Latin Greeting Rituals: ‘How are you’ vs. ‘Hope you’re well’

My son's school's motto: vitae didicimus in schola, didicimus in schola vitae ('we learnt for life in school, we learnt in the school of life')

My son’s school’s motto: vitae didicimus in schola, didicimus in schola vitae (‘we learnt for life in school, we learnt in the school of life’)

My son has an excellent, inspirational Latin teacher. Two months of Latin at school, and he has already written his first little (as in: six-act) play – called Quintus et Flavia – entirely in Latin. If only I could acquire a new language (or even Latin!) with such ease!

When my son read his play to me, he had one of the characters asking the other: ‘ut uales?’, which he wanted to be the equivalent of the greeting formula ‘how are you’. This struck me as an unusual way of putting it. When asked, my son answered that this was precisely what his teacher had suggested as the appropriate phrase for this scenario.

The phrase ut uales is attested – sparingly – in the body of surviving Latin literature. It features in Plautus (7 instances) and in Terence (1 instance), and in both comic playwrights the phrase occurs close (ish) to the beginning of conversations. Does that make ut uales the Latin counterpart of the polite greeting ritual ‘how are you’, and more precisely, does it actually ask how one is?

Upon closer inspection, things turn out to be rather less than straightforward.

The question ‘how are you’, in English, can be taken in two ways: either as part of a greeting ritual (in which a detailed, or even honest, response is neither necessary nor expected), or as a sincere question: an ambiguity that not seldom is productively exploited in conversations, a joke at least as old as Plautus’ play Rudens (1304):

LABRAX. ut uales.
GRIPUS. quid tu? num medicus, quaeso, es?

LABRAX. ut uales?
GRIPUS. What are you? Are you a doctor, pray tell?

At any rate, ‘how are you’ can be either a formulaic question that triggers a more or less formulaic response (‘thanks’, ‘fine’, ‘I’m well, how are you?’ or some such), or it yields a more detailed response which seeks to answer the operative element, ‘how’. Either way, the point of the question is to inquire as regards the actual mode of the interlocutor’s state.

With that in mind, it is interesting to approach those eight instances of ut uales in Latin (which I will leave untranslated, so as not to prejudice the outcome).

A first, immediate observation to make, with regard the ancient evidence, is that no interlocutor ever responds with a phrase that would be the equivalent of ‘fine’ or ‘well’. The closest one gets to this attitude are the following two responses:

  • Mostellaria 718: non male (‘not bad’)
  • Persa 17: ut queo (‘as best I can’)

While the distinct lack of a full response in those cases may (at first glance) indeed be taken as evidence for a ritualised use of ut uales, neither one of these two responses necessarily provides an answer to the question as to whether ut uales aims to establish the mode of one’s current state (as in ‘how are you’) or in fact something else. The sarcastic ‘are you a doctor, pray tell’ response at Rudens 1304 is equally inconclusive. Finally, at Plautus, Epidicus 9 and Persa 204 as well as at Terence, Heauton Timorumenos 406 no direct response whatsoever is given with regard to the ut uales phrase.

When trying to establish the exact point of the ut uales phrase, looking at Trinummus 48–52 then comes as an initial eye-opener. Here, Callicles addresses Megaronides and the following little dialogue ensues:

CAL. O amice, salue, atque aequalis. ut uales,
MEG. et tu edepol salue, Callicles.
CAL. ualen? ualuistin? MEG. ualeo, et ualui rectius.
CAL. quid tua agit uxor? ut ualet? MEG. plus quam ego uolo.
CAL. bene hercle est illam tibi ualere et uiuere.

CAL. O friend and age-mate, greetings. ut uales, Megaronides?
MEG. Greetings to you, too, by Pollux, Callicles.
CAL. Are you well? Have you been well? MEG. I am well, and I was better still.
CAL. How is your wife doing? ut ualet? MEG. More than I would like.
CAL. By Hercules, it is good for you that she is well and alive.

At first, Megaronides does not seem to respond anything to Callicles’ phrase ut ualeas: he merely repeats his greetings. Callicles resumes the ualere theme, but turns it into a verbal question, both in the present and in the past tenses: ualen, ualuistin?, which Megaronides then answers as fully as one would expect. Callicles then moves on and enquires about Megaronides’ wife. Here he gets an immediate response (‘more than I would like’). There is a marked difference in the way in which the question is asked, however, for one must note that Callicles now has phrased his own line as follows: the phrase ut ualet is preceded by the question quid tua agit uxor, ‘how is your wife doing’?

The same combination of ut uales and preceding quid (tu) agis can be found in three out of eight instances for ut uales that are attested in Plautus: Epidicus 9. Persa 204. Truculentus 577. In addition to that, at the aforementioned passage Persa 17, where the response ut queo (‘as best I can’) was given, this is immediately followed up by the question quid agitur (‘what is one doing’) and the response uiuitur (‘one is alive’).

The wording at Truculentus 577–578 provides an additional clue to the investigation of the point of the ut uales phrase. Here, Cyamus approaches Phronesium:

(CYAM.) iubeo uos saluere. PHRON. noster Cyame, quid agis? ut uales?
CYAM. ualeo, et uenio ad minus ualentem, et melius qui ualeat fero.

(CYAM.) Be greeted! PHRON. Our Cyamus, how are you doing? ut uales?
CYAM. I am well, and I come to someone less well, and I carry something so she may feel better.

Cyamus responds to Phronesium’s ut ualeas with a simple ualeo. This response, picking up the very verb ualere, is the Latin counterpart of a ‘yes’ in the English language, suggesting that ut uales is a phrase that most straightforwardly can be answered in yes/no terms (rather than with a modal expression).

This, however, would mean that ut uales is not a modal question ‘how are you’: much rather, it must be an expression tantamount to ‘[I hope] that you’re well’ – a format that can accommodate all the various surviving responses as outlined above, including ‘not bad’,  ‘as best I can’, and ‘are you a doctor, pray tell’.

My son has an excellent, inspirational Latin teacher. This week, it would seem, she has taught me that I happen to know far less about Latin than I care to admit – starting with such seemingly banal things like ‘how did the Romans say ‘how are you’?’

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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3 Responses to Latin Greeting Rituals: ‘How are you’ vs. ‘Hope you’re well’

  1. T says:

    Very interesting evidence, and I agree with your conclusion. If a student asked, “how do you translate ‘ut,'” I wonder what I would say. On the fly, I would ask him to imagine there is an assumed wish which ‘ut’ brings to life along with its attendant verb. Anyway, ‘ut’ even in Short is, just as in your examples, seldom an interrogative (once, among many other functions), and only then in Terence. I wonder if the indicative mood, in every example above, has any bearing. Cheers!


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