Old English/Authentic Old English Phrasing

This page should contain and comment only on attested historical Old English phrasing, ideally derived from Old English natural prose, but poetry examples may also be included. Glossings of Latin phrases may also be included if necessary, so long as there is no reason to suspect that the Old English translation given might be unnatural. Glossings are especially acceptable as supporting evidence to phrases that are also attesting in natural prose. Specific quotes of historical Old English passages should be used, with their text and document information included. Interpretative commentary, including cultural commentary, may also be given.



Aren't you just doing well for yourself!


"Hū færst þū lā!" - "How you are getting along indeed!" (literal)/"Aren't you just doing well for yourself!" (more idiomatic)



The best-attested positive colloquial greeting on encountering someone in OE, is:

"Ƿes hāl" - "Be well"[1]

There are a number of other attestations of the same or very similar phrases.

Note that in Late West Saxon, imperative forms of "bēon" came to be preferred over "ƿesan".

"Bēo gesund"[2] - "Be well" (to one person; it is given as a translation of Latin ave and salve)

From this we can easily deduce in West Saxon Old English:

"Bēoð hāle/ġesunde." - "Be well/hello" (to more than one person)

And in Anglian Old English and perhaps also in earlier West Saxon Old English:

"Ƿesað hāle." - "Be well/hello" (to more than one person)

Note that in Beowulf line 2418[3], we find:

"Gesæt ða on næsse niðheard cyning, þenden hælo abead heorðgeneatum, goldƿine Geata."

English: "The adversity-hardened king, treasure-friend of the Geats, then sat on the headland, while be bade health to his hearth-companions."

This is suggestive that this greeting, and other similar greetings, was a normal greeting in Old English (as well, it is glossed, as explained above, for a common Latin greeting - evidently, Ælfric thought it was the right translation for such a normal greeting). Although, exactly what weight it had, is not fully clear. It may not necessarily have been said just as frequently as "hello" in Modern English. It may have embodied literal well-wishes for someone's health, and felt more "meaningful" than the Modern English "hello". It is notably absent from Ælfric's Colloquoy on Occupations, which might suggest that it was only reserved for meaningful greetings of well-being; or might it reflect that it is not a thoroughly authentic portrayal of Old English social norms.

How are you?


Method 1


"Hū mæġ hē?"[4] - "How is he?"

The answer, in the same text on the same page, is:

"Hi cƿædon þæt he ƿel mihte"[4] - "They said that he was well."

Taking these as a precedent, you could also say:

"Hū meaht þū?" - "How are you?" to one person.

"Hū magon ġit"?" - "How are you?" to two people.

"Hū magon ġē?" - "How are you?" to 3 or more people.

"Iċ mæġ ƿel." - "I am well."

"Hē mæġ ƿel." - "He is well."

"Ƿē magon yfle." - "We are poorly."

And so forth.

Note that "magan" can mean "have strength". So, there may be an implication that it is asking about someone's physical health, or overall health, rather than more trivial niceties.

There is no evidence that this was used a trivial conversational question in Old English as in Modern English, but it is an authentic phrase, and it has the correct meaning.

Method 2


"Hū eart þū nū?"[5] - "How are you now?"

Which is answered in the same text by:

"He him andsƿarode & cƿæð: oð ðis ic ƿæs sƿiðe yfle, ac nu ic eom sƿiðe ƿel, forþon þe todæg ic onfeng þam gemanan, þe ic ær fram asceaden ƿæs." - "He answered him and said: until now I was very poorly, but now I am very well, because today I joined the fellowship which I was previously excluded from."

The nature of the answer shows clearly that this question applied to fluctuating conditions which could change from day to day, and applied to emotional state as well as physical health.

Note that the word of condition (ƿel, yfle) is an adverb, not an adjective.

From this we can derive the following phrasings:

"Hū eart þū?" - "How are you?" (to one person)

"Hū ƿǣron ġit?" - "How were you two?"

"Ƿē ƿǣron yfle." - "We were poorly."

"Iċ eom ƿel." - "I am well."

And so forth.

There is no evidence this was used as a trivial conversational question in Old English, but it has the correct meaning, and it is an authentic phrase.

How old are you?


Method 1


"Hū eald eart þū?" - "How old are you?"

"Ic eom tyn geara eald." - "I am ten years old."

Method 2


"Hū fela ƿintra hafast/āhst þū (on yldo)?" - "How many winters do you have (in age)?"

"Ic āh/hæbbe sixtȳn ƿintra (on yldo)." - "I have sixteen winters (in age)."

Note that this method likely specifies exact number of winters a person has lived through. Winters were a notable method of measuring age, because winter was a harsh time of year - children, sick, and elderly would be more likely to die during the hardship of winter.

It could easily be adapted to the more popular modern metric of "years", simply by replacing "ƿintra" - "winters/of winters (quantitative)", with "ġēara" - "years/of years (quantitative)".

I'm hungry


Method 1


"Mē/Mec hyngreð" - "I'm hungry" (literally, "I'm hungering" or "It's making me hungry.")

Note that "mec" would be used in early Anglian dialects; but "mē" would be used in West Saxon (and possibly later Anglian dialects).

Method 2


"Iċ hyngriġe" - "I'm hungry" (literally, "I'm hungering").

Method 3


"Iċ eom hungriġ/hungrigu" - "I'm hungry"

Note that "hungriġ" would be said by a man, "hungrigu" by a woman.

What's the matter?/What is it?


"Hƿæt is þē, mīn hlāford?"[6] - "What's the matter, my lord?"

Note that all usage examples suggest a context of consternation, more or less similar to "What's the matter?" However, the literal meaning of the phrase, "What do you have?", is very neutral, and so is suggestive that the question could probably be used to inquire about any particular circumstance or object of attention that is relevant to someone. For example, if someone seemed unusually happy, it would likely also be fine to say "Hƿæt is þē?" - "What's up with you?" However, the context of consternation would be one prominent use case.

This seems to be a literal translation of Latin "Quid tibi est?", and as such, it may well not reflect colloquial Old English. However, it is grammatically correct; and there are various other Old English phrasings which are similar and related in meaning. In the worst case, it was not colloquial, but nevertheless most likely did not sound too strange to Old English ears.

We can easily derive:

"Hƿæt is inc?" - "What's the matter?/What's up with you?" (to 2 people)

"Hƿæt is ēoƿ?" - "What's the matter?/What's up with you?" (to 3 or more people)

What's your name?/What are you called?


Method 1


"Hƿæt hāttest þū?" - "What are you called?"

"Iċ hātte Iōhannes." - "I am called John."

Note that the verb in "þū hāttest" - "you are called" and "iċ hātte" - "I am called" and "hēo/hē hātte" - "she/he is called", is a special, archaic passive form integral to the world, which is only applicable to the verb "hātan" - "to call". The active form of the verb, e.g. "þū hātest", means "you call" rather than "you are called". This unique archaic passive form could also be in the past tense. Other verbs use the gerund "ƿesan" - "to be" or the verb "ƿeorðan" - "to become", with the past participle, to express the passive.

Method 2


"Hƿæt is þīn nama?" - "What is your name?"

"Mīn nama is Mǣðhilde" - "My name is Matilda."


  1. Vercelli Homilies, available at Vercellensis: Die angelsaechsische Handschrift zu Vercelli in getreuer Machbilding.] by Richard Paul Wülker
  2. Ælfric's Grammar and Glossary, Grammatik und Glossar] by Julius Zupitza, Abbot of Eynsham Aelfric]
  3. English poetry corpus at Oxford
  4. a b Old English prose Heptateuch, The Old English Version of the Heptateuch by S. J. Crawford.
  5. Old English translation of the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, available as Waerferths von Worcester Uebersetzung der Dialoge Gregors des Grossen, by Hans Hecht, Julius Zupitza, Henry Johnson.
  6. Ælfric's Lives of Saints, Lives of Saints, volume II written by Abbot Ælfric of Eynesham, re-published by William W. Skeat.