How the Heck Are You? (In Gothic)


How the Heck Are You? (In Gothic)

The equivalent of Modern English ‘how are you?’ or ‘how are you doing?’ is not extant for Gothic, but it can be reconstructed with a fair degree of certitude based on comparanda from the other early Germanic languages. In Old English, the verb magan (> ModE ‘may’) ‘to be able to, can’ was also used intransitively to mean ‘to be strong, to have power or influence, to prevail’ and figured in questions and statements about a person’s well-being: e.g. “Hu mæg he?” Hig cwædon þæt he wel mihte (Ælfric Gen. xxix) ‘“How is he?” They said that he was well’ (cited in Bosworth-Toller 1964: 665). The same goes for the Old Norse cognate mega, which has roughly the same semantic field as OE magan (and typically appears modified here by the adverbs vel ‘well’ or illa / lítt ‘ill / a little’): “Hversu mátti Þorleifr?” – “Vel mátti hann” (Sturl. i.89) ‘“How was Þorleifr [when you left him]?” – “He was well”’ (cited in Cleasby-Vigfusson 1962: 420). The situation is more or less identical with the Old High German cognate (ga)magan and its later reflex (again commonly modified with an adverb meaning ‘well, ill,’ or the like): cf. the Early NHG daz sich unser herr der kunig wider nider gelegt hat und daz er gar ubel mag (Deutsche Städtechronik 1.156.16) ‘that our lord the King has lain down again and that he is quite unwell’ (cited in the Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch, ‘mögen’). It would appear then that the use of the reflex of Proto-Germanic *mugana in expressions of well-being was a Proto-Germanic inheritance. And so, what is the likely equivalent in Gothic, if one assumes that the same usage was present there as well? As a question, one would expect *hwaiwa magt? (‘how are you?’ sing.), and as possible answers *waila mag (‘I’m well / fine’) or *ubilaba mag (‘I’m not well / not fine’). If Gothic followed similar word-order principles as OE and ON, which seems very likely, then the adverb would presumably be shifted leftwards here, as in the OE and ON examples and as shown in the reconstructions, given that the wellness or unwellness (i.e., the ‘rheme’ here) would naturally be highlighted in the answer, cf. ModE ‘well he is.’


Bosworth, J. & T.N. Toller. 1964. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford: OUP.
Cleasby, R. & G. Vigfusson. 1962. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: OUP.
Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm auf CD-ROM und im Internet.

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