneslkuusi (kuusi 'fir tree'), juhannuslpuu (puu 'tree'), in Hame we find juhannusllimo or just limo, liimake 'young deciduous tree; branch with young leaves' and juhannusllehdet (lehdet 'leaves'), -lehdekset or -lehdot (SMS 5: 175, 299; SMSA). In south-eastern Finnish dialects there are a couple of examples of mehe-stemmed nouns referring to holiday birch: mehheine, mehes etc (SMSA). The same noun may occur as part of a compound, e.g. juhannusmehet (SMS 5: 299). In south-eastern Finland and in Karelia a mehestemmed word was used in a wider sense, denoting 'moisture, moist; juice, juicy' etc., and when applying to plants it could also mean 'green, fresh, vigorous' (KKS 3: 286-287; NS 3: 422-423; SMSA; SSA 2: 156). The leaves and herbs scattered across the floor for St. John's Day were called juhannus\heina and juhannus\ruoho (heina, ruoho 'grass') (SMS 5: 297, 299).
Also in Estonian instead of the loanword meiud the name for 'birch' (usually pl.) is mainly used: in the North-Estonian area the noun is kask, pl. kased, sometimes also jaanikased 'St. John's birches' (EMSUKA). The South-Estonian equivalents for meiud: koiv, koev, koju, pl. koivu, koevo, koo etc. mean also 'birch' and 'birches' (EMS IV 222). Thus, the above nouns are common names denoting fresh birches or some other green trees or boughs, becoming a full synonym of meiju/meiu when supplemented with a first component meaning St. John's Day. The Finnish words mehekset (pl.), limo, koivu, puu etc. and the Estonian kased (pl.) etc. may mean the same only in the right context.
In a couple of Estonian subdialects meiu has a synonym neiu, which normally means 'maid; girl'. The plural form neiud, neiuksed (neioksed) has been used for holiday birches in some places of the Western dialect area and its neighbourhood (EMSUKA). Hence the name of neiude puhad 'literally girls' feast' used for Pentecost. The singular form occurs only in the compound word neiukask 'Midsummer birch' recorded from Vigala (EMSUKA). This is probably folk etymology. The loanword meiud was replaced by neiud as a phonetically similar familiar word, in turn producing such phrases as neiude puhad and neiukask and the diminutive derivative neiuksed (neiu + suffix -ke(ne), pl. -k(e)sed). However, the name of the holiday may also have been associated with the ancient custom of bringing the girls the so-called love birches on Midsummer Eve (see Tedre 1973: 15). Reportedly, in some subdialects the leafy spring/summer symbols have been called neitsid 'virgin; maid' (ERK III 220). There is, however, no such material in the Estonian dialect archive.
In some Finnish, Estonian and Livonian subdialects the birches brought home for Whitsunday and Midsummer (St John's) Day are referred to by a special term, a noun mostly occurring in plural: Fin. meiju (pl. -t), Est. meiu (pl. -d), Liv. mei (pl. meijod) etc.
The uses of verbs of the same stem are relatively rare: Fin. dial. meijuttaa, moijyttaa, moijata, Est. meiutama 'decorate with birches or branches' and Fin. meijustaa 'bring birches and branches for holiday'. The dialect words with a relevant stem occur along a narrow strip of land in the western part of the Finnic area and near the Gulf of Finland. Low German loanwords with a similar stem and meaning are used in the neighbouring Swedish and Latvian speaking areas.
Finnish has borrowed the originally Low German word from Swedish, with considerable help of the Swedish dialects spoken in Finland. Livonian material contains both a direct Low German loan and a word shape obviously mediated by Latvian. Opinions differ as to the etymology of the Estonian words in question. Considering, on the one hand, the phonetic shapes of the loanwords and their areal distribution in Estonian dialects, and on the other hand, the lexical usage of the dialects of neighbouring languages as well as the traditional areas of linguistic influence, Estonian can have borrowed the words from two directions. Namely, the meig of Saaremaa is obviously a Low German loanword, cf. LGerm. meige, meygh 'holiday birch', whereas the meiu (pl. -d) used in the northern Estonian coast could easily have been borrowed from Swedish or Finnish dialects, cf. meiju. The variants used in the Isle of Hiiumaa and in Laanemaa in western Estonia, their immediate source could have been Swedish as well as Low German.
In most Finnic dialects there is no special term for the birches and branches procured for holiday decorations. Instead, common names for birch (rarely for some other tree) and green branches such as Fin. koivu, puu, limo, (pl.) mehekset etc. and Est. (pl.) kased, koevu, koo 'birches' etc. were used, and if necessary, specified with a first component marking Midsummer Day. In some places in the Estonian mainland holiday birches have been called neiud or neiuk(e)sed, possibly based on a folk-etymological interpretation of the loanword meiud.
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Institute of the Estonian Language
VILJA OJA (Tallinn)
* The study was funded from ETF9367.
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