“Tag Questions” in Old English


“Tag Questions” in Old English

A common construction in Modern English is the so-called tag question, i.e., a question to which a negative or alternatively an affirmative answer is expected. To form one of these questions with an expected negative response, a negated statement is simply followed by a short affirmative question repeating the subject and finite verb (or using do), thus, you’re not tagging me, are you? To form a question to which an affirmative answer is expected, one reverses the placement of the negative, thus you’re tagging me, aren’t you?

What were the equivalents of these in Old English? It is, in fact, fairly easy to identify the OE counterparts, thanks to the existence of a number of texts which are translations from Latin into OE. Here one looks at how the OE translator rendered Latin clauses containing the two interrogative particles numquid (negative response expected) and nonne (affirmative response expected).

Negative Response Expected

If a negative response was expected, the speaker of OE would place, at the beginning of a positive direct question, the short clause cwi(t)st þū (lit., ‘say you’), or cweðe gē (lit. ‘say you’), or cweðe wē (lit. ‘say we’). (The verbs wēnan ‘to expect, to ween’ and secgan ‘to say’ could be used instead of cweðan as well, but for brevity’s sake, I give examples only with the latter verb.) These are essentially questions with the sense ‘are you (or we) really saying or claiming that such-and-such is the case? (I think not).’ Thus you’re not tagging me, are you? becomes literally are you saying, are you tagging me?

Cwist þu, eart þu of þisses leorningcnihtum? (J 18.17) ‘you are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ (numquid et tu ex discipulis es?), lit. ‘are you saying, are you of this one’s disciples?’
Cweðe ge, is he Crist? (J 4.29) ‘he is not Christ, is he?’ (Numquid ipse est Christus?), lit. ‘are you saying, is he Christ?’
Þa menigu ealle wundrodon and cwædon, “Cweðe we, is þes Dauides sunu?” (Mt 12.23) ‘all the crowds were amazed and said, “he is not the son of David, is he?’” (numquid hic est Filius David?), lit. ‘…are we saying, is this David’s son?’

As these examples show, the choice of the pronoun depended on who was addressed: cwi(t)st þū when addressing a single person, cweðe gē when addressing more than one person, and cweðe wē when addressing a group of which the speaker was part.

The clause following cwi(t)st þū, etc. could also appear as an indirect question (often with the subjunctive) introduced by the subordinators þæt ‘that’ or hwæðer ‘whether (or not).’ Thus you’re not tagging me, are you? can also be literally are you saying that (or ‘whether or not’) you are tagging me?

Hie andswarodon and cwædon to him, “Cwist þu þæt þu sie Galileisc? … nan witega ne cymð fram Galilea” (J 7.52) ‘they answered and said to him, “You are not from Galilee, are you? … no prophet will come from Galilee”’ (numquid et tu Galilaeus es?), lit. ‘… are you saying that you be Galilean? …’
Ge Tharsisce ceastergewaran, cweðe ge þæt ic Apollonius eow dyde æfre ænigne unþanc? (ApT 50.6) ‘I, Apollonius, have never shown any ingratitude to you Tarsians, have I?’ lit. ‘you Tarsian townsfolk, are you saying that I Apollonius ever showed you any ingratitude?’
Cweðe we hwæðer þa ealdras ongieten þæt þis is Crist? (J 7.26) ‘the authorities do not recognize that he is Christ, do they?’ (numquid vere cognoverunt principes quia hic est Christus?), lit. ‘are we saying whether (or not) the authorities might recognize that this is Christ?’
Þa cwæð Iudas, þe hine belæwde, “Cwist þu, lareow, hwæðer ic hit sie?” (Mt 26.25) ‘then said Judas, who had betrayed him, “Rabbi, it is not me, is it?” (numquid ego sum, rabbi?), lit. ‘… are you saying, Rabbi, whether (or not) I be it?’

Affirmative Response Expected

If an affirmative response was expected, the speaker of OE would place, at the beginning of a negated direct question, the interrogative pronoun / exclamatory particle (with or without the emphasizing / emotive particle ). Thus, you’re tagging me, aren’t you? becomes literally how, are you not tagging me? (It is unclear whether is to be analysed here as an interrogative pronoun or as an exclamatory particle; I have assumed the latter.)

Hlaford, hu, ne seowe þu god sæd on þinum æcere? ‘Master, you have sown good seed in your field, have you not?’ (Mt 13.27) (nonne bonum semen seminasti in agro tuo?), lit. ‘Master, how, did you not sow good seed in your field?’
Hu, ne hæfð he sawle? (Solil 16.9) ‘he has a soul, does he not?’ lit. ‘how, has he not a soul?’

(The spelling in all of the OE examples given above has been normalized.)