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1.1 Saying hello in Old, Middle and Early Modern English
Today, two frequent ways of greeting in English are hello and hi. You may be surprised to learn that these are, in fact, comparatively recent forms. The first instance given in the Oxford English Dictionary (the OED) of hello used in this way is dated 1827, and for hi it is 1862. How did people greet each other before then?
There are various ‘categories’ of greeting. Asking about health is one, and a common British English way of doing this today is How are you? Another category is by mentioning a time of day, and in today’s British English Good morning or just Morning is an example of this.
In Shakespeare you find various forms of how questions used as a greeting. Hamlet, for example, greets his mother by saying How, sweet Queen. There are also ‘time of day’ greetings, though again these may be rather strange to modern ears. In King Lear, for example, you find Good dawning to thee, friend.
King Lear was written in about 1605. Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales some two hundred years before. Here are two greetings from that poem. In The Summoner’s Tale Thomas’s wife greets Friar John with Ey, maister, welcome be ye, by Seint John! . . . how fare ye, hertely?, and in The Miller’s Tale Absolon greets Alisoun with What do ye, hony-comb, sweete Alisoun (information from Jucker (2011).
What about Old English? There are ‘asking about health’ greetings like Hū færst þū? (‘how fare you?’ = How are you?). In the same category is the common Wes hāl (‘literally ‘be well’ – the origin of our word wassail). Hāl may sound like our hello, but the words have different origins. The former is associated with our hale (and even whole – it means ‘healthy’). You may also have come across the use of an associated word Hail as a greeting, though we do not use it today. An older greeting form was hail be thou, meaning ‘be healthy’.
So how we express even such an apparently basic language function like greeting changes with time. Just to drive home the point, the Old English Wes hāl could be used to say ‘goodbye’ as well as ‘hello’. The equivalent would be if we were to use hi when we leave as well as when we arrive. The idea may seem odd to us, but of course the Italian ciao is used in just this way . . . to mean both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’.