‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’ in Old English

‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’ in Old English

How did one greet a person in Old English? The equivalent of the expression good day (as well as good morning, good afternoon, etc.) is not found in the Old English corpus and almost certainly never existed. This greeting appears to have been modelled on the Medieval French counterpart and is not attested in English until the early fifteenth century according to the OED, a century after its first attestation in French. And so a *gōdne dæg, etc. was not an option (even though one repeatedly comes across this invented phrase on websites and in less scholarly handbooks purporting to instruct the reader in how to speak OE). Likewise, the expressions farewell and good-bye are later innovations, the former attested only from the fourteenth century, and the latter from the sixteenth century (a corruption of God be with you). At the figurative level, OE faran wel meant mainly ‘to get on, to do well, to fare well.’ A look into the Dictionary of Old English reveals, moreover, that the interjections ēalā and hig were not used to mean ‘hello,’ as is sometimes claimed again in less scholarly sources.


The all-purpose greeting in OE uttered upon meeting consisted of the imperative (or subjunctive) form of the verb ‘to be’ + an adjective meaning ‘whole, healthy, safe.’ Thus, the expression was literally ‘be whole / healthy / safe.’ And so it is that Ælfric in his Grammar glosses the Latin greetings ave / salve (singular) with bēo gesund (‘be healthy / safe’), and avete / salvete (plural) with bēoð gesunde. Instead of gesund (> ModE sound), one could also use the adjective hāl (> ModE whole), both largely synonymous, thus, bēo hāl (sg.) and bēoð hāle (pl.). In the non-West Saxon dialects — or rather, in texts that are thought to reflect non-West Saxon usage — the verbal forms wes (sg.) / wesað (pl.) are mainly preferred, thus, wes hāl (sg.) and wesað hāle (pl.). Indeed, the forms wes / wesað do not appear to have been used in late West Saxon generally (Hogg & Fulk 2011: §6.149). If a subjunctive form is used, then one would have sīe / bēo hāl (sg.), for example. As with imperatives broadly, a subject personal pronoun could also be used here, presumably to stress the addressee, and was typically placed directly after the imperative verb, e.g., bēo þū gesund (lit. ‘you (sg.) be healthy / safe!’). And in the plural, the forms wesað and bēoð may be reduced to wese and bēo respectively when immediately before a subject pronoun, e.g., wese gē hāle. Here a few examples drawn directly from the corpus showing some permutations:

‘Aue’ and ‘salue’ habbað imperativum, and hie sind gretingword: ‘aue’ oððe ‘salue’ (‘beo gesund’) et pluraliter ‘aue, saluete’ (‘beoð gesunde) (ÆGram 209.14) ‘ave and salve are imperatives, and they are salutations: ave or salve (‘greetings!’), and in the plural avete, salvete (‘greetings!’).’
Beo þu gesund! (ÆCHom I.13.194.23) ‘greetings to you!’
Eode þa into þæm cyninge and cwæð, “wes gesund, cyning!” (ApT 4.6) ‘then went to the king and said, ‘greetings, king!’
Sie þu hal, leof! (ÆCHom II. ‘Greetings to you, Sire!’
Wes þu, Hroðgar, hal! (Beo 407), ‘greetings to you, Hroðgar!’
Hal wes þu, Iudea cyning! (Mt(WSCp) 27.30), ‘greetings to you, King of the Jews!’

When greeting someone in a letter or the like, one would typically use the verb grētan (‘to greet’), or such expressions as sendan grētan (‘to send (someone) greetings’), hātan grētan (‘to bid (someone) be greeted’), or grētan (mid) Godes grētinge (‘to greet (someone) with God’s greeting / blessing’):

Þa awrat Gregorius þis gewrit to þæm gode: “ic grete þe, Apollo! …” (ÆHom 22.615) ‘then Gregory wrote this to the god: “I greet you, Apollo! …”’
Ælfric grett eaðmodlice Æðelweard ealdormann, and ic secge þe, leof, þæt ic … (ÆLS (Pref) 1) ‘Ælfric humbly greets alderman Æðelweard, and I say to you, sir, that I …’
Ic Beda, Cristes þeow and mæssepreost, sende gretan þone leofostan cyning Ceolwulf (BedePref 2.1) ‘I Bede, Christ’s servant and mass-priest, send greetings to Ceolwulf, the dearest king.’
Ælfred cyning hateð gretan Wærferð biscop his wordum luflice and freondlice (CPLetWærf 1) ‘King Alfred bids Bishop Wærferð be greeted with his words in a loving and friendly manner.’
Ic Ælfric abbod on þissum engliscum gewrite freondlice grete mid Godes gretinge Wulfgeat æt Ylmandune (ÆLet 6.1) ‘I abbot Ælfric, in this letter written in English, greet with friendliness and God’s blessing Wulfgeat of Ilmington.’


And what did one say upon leave-taking? To my knowledge, there are but few examples of such salutations in the corpus. But these few suggest that the greeting uttered when meeting was also used in saying good-bye, with one wrinkle. If one said good-bye to someone leaving, then instead of the verb ‘to be,’ a verb of motion was used, namely faran (‘to go, travel’). Thus, one would literally say ‘go healthy / whole / safe’ to someone taking his leave: far gesund (sg.) and farað gesunde (pl.). Contrast the following examples:

Þa soðlice geendode se gebeorscipe, and þa menn ealle arison and gretton þone cyning and þa cwene and bædon hie gesunde beon and ham gewendon (ApT 17.15) ‘Then the party ended, and everyone rose and paid their respects to the king and queen (lit., ‘greeted the king and the queen and bade them be healthy’) and went home’ (i.e., the king and queen remain behind, while the guests leave).
Farað nu gesunde and gesælige becumað (ÆLS (Maur) 89), lit., ‘go healthy now and arrive fortunate.’

Compare the very similar expressions in Old Norse:

hann bað þá vel fara ok heila hittask (Egils saga 22, cited in Cleasby p. 265 “hitta“) lit. ‘he bade them go well and be met whole’
bað heila fara ok heila hittask (Fornmanna sögur iv. 171, cited in Cleasby p. 249 “heill“) lit. ‘bade them go whole and be met whole’

Early West Saxon Forms

The forms of the adjectives given above (sg. gesund / hāl; & pl. gesunde / hāle) are the Late West Saxon forms, reflecting the generalization of the masculine nominative forms at the expense of the original neuter and feminine counterparts. In early West Saxon, however, unique nominative feminine endings did exist, but since both gesund and hāl are heavy stems, the feminine singular ending would be lost here as well, and so the form would end up being identical to the masculine singular, thus bēo gesund / hāl. The expected feminine plural form would be bēoð gesunda / hāla, but even in this earlier period, -e rather than -a is also found, although less often (Hogg & Fulk 2011; §4.13-17 & 4.41-43). And what did one say if addressing a mixed group of males and females? The corpus gives no absolutely clear example (Mitchell 1985: §38 & 128), although it has been claimed that a neuter ending would be expected here, comparable to the situation in Gothic (Quirk & Wren 1977: §124).


And so how might one translate ‘good morning’ in the opening scene of The Hobbit (for those eccentrics who might trouble their head over such a question)? This was my solution:

“God morgen!” cwæð Bilba, and he hit mænde. Seo sunne scan, and þæt gærs wæs swiðe grene. Ac locode Gandalf wið hine, under bruwum langum and þiccum, þe furðor ut scorodon þonne his scadihtan hættes brerd.
“Hwæt mænst þu?” cwæð he. “Wysct þu þæt hit me sie god morgen, oððe mænst þu þæt hit god morgen sie, wille ic oððe nelle ic, oððe þæt hit þe sie god morgen, oððe þæt hit sie god morgen god on to beonne?”

“Good morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.
“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

(Literally,  ‘“[It’s] a good morning!” said Bilbo … “Do you wish that it be a good morning for me, or do you mean that it be a good morning, whether I want it or not, or that it be a good morning for you, or that it be a good morning to be good on?’)

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


Cleasby, R. & G. Vigfusson. 1962. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Clarendon Press.
, R. & R. Fulk. 2011. A Grammar of Old English. Wiley-Blackwell.
Mitchell, B. 1985. Old English Syntax. Clarendon Press.
Quirk, R. & C. Wren. 1977. An Old English Grammar. Methuen.