Generally speaking, the rules of a language follow the same patterns.
For example, when speaking English and asking a question, the subject of the question almost always comes before the main verb, while an auxiliary verb such as “do” or “have” precedes the subject.
However, that hasn’t always been the case. The further back we go in the history of the English language, the more different the rules get.
While those different rules don’t matter much unless you’re a historian or scholar of historical languages, there can be some cases where older constructions hang around long into modernity.
Today’s topic, “What say you?” is a great example of that.
What is the meaning of “What say you?”
The expression “what say you?” is identical in meaning to the question “What do you say?” This archaic phrasing, which lacks the word “do” and places the verb before the pronoun, comes down to us from Middle English. Although this expression has a long history, it is only used regularly today in legal English, where it can be used to ask for official responses to questions.
How do I use “what say you?” in a conversation?
The phrasing of “What say you?” is very formal. That means you’re highly unlikely to be using it in an actual conversation.
That aside, you can use this question any time you would normally ask “What do you say?” There are no special circumstances required for this archaic expression to be used, or any difference in meaning between the two grammatical questions.
The question can be asked either as a whole sentence by itself, or in any other way you would ask the question “What do you say.”
For example, if you wanted to ask what someone thought about a specific topic or idea, in normal English you might ask “What do you say to an ice cream?”
This expression, while outdated, can be used in the same way. Simply add “to” and the final clause to the end of the question. That is, instead of “What do you say to an ice cream?” you could ask “What say you to an ice cream?”
Although the phrasing is different, the meaning is the same.
In this example, which might not be out of place in a Jane Austen novel, a character asks Miss Bennett if she would like to take a walk. Despite the archaic phrasing, the question is identical in meaning to “What do you say to that idea?”
Here, “What say you?” is a question that stands alone in a sentence. Again, the meaning of this question is the same.
Does the phrase “What say you?” have a different meaning in a legal setting?
The most common place the phrasing “what say you?” is used is in a court of law.
The reasons for this are complicated, and have mostly to do with English law in particular.
English law is an extremely conservative institution, and its language today reflects a time in the early Medieval period of history when those practicing law in England needed to understand French (the language of the English nobility), English (the language of the common people) and Latin (the language of scholarship and law in general).
Regardless of the history behind the phrase, its use in a legal setting is typically to ask for an official response from the defendant in a case.
This isn’t really a different meaning from its usual use, but rather a side effect of the different context.
Even if the judge were to ask less formally with “What do you say?” they would still expect an official response to the question.
In short, when you hear someone say “What say you?” in a legal context, you can interpret it as “What is your response to this?”
Here, the judge is asking for an official response to a very serious charge indeed.
Notice that the language in general is a bit more complex, as well. In regular speech, the clause “on the charges of first degree murder” would probably come after the question, and would follow a “to.”
Thinking back to our examples from the previous section, “What say you to that idea?” might be rephrased as “On the topic of that idea, what say you?”
It’s important to realize that, despite the more complex sentence structure, the overall meaning of the question doesn’t change.
Why is the word order backwards in “What say you?”
The question “What say you?” uses archaic grammar.
Although it may seem backwards to us, the truth is that the use of the auxiliary verb “do” to form questions is relatively modern.
The technical term for this kind of formulation is “periphrastic,” meaning that the verb forms the verb tense independently, rather than needing auxiliary (or helper) verbs like “do” or “will” or “have.”
Fortunately for everyone involved, there’s no need to go all the way down this Middle English rabbit hole to understand the meaning of “what say you?”
You simply need to keep in mind that the verb “say” is establishing the verb tense all by itself. Because that verb is present tense, this question means the same thing as “What do you say?”
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.