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Wer, wie, was, wieso, weshalb, warum. Wer nicht fragt bleibt dumm.

This is the theme song to the German Sesame Street, IIRC It roughly translates to:

Who, how, what, why, why ,why. If you don't ask you stay stupid.

Anyhow the German question words all start with W. English seems to have fewer words for the same meaning compared to German and one of them is an exception and does not start with W. Why? English and German are both Germanic languages. So what happened here?

Also I did a quick check to be sure that why really has at least three counterparts in German. Did English have those and lost them?

Wer --> Who
Wie --> how
Was --> what
Wieso --> why
Weshalb --> why
Warum --> why

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"I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all i knew); their names are What and Why and When And How And Where and Who." – Rudyard Kipling –  Peter Shor Mar 29 '14 at 11:25
I’m not sure English really has fewer than German. Some other English ones include whence, whither, which, wherefore, when, whom, whose. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 29 '14 at 12:02
@Carsten: in fact, German does seem to have lost an original word for why. Wiktionary gives cognates of why in Middle High German (wiu), Danish and Swedish (hvi) and Faroese and Icelandic (hví), but not modern German. –  Peter Shor Mar 29 '14 at 13:59
@PeterShor, the modern German cognate for that is simply wie. It’s just that this has come to mean ‘how’, rather than ‘why’ these days. (The Scandinavian words are also no longer in common use, except in Faroese. In normal speech, Danish and Swedish use hvorfor and varför ‘wherefor’, and Icelandic uses af hverju ‘[because] of what’.) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 29 '14 at 14:02
Dutch is geographically in between German and English, and the Dutch translation would be "Wie, hoe, wat, hoezo, waardoor, waarom". "hoe" sounds like English "who", but shorter. So Dutch has made a similar wie/hoe/how transition, including wieso/hoezo/how so, and we don't have a simple cognate for "why" either. –  RemcoGerlich Mar 29 '14 at 19:22

3 Answers 3

up vote 33 down vote accepted

English has—twice—gone through a phonetic change that has caused some upheaval in these pronouns.

The initial consonant

Originally, all of them (in Proto-Germanic) started with /ʍ/, that is, an unvoiced /w/. This is still found in some English dialects today; in Ireland and Scotland, for example, most people pronounce ‘wile (away the time)’ as [waɪl], but ‘while’ as [ʍaɪl]. This sound is a voiceless labio-velar approximant, meaning it is pronounced with the lips round (labial) and with the back of the tongue moved up towards the the soft palate (velar).


However, in the earliest stages of English, when this sound came before a rounded high or mid-high back vowel (i.e., [o] or [u]), which are also both labial and velar to a certain extent, it kind of became ‘too much’ for the speakers. Too much labialness, at least. So they dissimilated the sounds: /ʍo/ and /ʍu/ became /ho/ and /hu/.1

At that time, the word that is now ‘how’ was simply /ʍuː/, which of course turned into /huː/. The word that is now ‘who’ was /ʍaː/, and since that had a front vowel, it was not affected and remained as it was.

By the time they started writing down English, this change had already happened, so they wrote ‹hu› (‹hū›) and ‹hwa› (‹hwā›).

Vowel changes

Later on, English went through the Great Vowel Shift, which is basically a lot of the vowels moving about a bit. /uː/ regularly became [au] (like in German), and /aː/ usually became [oː]. Once this had happened, of course, the underlying, phonemic form /huː/ was pronounced [hau] or [haʊ], and there was no longer any clue whatsoever that it had once started with a /ʍ/.

The vowel shift also meant that earlier /ʍaː/ became /ʍoː/, written now ‹who› or ‹hwo›. This form then fell prey to the same dissimilation that had happened centuries earlier to /ʍuː/. /ʍoː/ became [hoː].

Later on, through a somewhat spurious and irregular change, the vowel in [hoː] became raised so that we end up with what we have today, which is pronounced [huː], but still written ‹who›.

And of course, in most dialects of Modern English, the distinction between voiced /w/ and unvoiced /ʍ/ has been lost, just like it was in German and Dutch several hundred years before.2

Several words for why

It is true that German has several words that can all be translated as ‘why’ (you mention wieso, weshalb, and warum). This doesn’t actually mean that English used to have these too, and just lost them—rather the opposite.

All Germanic languages have the possibility of creating compounds from interrogative pronouns by adding one of two things:

  • Intensifiers and other pragmatic markers
  • Preposition (or noun in the dative case, meaning ‘in the manner of X’)

English makes good use of the first (such words as who(so)ever, where(soe)ver, what(so)ever, why(so)ever), but more limited use of the second (wherefore, whereto, whereby, etc., all of which in addition belong to a somewhat more formal register).

German does it the other way around. I’m no great shakes at German, but apart from wieso I can’t actually think of any examples from the first category. In the second category, however, just about any preposition can be added to an interrogative stem.

Wieso is literally ‘why-so’, just like in English whysoever, except without -ever.

Weshalb contains wes, and old genitive form of was ‘what’ and wer ‘who’ (corresponding to English whose, which is the genitive of ‘who’ and ‘what’) + an old noun Halbe ‘half, side, direction’. So the original meaning was ‘in/on the direction/side/part of what?’.

Warum contains an old interrogative wâr, which has nowadays become wo ‘where’ + the preposition um ‘about, because of’. So the original meaning was ‘because of what’ (identical to ‘wherefore’, just with a different preposition).

By adding prepositions to the basic interrogative, German can create extremely specific wh-words; this is indeed not quite possible in English. For example, wozwischen ‘between what?’ is perfectly fine in German, but wherebetween (or wheretwixt if you want to be a bit Shakespearean) does not work in English.

But of original, shared, words for ‘why’ between German and English, there is only really one: wie in German (which has now come to mean ‘how’, rather than ‘why’, except in wieso) and why in English. The rest are later innovations in both German and English.

1 This is a very common phenomenon in many languages. Compare how in Latin /kʷo/ and /kʷu/ (written as ‹quo› and ‹quu›, respectively) often become /ko/ and /ku/ if there’s another labial element nearby: coquō ‘I cook’, for example, represents and earlier *quoquō.

2 Similarly, the East Nordic languages (Danish, Swedish, and some dialects in Norway) have lost the distinction, but the West Nordic languages (Icelandic, Faroese, and some western dialects in Norway) have retained it. In Old Norse, /w/ became /v/, though, and the original /ʍ/ has now mostly become [kv] (from an earlier [hv] or [χv]) where it is retained.

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@Display, that's rather a difficult task: the sound changes in question mean that the sequences of sound they affect do not exist, and cannot exist, in English phonotactics (and some of the vowels don't exist in English at all anymore). Given how badly English spelling matches pronunciation, it's practically impossible to represent something like [ʍoː] in regular English orthography. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 29 '14 at 13:14
How come? and What for? are substitutes for why which have not been lost: "Why did you do that?" "How come you did that?" "What did you do that for?" You shouldn't discount these just because they're two-word expressions. –  Peter Shor Mar 29 '14 at 13:45
Wherefore is another one. The ‘extra’ German ones are all compounds, just like wherefore and what for: weshalb ‘on the side of what?’, weswegen ‘through the means of what?’, warum ‘because of what?’ (= ‘whereabout’, literally), etc. They are not simple, basic interrogatives that have been lost in English, but extensions of the simple words that simply have not been created in English. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 29 '14 at 13:58
Question words are a special class, and all of them in Germanic languages start with /w/, /hw/, or (in German) /v/. This is a result of Grimm's Law, which applies to Germanic languages and (among many other effects) turns the Proto-Indo-European labiodental stop *_kʷ_ into the Proto-Germanic labiodental fricative *_xʷ_. This is what got pronounced [ʍ]. All the PIE question works started with *_kʷ_, and this shows up in Latin with the pronouns that are spelled with QU most of the time: quis, quid, quo, cuius, qui, quae, quod, quibus, etc. They're cognate with English WH pronouns. –  John Lawler Mar 29 '14 at 15:19
@John, easier (and more accurate) to say they started with /hw/ in Proto-Germanic, and with the plethora of outcomes that yields in various modern Germanic languages. Norwegian is particularly tricky, having a triple reflex, somewhat randomly distributed among dialects: [k], [kv], and [v]. Most Icelandic dialects have [kv], but a few minor ones have [χv] or even just [χ]. Standard Danish has [v], but in Jutland [w] or [ʍ] is more common. Dutch has mostly [ʋ]. And so on and so forth. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 29 '14 at 15:39

English how is indeed an irregularity in the row of question words that all with the exception of how have the initial spelling wh, but the pronunciation is either /w/ as in what, where, when or /h/ as in who, how. It seems to be a bit difficult to explain the spelling and pronunciation of how as etymonline and the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology refrain from explaining sufficiently this particularity. It may be that at a certain time in the development of English the pronunciation of the words who and how became almost similar and to avoid this a process of differentiation began.

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Could you please use italics or quotes when you're mentioning a word instead of using it? I'm having a very difficult time reading this answer. –  Bradd Szonye Mar 29 '14 at 23:40

To your question regarding there being so many words for "why" in German:

There are actually 5 that I can think of in German, the two others are weswegen and wozu.

There are two things to point out: only "warum" is not a compound word. The rest are formed by combining more basic question words with prepositions. English has compound question words as well, so I am not sure it would be accurate to say that they have been "lost" in English. These more "exotic" question words just aren't as common in modern English.

The other thing to point out is that they all differ slightly in meaning. Here is an overview of what they mean if you translate a bit more literally.

  • Warum: "why?"
  • Wieso: "how so?"
  • Weshalb: "wherefore?" (the question word analog of "therefore")
  • Weswegen: "because of what?"
  • Wozu: "for what purpose?"

In short, they all mean "why", but they aren't all necessarily interchangeable.

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Somehow missed this previously. Warum is a compound, too (war = wo + um), just a less transparent one in terms of Modern German. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 23 '14 at 18:34
@JanusBahsJacquet Interesting. I must say it definitely is not transparent, considering that in modern German there is "worum" which has a completely different meaning. –  Tim Seguine Jul 25 '14 at 22:31

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