By Anatoly Liberman
Interjections of all kinds are harder to trace to their origin than many people think (consider wow, ouch, oops, and even hey, hi, ho). The history of hello poses no formidable difficulties, but, as usual in etymological studies, there is a hitch. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest citation of hello has the date 1883 because the main entry appears under hollo ~ hollow (1542); hello is said to be akin to holla (1523) and borrowed from French; it was an exclamation calling attention or meaning “stop.” The other forms are holloa, halloa, hullo, hulloa, and halloo. They look like so many spelling variants of the same word.
The first tentative explanation of the origin of hallo connected the English word with French au loup, au loup, the cry heard in the chase for setting dogs on the wolf. This derivation, though almost certainly wrong, is realistic, for in English the language of the hunt owes a great deal to the Anglo-French of the Normans. The Middle English verbs hallow and its near doublet halloo “to pursue with shouts” were used for inciting dogs; both also seem to be of French origin. In addition, we find French halali, still another sportsman’s cry. The broader picture suggests that all those words are sound imitative. For example, alala existed in Hebrew and classical Greek, and several variants of ala ~ ola ~ ole are well-known from the Romance languages. Even French aller “to go,” supposedly, an alteration of Latin ambulare, is believed to have originated in some imperative like allele, while allons “let us go” is not too far removed from (h)allo. The plot thickens the moment we realize that, at least today, hello (whatever the spelling) is used to greet people (hence its adoption in telephone communications), rather than urge dogs on, and especially when we look beyond English and French.
I never miss a chance to refer to The Century Dictionary. It is a splendid but sadly underestimated work. Here is what Charles P. G. Scott, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary, wrote under hallo (I have expanded his abbreviations): “Such forms, being mere syllables to call attention, are freely varied for sonorous effect; hallo, hello, halloo may be regarded as the modern representatives of the common Anglo-Saxon [= Old English] ea la or eala, used similarly to call attention, whether loudly from afar, like hallo, hello, halloo, or quietly from near by, like hello colloquially, or like modern ah, oh, well, and similar preliminary syllables. Anglo-Saxon ea represents Engl. ah or oh, and la is Engl. lo. These forms, in hunting use, are represented by Old French halle, an interjection of cheering or setting on of a dog, Modern French haler ‘set (dogs upon one), encourage with shouts’. So German hallo, halloh, perhaps after the English. The form hallow, as a noun or verb, with accent on the first syllable is a variant of hollow, hollo, holla, now scarcely used as an interjection, and is in so far different from hallo, hello…. Cf. hullabaloo.” We will not compare hello with hullabaloo because a special post was at one time devoted to hullabaloo, but will wonder at the generosity of The Century Dictionary that allowed its etymologists to write so much about even such an outwardly insignificant word as hallo. Scott’s most interesting idea is that Old English had an interjection strikingly similar to hello. However, he does not say that its reception may have been facilitated by the existence of a native one. His phrases about ah ~ oh representing Old Engl. ea and about the Old English phrase being represented by Old French halle” are unclear (what is “represent”?). We would also want to know why the English forms surfaced only in the middle period and why they were invariably spelled with h-. Are they French newcomers that supplanted eala?
Further complications confront us on German soil. According to a once popular theory, German hallo goes back to the verb halen ~ holen “fetch, get,” a cognate of Engl. haul (Engl. hale “draw, pull” is a borrowing of French holer, but in French this verb is of Germanic origin; Engl. hale “greet” is a different word, related to whole). Allegedly, its ancient meaning was “to call,” and the forms hala, hola arose when long a (that is, a vowel as in Engl. father) was added to the imperative, with stress on the second syllable; the reinforcing particle a has indeed been recorded. Those words, as the story goes, were used in calling a ferryman, asking someone in the house to come out, and so forth. The problem with this ingenious hypothesis is that German halon ~ holon never meant “call.” Only Latin calare “call” and its Greek cognate suggest that such a meaning existed. But the kinship of halon with calare cannot be proved: the sounds match, whereas the meanings do not. Modern German researchers treat the old theory with respect but without enthusiasm. I find it as hard to accept as Scott’s (hallo from Old Engl. eala).
Is it possible that practically the same interjection in English, French, and German comes from three different sources? This would be the conclusion if we derived them from eala, an onomatopoeic shout, and hal- + a respectively. At first blush, such a conclusion seems to be unlikely. I think it will remain unacceptable even if we keep blushing. Eala should be ruled out because it lacks h-. Halon fails because the necessary meaning did not exist. So onomatopoeia remains as the only viable (“sustainable,” to use the latest buzzword) solution. Yet it may be that folk etymology and the existence of similar interjections (some primitive shouts like alala) helped the French word to stay in English. Scott’s conjecture that German hallo is from English has not been supported by factual evidence. Language contacts played a noticeable role in the history of the European word hallo, but the direction of borrowing is not always clear. Etymologists often work in isolation, and it is a pity that English scholars are sometimes satisfied with their proposals and their German colleagues with theirs, in disregard of what happens in the languages of their neighbors. We say hello to one another across state borders, but the root of the greeting has not been exposed.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”