What’s What with Old English Hwæt
Students of Old English are apt to equate hwā with ‘who,’ and hwæt with ‘what.’ But this is an oversimplification. Hwæt can correspond not only to ‘what’ but also to ‘who.’
As an equivalent to ModE ‘who,’ hwæt is used to refer to a definite antecedent, while hwā is used to refer to an indefinite one. This usage survived into Early ModE, and a couple of passages from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet will be helpful in clarifying the distinction. As the guests leave the Capulets’ party, Juliet points out various individuals who are leaving and asks after their identity:
Juliet. Come hither Nurse. What is yond gentleman?
Nurse. The son and heir of old Tiberio.
Juliet. What’s he that now is going out of door?
Nurse. Marry, that I think be young Petruchio.
Juliet. What’s he that follows here, that would not dance?
Nurse I know not.
Juliet. Go ask his name. (I.v.127-133)
“What is yond gentleman?” (= ModE ‘who is that gentleman?’) means as much as ‘I see that gentleman, but I do not know his identity and so would like to be enlightened about it.’ Contrast this with the following passage, wherein the Prince attempts to determine who is responsible for the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio:
Prince. Benvolio, who began this bloody fray?
Benvo. Tybalt, here slain, whom Romeo’s hand did slay. (III.i.153-154)
“Who began this bloody fray?” means as much as ‘can you point out to me which person started this fight? (I may or may not know his or her identity once it is made clear to me which person it is).’ If the Prince had not known who this murdering Tybalt was, he might have asked in turn ‘What is Tybalt?’ (= ‘Who is Tybalt?’), as Benvolio did (II.iv.18) and learnt that Tybalt was “more than Prince of Cats.” In short, ‘what’ here means ‘what is the identity of a given person?’ (definite antecedent), while ‘who’ means ‘which person?’ (indefinite antecedent).
This is wholly in agreement with OE usage. Compare the following:
Eala Dryhten, hwa is þin gelica? (Ps(P) 34.11) ‘O Lord, who is like unto thee? (Domine, quis similis tibi?), i.e., which person or entity, if any, can compare with you?
Hwa is þæt þe eall þa yfel … asecgan mæge? (Or 42.6) ‘Who is it that can describe all those ills?’ i.e., which person, if any, can describe all those ills?
Hwæt is þes ealda mann? … hit is an biscop se dyde mare yfel þonne god (BlHom 43.32) ‘Who is this old man? … he is a bishop who did more harm than good,’ i.e., tell me about this particular old man
Hwæt is se gewuldroda cyning? (Ps(P) 23.10) ‘who is this king of glory? (quis est iste rex gloriae?), i.e., tell me about this particular king.
A striking contrast is provided by the following two examples:
Ac hwa is ure Fæder? Se Ælmihtiga God (ÆCHom i.254.5) ‘But who is our Father? The almighty God,’ i.e., which person or entity is to be regarded as our (true) father?
Hwæt is se Fæder? Ælmihtig Scieppend, na geworht ne acenned (ÆCHom i.278.15) ‘Who is the Father? An almighty creator, neither made nor born,’ i.e., tell us about the nature of our Father.
The use of what to mean ‘who’ is still possible in certain contexts in ModE, in such questions as what are you, some kind of freak? or what am I to him? which clearly do not ask about which particular person is meant but rather inquire into a given person’s nature, function, character, or background.