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Journalists are taught to ask who, what, where, when, why, and how. If you answer all of these chances are you have the bones of a story. Why do all these words, with the exception of "how" start with "wh"? Is it coincidence or did they all originate from the same word? Perhaps it was a grunt type word like "huh?"

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Its common enough in languages. Latin also has these basic questions starting with 'q' i.e. Quis, quid, quando, etc. –  Thursagen May 23 '11 at 23:50
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@Third Idiot: Latin and English are both Indo-European languages, so they both inherited that trait (the sounds themselves just evolved in different directions between the two languages). –  Kosmonaut May 24 '11 at 0:12
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Is german a Indo-european language? –  Thursagen May 24 '11 at 3:24
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@Matt [Finnish, Hungarian, and Estonian], which are part of another language family (the Finno-Ugric), and Basque, which is not known to be related to any language! –  nohat May 24 '11 at 5:52
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Finnish does have the same trait though. Interrogative words tend to start with "M" - Miksi, mikä, missä, mihin, milloin.... (Why, what, where, where to, when) –  Pekka 웃 May 24 '11 at 10:27
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3 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

These are all interrogative words so there is nothing weird that they all share the same prefix "wh".

And actually there are more than 600 English words that start with "wh", even there is a history for "wh", there won't exist a strong connection between that history and the set of interrogative words.

From Wikipedia:

Early history of ‹wh›

What is now English ‹wh› originated as the Proto-Indo-European consonant *kʷ. As a result of Grimm's Law, Indo-European voiceless stops became voiceless fricatives in most environments in Germanic languages. Thus the labialized velar stop *kʷ initially became presumably a labialized velar fricative *xʷ in pre-Proto-Germanic, then probably becoming *[ʍ] in Proto-Germanic proper. The sound was used in Gothic and represented by the symbol known as hwair; in Old English it was spelled as ‹hw›. The spelling was changed to ‹wh› in Middle English, but it retained the pronunciation [ʍ], in some dialects as late as the present day.

Because Proto-Indo-European interrogative words typically began with *kʷ, English interrogative words (such as who, which, what, when, where) typically begin with ‹wh›. As a result of this tendency, a common grammatical phenomenon affecting interrogative words has been given the name wh-movement, even in reference to languages in which interrogative words do not begin with ‹wh›.

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Is there any reason Proto-Indo-European interrogative words typically began with *kʷ? Is it typical for words of the same type to start with the same sound? –  ChrisWerry May 24 '11 at 2:41
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@Jamie it would be helpful if you could give a summary rather than a quote, especially for a passage that is so dense in jargon –  1'' May 24 '11 at 2:52
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@Chris it's not really an appropriate question for this site, per se, but they probably all derived from the same word with a generic question meaning, with different endings indicating the grammatical case. –  nohat May 24 '11 at 5:55
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@Chris the original question at the top of this page is fine, because it is about the history of English, but the question posed in your comment above is really better suited for the upcoming Linguistics Stack Exchange. I do hope you will commit to the proposal and ask the question when it goes into beta. My comment is just a guess, an Indo-Europeanist would probably have a more authoritative answer. –  nohat May 24 '11 at 6:40
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What about "how"? –  Louis Rhys May 24 '11 at 9:42
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As an appropriate greeting to another new user, Whæt ho! The wh-/qwa- consonant is Germanic in origin; it's a standard sound in OE and ME. Full OED details below. Someone else can do a proper commentary I'm sure.

Etymology:

Old English hwā = Old Frisian hwā, Old Saxon hwe, hwie (Middle Dutch, Dutch wie), Old High German hwer, wer (Middle High German, German wer), Old Danish hwa (Danish hvo), Gothic hwas, feminine hwo < Old Germanic *χwaz, *χwez < Indo-European *qwos, *qwes. For oblique forms see whom pron., whose pron. For the vocalism compare two adj., n., and adv.

Indo-European qwo-, qwe-, qwā- are represented outside Germanic by Sanskrit ka, feminine kā, neuter kad (what pron., adj.1, adv., int., conj., and n.), Avestan kô, kâ, kat, Lithuanian kàs, Old Church Slavonic kŭ-to (Russian kto), Greek πότερος, Ionic κότερος, etc., Latin quī, quæ, quod, Umbrian poi who, Oscan pod what, Old Irish cia, cé, cad, ca-ch any one, ca-te, co-te what is, Welsh pwy who, pa what, paup any one, Gaelic co who; the variant qwi- is represented by Sanskrit kis (interrog. particle), cid (indef. particle), kim what, how, why, etc., Avestan čiš, Greek τίς, τί ( < *τίδ), Latin quis, quid, Umbrian sve-pis if any one, Oscan pis, pid, Old Church Slavonic čĭ-to what (Russian čto), Irish, Gaelic ciod. For the stem-types as represented in derivative formations in English see when adv., where adv. and conj., whether pron., adj., and conj., which pron. and adj., whither n.1, whon n. and adj., why adv., and how adv.

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Adding on to what Nicholas, Kosmonaut, and Jamie have said, here are some examples. Hindi is a language that is mainly derived from Sanskrit. English and German are Germanic languages.

English         German       Hindi
What            Was          Kyaa
When            Wenn         Kab
Where           Wo           Kidhar/Kahaan
Who             Wer          Kaun

Perhaps someone can add a column for other languages from the same family tree.

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Russian: что, когда, где, кто. Oh wait... –  RegDwigнt May 24 '11 at 10:45
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@RegDwight: [g] in где is historically the result of voicing [k] before the voiced consonant [d] (after [ъ] fell out in the initial interrogative sequence къ-); in что, [kь] underwent palatlization, whereas the -ъ- vs -ь- distinction in к[ъ]то "who" vs к[ь]то "what" was initially probably the distinction between two declination models, one for masculine, the other for neuter. (Compare with the corresponding Sanskrit words.) –  imz -- Ivan Zakharyaschev May 24 '11 at 12:32
    
Haha, I should post more jokes about Russian etymology, they seem to attract the right kind of people. (How come this is your first post in 43 days, @imz?) –  RegDwigнt May 24 '11 at 12:42
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@RegDwight: I have been just looking around, sometimes attracted by the ads on other SE sites. I had no important questions myself, or better and interesting answers. I'm interested in theoretical linguistics, so I could notice some observations about English interesting from the point of view of the current theory, and wanted to "bookmark" ("star") them to return later. And I've been voting up sensible things while looking around here. I like to share explanations for things known to me, so I commented here. –  imz -- Ivan Zakharyaschev May 24 '11 at 12:57
    
@imz: do check out our chat some time. Lots of linguisticky stuff in there. –  RegDwigнt May 24 '11 at 13:08
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