‘Hey!’ and its Variants

Exclamation MarkThe word ‘hey’ has been around for a good thousand years or so (probably more). A remarkably versatile little word, it can be used in American English in any number of contexts. For example, to express annoyance:

“Hey! Stop doing that.”

Or to express sympathy:

“Hey, now! Don’t beat yourself up.”

Or as a kind of greeting:

“Hey, man! What’s going on?”

By the way, The American Heritage Dictionary has an interesting dialect-related take on that last usage:

Until recently, this greeting had a distinctly Southern flavor. The national survey conducted in the 1960s by the Dictionary of American Regional English found hey as a greeting restricted chiefly to Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. The friendly hey has since spread throughout the United States.

I’m not quite sure about that take on things. But if true, it’s perhaps another example of African American Vernacular English making its way into ‘Northern’ speech. (The states listed above strike me as fairly close to the ‘heartland’ of AAVE).

As you can tell in all of these contexts, we often use ‘hey’ as a kind of verbal exclamation point. It’s certainly more useful than screaming in public.

Trying to track down the etymology of ‘hey’ is nearly impossible, though, as The Online Etymology dictionary suggests. It is found in a number of Germanic languages, but was also common in (presumably classical) Latin:

c.1200, variously, in Middle English, hei, hai, ai, he, heh, expressing challenge, rebuttal, anger, derision, sorrow, or concern; also a shout of encouragement to hunting dogs …
In Latin, hei was a cry of grief or fear; but heia, eia was an interjection denoting joy.

I’ve noticed that, despite the somewhat extralinguistic nature of ‘hey,’ there seems something of a growing divide between how ‘hey’ is used in America versus England. In many dialects of the latter, ‘hey’ often equates to American ‘huh?’ That is, it serves as a short hand for ‘what did you say?’ This seems true of Australian English as well, as I discovered thanks to this exchange with a Brisbanian co-worker:

Me: Did you [unintelligible]?
Him: Hey?

There is a different ‘hey’-like word in Britain (and Australia), of course: ‘oi.’ This is exemplefied by Sir Ben Kingsley’s complaint that he can never set foot in a London pub without someone shouting, ‘Oi! Gandhi!’ (This being Cockney, the latter word rhymes with ‘candy.’)

A number of sources report ‘oi’ as being derived from the Romani phrase ‘oi mush,‘ which more or less means ‘hey you!’ The Romani were one of the immigrant groups who settled in London’s East End, so this explanation seems plausible. The East End was also the refuge of many Yiddish-speaking Jews, of course, who may (or may not) have reinforced ‘oi’ with they’re strikingly similar ‘oy*.’ Words like ‘hey’ and ‘oy’ don’t seem confined to one language.

One rather notable thing about such little exclamatory words is that they all seem to feature diphthongs. I’m thinking not only of ‘hey’ and ‘oi,’ but also of ‘ow’ (an English exclanation of pain) ‘ai’ (an exclamation of pain in many Romance languages), and bringing things full circle again, ‘oy’ (a Russian exclamation of pain). What is it about diphthongs that are so expressive of basic emotion?

*Yiddish ‘oy’ has a more exasperated tenor.


About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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19 Responses to ‘Hey!’ and its Variants

  1. Bobby D says:

    I thought that rhyming “Ghandi” with “candy” was a British English thing rather than being a specifically Cockney thing.

    • Stuart says:

      I almost never comment on typos, because I make far too many of my own, and I personally view them as insignificant, but I know that misspelling the name Gandhi as Ghandi is one error that many Indians seem particularly sensitive about.

  2. Marc Leavitt says:

    I had a habit, when greeting someone in the vestibule on the way to the elevator, of saying, “Hiya,” with the emphasis on the “hi.”
    My exclamation misunderstood, the response, almost invariably, was “Good. How are you?” My “Hiya” is a shortened form of “Hey, you,” standing in for “hello.” I almost never greet anyone by inquiring after their health, any more than I say, “How do you do?” By the way, this is Central New Jersey speak. Phatic recognition formulae vary language to language

  3. Troy says:

    I also think of urban Italian Americans when I hear “(H)eeyyyy!” The Fonz is perhaps most famous for this. But maybe this originates in AAVE. I really don’t know.

  4. boynamedsue says:

    The warning “hey!” is in areas or Yorkshire “ow!”. It rhymes more or less with “go” as pronounced in a Bristol accent. It’s interesting because that precise vowel doesn’t exist in any other word in the Yorkshire dialect. If you hear it, by the way, it is a very good idea to stop doing whatever it was you were doing.

  5. Sooryan FM says:

    ”Oi” [oi] means Hi! in Brazilian Portuguese, (except for the state of Espírito Santo which uses Hei! [ei]). ”Oi” is also used if you didn’t understand what was said….Blablabla… -Oi?…It is also used when someone calls you: Mariiiiaaaa!!! —Oi?

    The vocative interjection is ô: Ô mãe ! (Ó in Continental Portuguese, but Ó in Brazilian Portuguese is short for Olhe! ”Look!”)

    Oj [oi] is the vocative interjection in many Slavic languages:
    oj sinko! ”hey sonny”; Hej! [hei] is a calling interjection.

    It’s all very similar

  6. Charles Sullivan says:

    Is ‘Yo’ in AAVE a variant of ‘Hey’?

  7. AL says:

    This makes me think of “哎呀” (ai ya), a Chinese interjection used to express a variety of feelings–usually negative .

  8. muerps says:

    In German we use “Ey!” instead of “Hey!” – though less as a greeting but more as an exclamation.

    A nice little word we have in German is “ach”. You can use it as a versatile exclamation, but you can also use it as a complete sentence.

    BTW, in my (untrained and German) ears, the British equivalent to “huh” sounds more like (and is generally written) “eh” – I’ve never heard it with an initial h sound and the vowel sounds a bit different than the one in “hey” (I think the intonation is what’s different, though you use “eh” almost exclusively at the end of a question or as a question itself, so maybe that’s the reason for the differing intonations of “eh” and “hey”).

  9. Gearalt Ua Fathaigh says:

    In rural Ireland – probably thanks to the Gaelic substrate – a dwindling number of people have a ‘Hi’ variant of ‘Hey’ (and might use ‘How(a)ya’ for the other meaning of ‘Hi’)…

  10. gaelsano says:

    I don’t think these words attract diphthongs, I think that all the languages mentioned simply feature diphthongs in general. With English you cheat a bit. While London has smoothed its centering diphthongs in NEAR and SQUARE and dropped CURE (very rare among world languages to begin with), all other unchecked and tense vowels are diphthongs except the PALM and THOUGHT vowels. If anything, this is evidence for favoring tense vowels (Korean favors tense consonants, by the way. A tense over lax preference in exclamations is more likely–we’ll consider the English “yeah” as some bizarre anomaly)

    FLEECE [ɪi]*

    I don’t think this linguistic theory holds much water. Korean has no true diphthongs, but glide-vowel pseudo-diphthongs that start with [j] or [w] or [ɰ].

    Not particularly common in interjections.

    Korea’s historical diphthongs (really just quicker sequences of two ordinary vowels) are now realized as monophthongs.

    Not particularly common in interjections.

    Some interjections and lexicalized phrases and emotional onomatopoeia I know from the Western and southwestern dialects: (* includes a diphthong)
    아이고 / 어이고 / 아씨 / 앗따 / 헐 / 으와* / 어머 / 쀵뿌잉* / name ending in a vowel + 야* / name ending in a consonant + 아 / word or sentence coda + 잉!!!!!!

    I’m really trying to find more, but I can’t. If anything, Korean has a tendency to drop one of the elements of a diphthong when speaking fast or in slang or in expressions. Two vowels, 애 and 에, are sometimes diphthongized in all cases by certain speakers with realizations like [ɪe] [je] [ɪɛ] [jɛ] [eɛ] [ɛæ]. These two vowels, by the way, are not common in casual speech words.

    • gaelsano says:

      With “With English you can cheat a bit” I meant to underscore that diphthongs are extremely common to begin with. Excluding Canadian and NW USA and Scotland, diphthongs are more common than monophthongs.

      Mandarin Chinese (others?) is full of diphthongs, too, even if Pinyin doesn’t show it.

  11. Anders Lotsson says:

    I don’t think Jiddish “hey” has a diphtong. The y represents a consonant sound, the sound represented in international phonetic alphabet by the character /j/. In Swedish, the word “hej” is used as a common greeting, pronounced more or less as Yiddish “hey”, and nobody would describe the “ej” part of “hej” as a diphtong – standard Swedish has no diphtongs. It’s a vowel followed by the consonant j.

  12. Dave says:

    Hmm. I say hey without the h. Usually just to get someone’s attention but also as a greeting. Anyone else do that? I’m from the PNW.

  13. webtraveller says:

    In Italy we say “ehi!”, pronounced ay, or “ehilà”, pronounced more or less ay-LAH, and “Oh!”
    Regional and dialectal exclamations include:
    *Aoh, typically Roman
    *Uè or uèla, used in the North (Milan etc.)
    *De’, pet phrase used in Leghorn, often preceded by “Boia”
    *Gaò, used in Pisa (I’m not sure)
    *Ué, used in Naples (don’t confuse ué with uè)
    *Mii, used in Sicily (abbreviation of mizzica, another typical exclamation of the Sicilian language)
    *Ajo’ (pronounced more or less ah-YO), used in Sardinia
    *Pota, used in some parts of Lombardy in cities like Bergamo and Brescia
    *Mea, characteristic pet phrase of Genoa
    *Ciò, very common in Venice (I’m not sure about the spelling, Venetian is recognised by UNESCO as a separate language and it has its own orthography)
    In the city of Lugano, in Switzerland, they say “Aé!”

    Other dialect exclamations from other countries I know are:
    *Foh, used in the city of Granada in Andalusia region, in Spain
    *Uai, used in Mineiro, dialect of Portuguese spoken in Brazil, which curiously derives from the English word why (same pronunciation).
    Sorry for possible grammatical mistakes.

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