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I'm currently researching different greetings for a linguistics project and I'm having trouble finding information as to the history of the phrase, "How are you," or those of equivalent structures. I noticed one post (what are the origins of hi, hey, hello?) which is a step in the right direction, but doesn't quite answer my question.

For my project, we want to compare and contrast greetings in different languages. For example, in English we may say, "How are you?" or, "How do you do?" when first greeting someone, whereas in Mandarin, it is common to say, "Have you eaten?" - "吃了吗" (google translate, hope it's right!)

When I first heard this I was surprised, to say the least. I thought it an odd expression for when you first greet somebody. Likewise when my Chinese friends were learning English they said they found it difficult to answer the expression, "How are you?" and when they asked, I said I wasn't really sure either....

When we are asked "How are you", we nearly never respond to the question with a genuine answer. In fact one of the only situations where it seems to make sense is deep in conversation or where pragmatics suggests something other than "I'm fine." So, Why don't we say something a bit more concrete for greetings like, "have you eaten?" which has an answer that is a bit more tangible. To me it actually seems to make a bit more sense!

So why is it that we say, "how are you?" and where does it come from? When did this greeting start to gain traction and what other greetings did it replace (if any)? How do you respond to this when asked?

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    Well, in Spanish it's "¿Cómo está usted?" Translation: "How are you?" – Hot Licks Nov 8 '15 at 1:55
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    Thanks! Currently we are looking at Mandarin, English and I believe Thai. We may include Spanish in our analysis as well. – ILikeMostCereals Nov 8 '15 at 2:24
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    These probably come from ancient cultural traditions. "Have you eaten" may have arisen in cultures that would always offer a meal to a guest in the house. "How are you?" sounds like it comes from a culture where you would engage in small talk about health and family. But over time these just become pleasantries, not interpreted literally. – Barmar Nov 9 '15 at 20:29
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    That sound's about right. My linguistics TA told me today that the Chinese invented the plate, which (maybe) offers a bit of context for this difference in greeting? Idk, maybe they are entirely unrelated. – ILikeMostCereals Nov 9 '15 at 21:09
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    Re 'Have you eaten?', there's a long-standing joke about calling at the home of [allegedly] mean Scottish folk, to be greeted with "Ye'll have had your tea" [implying, 'I'm assuming I won't have to feed you', tea in the UK being a meal as well as a drink]. – David Garner Nov 16 '15 at 16:01
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'How are you?' and its rivals in the 1600s

One early instance of "How are you?" as a greeting appears in William Killigrew, Selindra: A Tragy-Comedy (1666):

Poll[idor]: [to Ordella] Madam, I was surpriz'd by your approach, which made my tongue appeare lesse ready than my heart to obey you, your commands, Madam, are sufficient to dissolve any vowes of mine, and since you will vouchsafe to hear, I shall relate.

[Phillocles and Selindra come to them.]

Phill[ocles]: How are you Sir? Methinks your Eyes do shew some anguish in your wounds, do we not trouble you?

However, that wording does not seem to have been the most common form of greeting at that time in England. Thomas Herbert, Some Yeares Travels Into Africa & Asia the Great (1638) provides a series of common English introductory greetings in English, with their Persian equivalents, and "How are you?" does not appear. Here is the English version of the dialogue:

A good morrow or God Blesse you Sir.

The like I with you Sir,

Whether doe you goe?

Not farre

How doe you today?

Well I praise God

Good, I am very glad thereof,

Where have you beene?

Now I am your servant

Welcome, Sir, heartily welcome.

Tell me, how you doe? healthie

Where is your house? at Babylon

Have you a Wife?

Yea truly, fifteene Sir,

and so on.

A similar series of French/English dialogues appears in Mrs. Mirge et Boyer, Nouvelle Grammaire Angloise (supposedly from 1600, but undated in the photocopied book and perhaps as late as the early 1700s), including this exchange (English version only):

Good morrow, Sir.

Your Servant.

I am your Servant.

I am yours.

I thank you.

How do you do?

How do you do, this morning?

Very well.

At your service.

How are you in health?

How is it with you?

Ready to do you service.

And you, Sir, how do you do?

Very well, thank God.

and so on.

In this exchange (or series of possible exchanges), the question How are you?" is elaborated as "How are you in health?" which might be the full version of the original question that became truncated to "How are you?" sometime later, but I found very little evidence to substantiate that hypothesis. In any event, the more common inquiry in this period seems to have been either "How do you?" (asked twice in Herbert's dialogue) or "How do you do?" (asked twice in Mirge et Boyer's dialogue.


'How are you?' in the first half of the eighteenth century

In the first half of 1700s, "How are you?" seems to have become fairly well established. Two examples come from Jonathan Swift's letters. First, from a letter from Swift to Sheridan (August 3, 1723) in Swift, Miscellanies, volume 10 (1745):

How are you this Moment? Do you love or hate Quilca the most of all Places? Are you in or out of Humour with the World, your Friends, your Wise, and your School? Are the Ladies in Town or in the Country? If I knew, I would write to them, and how are they in Health?

And second, from a letter from Swift to Lady Acheson (April 1, 1732), in Letters Written by Him and Several of His Friends (1768):

Are you not undone for want of Monky? How are you? Does your milk agree with you? We shall see you no more at church until Monky returns.

From a table of words of one syllable in P. Sproson, The Art of Reading: Or, the English Tongue Made Familiar and Easy to the Meanest Capacity (1740):

how are you to day

From The Trial in Ejectment Between Campbell Craig, Lessee of James Annesley, Esq; Plaintiff and the Right Honourable Richard Earl of Anglesey, Defendant (1744):

Q. Who said it was my Lord's [the earl's] Child?

A. The Country had laid it to him. And so, said I, Juggy, how are you? I'm very sick, says she. What ails you? I have got a Child. Whose is it, says I? It is my Lord's, says she. I believe then, says I, my Lord is very kind to you now, Juggy.

And from a 1748 translation of Terrance's Comedies:

Gnat[ho]. Gnatho greets his dearest dear Friend Parmeno with his best Wishes: how are you?

Par[meno]. On my Legs.

Gnat[ho]. Pshaw, I know that : —— but dost thou see Nothing here that thou dost not like ?

Par[meno]. Yes, you.

A translator's note to these lines remarks

Quid agitur sometimes means what are you doing? Sometimes how do you? How are you? or how goes the World with you?


Conclusions

"How are you?" appears in Google Books search results as stand-alone question going back to 1666. At the time "How do you?" may have been considerably more common as a salutation; and "How do you do?" provided further competition later on.

Two of the pre-1750 matches that I found for "How are you?" complete the question with "in health?" so it may be that "How are you in health?" was actually the earlier question, shortened to "How are you?" after the phrase became commonplace. It is not clear to me from the data Google Books provides, however, that this process occurred. The only conclusions I can state with confidence is that "How are you?" has been standing alone in inquiries after to a person's health or well-being for more than 350 years.

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I agree with Barmar's comment.

"How are you?" sounds like it comes from a culture where you would engage in small talk about health and family.

I would also add business to the common topics of passing businessmen on the street. Literally, this is an invitation to reveal details and updates about your health, your family, the state of your business, and/or whatever is on your mind and occupying your time. Further, I would point out the departing well wishes given in the same culture, "Farewell". Then you have verbal bookends to the small talk: "How are you?" or "How do you fare?" paired with "Farewell."

I think also the intent should be addressed. The intent of this greeting is to convey interest or care about another's well being. It might have been relegated to common courtesy, which is why no one answers it directly any more, but it once carried more care than the words themselves. A person would ask an acquaintance about their well being, share their own, and they bid each other farewell at the end.

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Hello seems to come from hallo, a term for calling out to someone or hailing someone. Hi and hey may be contractions of either "hello* or how are you. The correct response to hi, hey, or hello is simply to say hi, hey, or hello back to the speaker, possibly adding "how are you?" A correct response to "How are you?" is "Just fine. How are you?"

Such abbreviated greetings are a modern phenomenon associated with urbanization. The urban environment makes it impractical to have a conversation with everyone you meet. Take, for example, the scene in the movie Crocodile Dundee where the protagonist from the Australian Outback tries to have a conversation with everyone he encounters on a crowded Manhattan sidewalk.

Abbreviated greetings are not limited to English. In Italian, you say ciao to began and end a chance meeting, and this is borrowed into South American Spanish as chau (same pronunciation, different spelling). The question above refers to Chinese people in an English-speaking environment, and I have difficulty believing that city dwellers in modern China do not have one or more abbreviated greetings that they use.

In rural areas, people are farther apart and, before the advent of modern communications technologies, every human contact would have been an opportunity to catch up on the news. There is still an expression in the English language for talking about someone who does not stop to chat on the occasion of a chance meeting: "He wouldn't give me the time of day."

In the 1970s, when I tried to teach myself Irish from a book that was probably obsolete in the '50s, I learned that the correct greetings and responses for meeting people were: "Dia's Muire dhuit" and "Dia's Muire dhuit, agus Padraig." (Please forgive my spelling, you Irish speakers.) It means "God and Mary to you" and "God and Mary to you, and Patrick." This sounds like speech right out of the Middle Ages, and it would have been the start of a longer conversation about crops, or fishing, or news brought by a traveler. Something similar was probably once said in languages spoken throughout the British Isles and continental Europe. But there's no time for that on a crowded city street.

  • Our Father Who art in Heaven, "Hello" be Thy name.... – Drew Dec 22 '15 at 21:26
  • Indeed (though I don't think hallo is related to hallow, which means holy and comes from the same Old English word). – Bob Dec 22 '15 at 21:29
  • Except on helloween. – Drew Dec 22 '15 at 21:31
  • Check out the OED. 'Hello' is cognate with 'hail' and German 'heil' – Mitch Jan 2 '16 at 22:05
  • FWIW, according to my in-laws who are, halo is Czech. It's been around... – Rob_Ster Feb 4 '16 at 21:49
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"Hi" originally derived from the word "hi" or "chi" (חי) in Hebrew, being renowned as Hebrew's single most auspicious word in its gematria and meaning "alive" or "living" or "live." "Hello" also ultimately trails back to Hebrew to the word Elohim (אלוהים) meaning God.

Using "How are you?" as a greeting in English, however, is a horse of a different color. Hebrew doesn't even have the verb "to be," so phrases in Germanic languages, which High German (a.k.a. Yiddish) is a form of Hebrew, tend towards using the verb "to go" in their most common greeting question, such as when in English we ask, "How goes it?" For the same reason, Slavic languages, respectively, perform likewise without using the verb "to be" in their most common greeting question. As such, it becomes clear by process of elimination that English's "How are you?" most likely emanated from those cultures where Latin languages are now predominant and where they still most frequently greet one another by not just using the verb "to be" in the question but verbatim asking, "How are you?" As such, it becomes most likely that the phrase arrived into English from translations and interpretations of greetings long ago said in present-day Italy, Spain, and Portugal, or possibly from ancient Gall, in which case it might well have derived from tongues spoken in Great Britain herself. Saying for certain is extremely difficult, however, because the speaking of these antecedent languages as well as Latin's influence upon them predates any prolific conversational writing in them, at least any that have survived the almost 2,000 years since.

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