What does “all right” mean in Yorkshire, England?
November 27, 2022 9:33 PM   Subscribe

During a recent visit I found myself in the following ambiguous scenario:

while walking on Sheffield’s Canal Towpath, I sit down on some grass to remove a twig from my shoe. Guy walking a dog walks past, looks at me, says “all right” with a quick nod of the head, and keeps going. The ambiguous part is I cant tell, on the basis of inflection, if “all right” is interrogative or declarative. I’m not sure if he was asking me “are you all right?” and inviting an answer, or saying ”I’m all right” self-referentially, or simply saying “hello.” I didn’t say anything and just nodded a little. Thoughts?

This was just one of several times I heard the phrase there as well as in Leeds, and didn’t know exactly how to respond.

Larger context: Much like the English, I get nervous about saying the wrong thing (or not saying the right thing) and accidentally offending people, so seemingly trivial stuff like this is actually kind of important to me. Thanks
posted by BadgerDoctor to Human Relations (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I had the same confusion as you when I first visited England.

I'd say generally it's declarative, but sometimes interrogative -- sometimes when I'd nod and smile (after realising my interlocutor usually wasn't seeking an answer) I'd get a long look as if in anticipation of a reply.
posted by NatalieWood at 9:47 PM on November 27, 2022

Best answer: It's a way of saying hello, the appropriate response is a small nod of the head and another "all right".
posted by gregjones at 9:49 PM on November 27, 2022 [13 favorites]

Response by poster: Addendum: if “all right” is used in your neck of the (English) woods, and if your neck of woods is somewhere other than Yorkshire, please feel free to weigh in as well
posted by BadgerDoctor at 9:51 PM on November 27, 2022

In my completely non scientific study of brit media, I have come to the conclusion that it is a greeting like hello, in most of the US, or up your ass, in Philadelphia.
posted by evilDoug at 9:51 PM on November 27, 2022 [15 favorites]

I had the same problem/question when I studied abroad in England. It made the most sense to me to think of it as it equivalent to "How are you?" in the United States -- sort of like hello, sort of like wanting to know how you are, but most importantly NOT based on any idea that you might not be all right. Before I realized this I though I was looking especially stressed or sad all the time.
posted by kjnet at 10:11 PM on November 27, 2022 [3 favorites]

Yes I would say “alright” just like this as an acknowledgment/greeting. A nod in response would be fine. I live the midlands and am from the London suburbs.
posted by plonkee at 10:25 PM on November 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

Relevant Tom Scott video.
posted by xedrik at 10:26 PM on November 27, 2022 [9 favorites]

I think tone matters. With a rising inflection it turns into a question to which the answer is “fine thanks”. But that’s more with someone you know
posted by plonkee at 10:26 PM on November 27, 2022

British person here.

tl;dr: People in Yorkshire have a reputation for being taciturn and, dare I say it, a bit grumpy, but pretty much everywhere outside of London people are liable to help you with something minor if you ask them. In this case, he was both being polite and also giving you a chance to ask for help if you needed it.

Longer answer:

"Alright" is both a greeting and an opportunity for you to say if there is a problem. In the situation you were in it was a low stakes way of asking if you needed help, but with the get out of just being a totally normal thing two strangers might say to each other in a situation where they've accidentally made eye contact and don't know each other but don't want to be rude,

The usual response is a nod of the head as you did with the reflective response of another "alright", or some kind of short positive answer like "morning" or "afternoon" (depending on the time of day; in case it's not clear these are short for "good morning" and "good afternoon" but you would never, ever say the full phrase unless you want to sound posh af and totally out of touch with normal humans).

As the "alright" in this case is also a question (because you were sitting down doing something and that's a bit unusual) you can explain yourself to acknowledge and assuage any concerns - "yeah, just trying to get something out of my shoe" - in which case he'd say something like "Ah, ok" and be on his way, knowing that you didn't need help.

Or, you could ask for help - "er, no, I'm struggling a bit with this, don't suppose you've got a penknife or a screwdriver or something I could prise this out with have you?" - because "alright" is a question as well as a greeting, and you're allowed to answer it honestly.
posted by underclocked at 10:27 PM on November 27, 2022 [27 favorites]

Best answer: I'm from Sheffield. It means hello.

Grammatically I suppose it's interrogative. But you're not supposed to answer. You just repeat it.

It's similar to "how's it going?" or "what's up?" or "how do you do?", but even less question-like than those. You probably wouldn't bother with a question mark if writing it down as dialog, and you it would be extremely strange to answer with even a pro forma "good" or "fine". (On preview: of course if you need help then feel free to ask for help, whether or not someone has just said "alright" to you.)
posted by caek at 10:28 PM on November 27, 2022 [12 favorites]

I am an American living in London. I first noticed this phrase when I took my laptop to the coffee shop. I thought the owner was asking if I was unwell but it was a standard greeting.

Though it is similar to my California “how’s it goin,” a difference to me seems to be that British greetings, even if you know the person well, expect a yes/no answer instead of “pretty good.” Instead there might typically be a pause where the person runs through a mental accounting of how much difficulty there has been over the last week. And then as if willing to see a ray of hope in the misery that British people love to emphasize, as if they might still make it to Friday, like “yes, I am daring to think that everything might still turn out sort of OK,” they let out a tentative “….yeah!”
posted by johngoren at 10:47 PM on November 27, 2022 [4 favorites]

I live in Milton Keynes. It means hello.

When I first moved here from NZ I, like you, was similarly perplexed. I wondered why people seemed to keep asking after me. It was during a conversation with my hairdresser about NZ v British idioms that I learned it meant hello.

To corroborate I have told this story many times over the years to British friends, much to their amusement. Many will also go on to explain that when they ask “how are you” you are supposed to say something like “fine”. (A good friend was recently perplexed on a visit to Australia when people actually told her how they were feeling in answer to this question)
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 12:16 AM on November 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

Here's Terence Stamp beginning a monologue with it.
posted by johngoren at 12:25 AM on November 28, 2022

Xedric cites Tom Scott. I am a bit of a fanboy for Tom Scott not least because he usually manages to get his point across in less than five minutes. A'right[?] etc. are phatic expressions. These are the verbal equivalent of two primates riffling through each other's fur looking for lice and skin flakes as appetizers for a more substantial dinner. For the primates, reducing the load of ectoparasites is a positive evolutionary benefit but the primary purpose of the activity is demonstrable active care-and-attention between two relatives / allies.

I've been interested in phatic expressions for a while; especially since I noticed how much of human conversation consists solely or mainly of such content-free babble. Tom Scott cites the common greetings: How are you? ➙ How're you? ➙ How r ya? ➙ Howya ➙ Hiya. When I started work at The Institute, Hiya was my [non-standard in the Irish Midlands] corridor greeting for acquaintances. But it elicited "Fine thanks, and you?" too often for comfort [as if I really cared tuppence if they'd had a domestic argument over breakfast]. So I switched to G'day even if I wasn't fitted out like Crocodile Dundee.

At work, listening to people talking in class, in the canteen, in the corridors, an awful lot of the word-count was repeating the end of the one person's sentence and maybe adding a bit to the end as the other's contribution. All it means is I am listening, I heard what you had to say, you are sagacious, generous and my friend . . . I do not intend in the near future to assault you with this plate of salad . . . nor will I seek small invertebrates about your person. The trouble is that, once heard, you cannot avoid hearing this vapid prattle all the time. It's not all bad though, it shows that you can get to a +50% fluency in any foreign language; enough to win friends and influence people with maybe 200 words of formulaic clichés. In these islands off the coast of Europe, you're off to a great start if you know a few weather-related phrases: Brutal . . . lashing . . . Baltic . . . phew wot a scorcher . . . worst/best/wettest Summer since records began.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:42 AM on November 28, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: As mentioned "alright" is just a greeting, to which the appropriate response is "alright", with small nod of head (no smiling or anything needed).

That said, some additional context may help, which is that most Brits don't really say hello to people passing, except some specific environments when it's rarer to pass someone - so some country paths, river banks, and towpaths (especially towpaths). Even then it can be a bit reluctant.

It means "hello" but also "I acknowledge your existence in this space where I really can't, unfortunately, pretend you don't exist," hence the quick reverse agreement and go about your day.
posted by iivix at 12:47 AM on November 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

I moved to Yorkshire from California and was so confused by this! I agree with the above but to me, it’s a bit more like “what’s up” or even ‘sup. That can be a passing greeting or a question, depending on tone. Which of course is hard to interpret at first.

From experience, replying with “yeah, you?” confuses people to no end. If I know someone already, replying with “what’s up” also confuses people but in a hilarious way. Like two droids in their own planet tongues.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:01 AM on November 28, 2022 [4 favorites]

American living in Bristol, England here. I second the “sup” analogy — if the tone sounds like a statement, not a question, the correct response is to echo it back. I’ve found I can’t get away with saying “all right” yet, so I say “hiya” or “sup” or some such. It’s also fun to put people on the back foot by responding “how’s it going?” or “good, you?” and watching them realize they don’t have a response on file…
posted by cabbage raccoon at 1:27 AM on November 28, 2022 [3 favorites]

I live in London, it means hi. But when I moved to this country (20 years ago) I was very confused by 'alright' for a long time.
posted by unicorn chaser at 2:26 AM on November 28, 2022

Yes, “all right” is Yorkshire for “hello”. As with any question asking how you are in Britain, the correct answer is to repeat it, definitely not to explain what’s wrong
posted by tillsbury at 2:28 AM on November 28, 2022 [3 favorites]

"Alright" isn't just Yorkshire for hello, it's used all over the UK.

I've been searching for a TikTok on this I saw a few months ago, but being old, can't refind it. Allow me to reconstruct it in words. It was a US student spending a semester at a UK university. A kind of "Fitting into life in the UK - a story in 3 Acts" kind of thing.

Act 1: She walks down a corridor. A guy walks past her in the opposite direction and mumbles "Alright?" as he passes, without making eye contact or breaking step. She halts suddenly and looks at him, looking startled. Says: "Yes! I'm OK! Do I not look OK? Have I got something in my teeth? I'm a little tired I guess, but..." He is long gone by this point, having not stopped to listen to her reply.

Act 2: Same again. He mumbles "Alright" without looking up or breaking step. This time she's ready - she knows now that this is a greeting, not an expression of concern! She stops walking, grins and enthusiastically says "Yes, I'm fine, thank you!" But he's gone, hasn't stopped to listen to her reply.

Act 3: Same again. He grunts "Alright?" She grunts "Alright?" without making eye contact or breaking step. She's finally assimilated.
posted by penguin pie at 2:43 AM on November 28, 2022 [8 favorites]

People do this in New Orleans also! It was one of my favorite street greetings there (other things were often borderline harassment, “alright” is just a nice neutral acknowledgement rather than an ass comment.)
posted by Lawn Beaver at 4:28 AM on November 28, 2022

In America this might be rendered as two people saying "Hey" to each other in turn.

Honestly it's just a grunt of acknowledgement that you are present. Better than being ignored!
posted by wenestvedt at 4:41 AM on November 28, 2022

Best answer: I am from Yorkshire. I lived in Sheffield for many years. 'Alright' in this context means a similar thing in many areas of the country. It's an acknowledgement of your presence, and your mutual awareness. It's a verbal form of a nod, or a cap raise (in ye olden times). It means 'we are both here in this moment/place, we are aware of eachother's presence, I am not concerned with any thing other than those bare facts, no further contact is required'.
posted by freya_lamb at 6:36 AM on November 28, 2022 [2 favorites]

Relatedly: Bill Bailey explains how to respond when a British person says 'How are you?'

That's why the standard greeting in Britain .. 'How are you?' 'Not too bad.' That's as good as it gets in old Blighty, 'Not too bad.' Things are clearly bad, but they're not quite as bad as we thought they were going to be. We've dialled down our expectation to an acceptable level of disappointment. We're eking out our expectation in diminishing increments of reduced joy. Things are not too bad. There's the abyss. We're not in the abyss, we're in the car park and snack area adjacent to the abyss. Not too bad.
posted by verstegan at 8:36 AM on November 28, 2022 [4 favorites]

As an interesting aside, "alright" is also used as goodbye in my experience in the States, especially when talking on the phone.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 8:46 AM on November 28, 2022

This is one of those fascinating American/British English differences.

A phatic expression is one in which the literal meaning of the phrase is not the social/figurative meaning of the phrase. "How are you?" is an American phatic expression that generally means "hello".

In the United States, "are you all right?" is not a phatic expression. In the UK, it is. So, to an American ear "ya alright?" or "alright?" sounds like a genuine question, when in fact, it is intended as a phatic expression that means "hello".
posted by rhymedirective at 11:57 AM on November 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

In my completely non scientific study of brit media...

Yeah, careful with that. Colloquial english as spoken between working-class men on a canal towpath in the not-so-leafy end of Sheffield is, let's say, not over-represented in the media. It would take living here to start to know the difference between 'reyt' (as in the OP) and 'na den', which is a much more familiar and conversation-inviting greeting.
posted by vincebowdren at 2:55 AM on November 29, 2022

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