‘How Are You?’ in Old English

‘How Are You? in Old English

How did the Anglo-Saxons ask about someone’s health? To answer this question fully, it would be helpful to consider first what the Anglo-Saxons would not have said in this context, based at least on the corpus of extant OE writing. The expression hū færst þū? did not mean ‘how are you?,’ as is sometimes claimed by “internetistas,” but rather (and idiomatically) ‘what is your journey? where are you going?’ vel sim. (DOE: hu I.A.1.a.iv. and III.A.1.b.ii):

Hie ascodon hine hwæt he wære oððe hu he faran wolde. He cwæð þæt he wære Godes þeow, se þe gescop sæ and land, and þæt he fleon wolde of Godes gesihðe (ÆCHom I, 18 318.22) ‘they asked him who he [Jonah] was and where he was going. He said that he was a servant of God, of Him who had created sea and land, and that he wished to flee before the face of God.’
Hagar, Saries þinen, hu færst þu oððe hwider wilt þu? (Gen 16.8) ‘Hagar, handmaiden of Sarai, whence have you come and whither do wish to go? (unde venis et quo vadis?).

And ic fare wel did not mean ‘I am well, I am in good health,’ but rather ‘I am doing well, I am succeeding, I am getting on,’ vel sim. (DOE: faran IV).

Likewise there is no evidence that hū gǣð hit? (lit. ‘how goes it?’) was ever used, like the corresponding ModE expression how goes it?, to mean ‘how are you?.’ Like Mod. German wie geht’s? and Mod. Dutch hoe gaat het?, our how goes it? appears to be modeled on the French expression comment ça va? (lit. ‘how goes it?’). The OE hū gǣð hit? means simply ‘how does it walk / go / move / proceed?’ etc. Rather similar to faran, gān could also be used at times to refer to a favourable outcome: him ēode wel on hand (lit. ‘for him it went well in hand’) ‘it went favourably for him’ (DOE: gān I.3.c.ii.a.).

And one might also mention here the archaic expression how dost thou?, but this is extant beginning only in the fifteenth century (OED: do 19.B.II.19), and thus there is no evidence for an OE *hū dēst þū? = ‘how are you?’ (DOE: dōn).

And so what did the Anglo-Saxons actually say here? One attested way of asking about someone’s health was to utter hū meaht þū? – or Late West Saxon hū miht þū? – (second-person singular), which implies also hū magon gē? (second-person plural), hū mæg hē / hēo / hit? (third-person singular), etc. The verb magan (> ModE may), which is found in these questions, commonly corresponds to ModE ‘can, to be able to,’ but could also be used intransitively to mean ‘to be strong, be efficacious, avail, prevail, be sufficient,’ or, as here, ‘to be strong, be in good health.’ And so the question means literally ‘how are you prevailing?’ vel sim. The corresponding response would have included the adverbs wel / tela (‘well’) or presumably yfele (‘ill’):

Hu mæg he?” Hie cwædon þæt he wel mihte (Gen 29.6) ‘“How is he?” They said that he was well’ (“Sanusne est?” “Valet,” inquiunt).
Þa sægde se cnapa þæt he swiðe wel mihte (ÆLS (Basil) 435) ‘then said the boy that he was very well.’
And me getrymedest þæt ic tela mihte (PPs 70.20) ‘and you fortified me so that I was well.’

The use of the equivalent of OE magan to ask about someone’s health is also found elsewhere in Germanic and may well have been a Proto-Germanic legacy (click here).

A further attested option in asking about someone’s health was hū eart þū? (second-person singular), which implies hū sind gē? (second-person plural), hū is hē / hēo / hit? (third-person sing.), etc. This is then identical in construction to ModE how are you?:

Hwæt is þe, broðor? Hu eart þu nu? (GD 4 (C) 57.345.35) ‘What’s the matter, brother? How are you now?’ (cf. GREG.MAG. Dial. 4.57.15 quomodo es?).

This construction could be used to inquire into a condition or state more broadly, thus hū wæs hit? ‘how did things stand? what was the state of things?,’ vel sim. (DOE: hū I.A.3.a).

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

2 thoughts on “‘How Are You?’ in Old English

  1. This is an interesting article. Not knowing much about Old-English, I was struck by how much “hū meaht þū?” looks like the modern Dutch expression: “Hoe maakt u het?” (how do you do) I don’t know if this is anything but coincidence.

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    • Thanks for your interest. Actually there is no connection: Mod. Dutch maken is cognate with Old English macian (> Mod. English to make), while OE meaht is the second-person singular indicative of magan (> ModE may) and thus cognate with Mod. Dutch mogen.

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