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In a question in the Spanish Language site about the origin of Spanish hola 'hello', one of the answers states that Old English ēalās, written ēalā before a name, already sounded quite similar to hola, and was used as an equivalent to our current hello. The user states that ēalā freond means hello friend. But the only example I can find of those words is in the Wessex Gospels:

Ða cwæð se hælend to hym. Eala freond to hwam be-come þu. Ða geneahlacten hyo & þanne hælend ge-namen.

This is from Matthew 25, 50:

And Jesus said unto him, Friend, do that for which thou art come. Then they came and laid hands on Jesus, and took him.

Given the context, I would say that ēalās means something closer to the current alas, and not hello. In fact, ēalās and alas are much more similar than ēalās and hola.

Etymonline actually states that Modern English hello comes from hallo, an aliteration of holla, which came from French holà (akin to Spanish hola) and does not refer to ēalās. In the same web, the only reference to eala from Old English is in the entry for oh.

So, did Old English ēalās mean hello? Or was it used as the current alas? Or did it mean something completely different?

  • Stephen Fry does an interesting podcast on the origin of hello. He thinks it comes via the hunting fields. – marcellothearcane Aug 6 at 9:47
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Eala could be a vocative, but it wasn't a standalone greeting like hello functions now.

I am not familiar with eala being used as a greeting in Old English. According to the Bosworth-Toller Dictionary, eala was an interjection that could sometimes be translated O and sometimes alas. I have mostly seen it in that context. Very occasionally eala(s) could be ale (BT entry) or temple (BT entry; the nominative is ealh, and the Old English Translator shows ealas as the nominative/genitive accusative).

In the scholarship I've found, eala is treated as an interjection often used with the vocative.

Beechy, Tiffany. “Eala Earendel: Extraordinary Poetics in Old English.” Modern Philology, vol. 108, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1–19. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/656221.

  • Beechy focuses on parsing earendel; eala is treated as a translation of O, i.e. O oriens ~ eala earendel. (O Dawn!)

Clayton, Mary. “The Old English ‘Promissio Regis.’” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 37, 2008, pp. 91–150. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44510974.

  • Clayton treats eala as an introduction to address in the phrases eola leof hlaford and eola leofan men; O dear lord or O dear men. However, I get no sense of greeting, and Clayton never distinguishes a meaning like alas or O from a meaning like hello.

Hiltunen, Risto. "Eala, geferan and gode wyrhtan": On Interjections in Old English." Inside Old English: Essays in Honour of Bruce Mitchell. Wiley, 2006. https://books.google.com/books?id=W1l_BwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA99&ots=NwzCdHvJwY&dq=%22eala%20leofan%20men%22&pg=PA96#v=onepage&q&f=false.

  • Hiltunen analyzes a few interjections in Old English. Eala often initiates an address, especially when followed by noun phrases in a vocative case. Towards the end of a section on eala on p. 100, Hiltunen says this: "Both materials (Offerberg's study of interjections and the Helsinki Corpus) indicate the importance of eala for signalling audience attention to the message being conveyed." Signalling audience attention is more of a rhetorical move in sermons or homilies than a greeting.

So the issue here is that eala, at least in the texts we have, isn't like saying hello (e.g. Wes hāl). It's not a greeting. It is not even necessarily a lament, as alas has become in English. As far as I know, it does not even function alone as hello does. ("Hello!") It is a call to attention.

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    So it's more of a "Hey" or a "yo!" ? – Hellion Aug 6 at 18:36

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