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The King James Bible has numerous instances of from thence/hence, including the famous line of Psalm 121:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.

Do thence/whence linger only as rhetorical variants for there/where in reference to place?

Or are these words only old-fashioned?

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'whence' is also an alternative to (not a variant of) 'from which (source/cause/place/origin/&c)'. I use it both formally and colloquially; but I suppose I'm old-fashioned, too. – StoneyB Aug 8 '12 at 0:12
They're very old-fashioned. Don't use them unless you want to sound weird. – Mitch Aug 8 '12 at 13:35
Don’t follow Mitch’s advice unless you want to sound boring. – tchrist Aug 8 '12 at 13:52
@tchrist I am new to this website, but, in the light of my brief experience, I don't see how Mitch's comments can possibly be useful. – Elberich Schneider Aug 8 '12 at 14:50
@ElberichSchneider These are commonly used words in academic mathematics literature. I agree that Mitch's comment does not add to the discussion, as it is completely inaccurate. – Flint72 Apr 16 '14 at 23:10
up vote 14 down vote accepted

EDIT: Moved important explanation of the 9 prefix/suffix combinations from below the quotations to above them.

No, whence and thence are not “rhetorical variants” on where and there. They mean something slightly different. And yes, they are still used — in literature, especially. In speech, not so much.

Although they have certainly lost currency with respect to their cousin hence, whence and thence are easily found in writers from over this past century. Some of these are poets; others are writers of fine literature who wish to impart a certain air to their works. Others are clumsy hacks who don’t know what they’re doing, but so has it always fallen out.

Following these directions I provide selected sample sentences taken from three writers of this century, each using one of these words — and using them correctly, too.

No, these are not textspeak gibberish, nor Post-it® Notes, nor casual conversation at the pub.

This is literature.

It is probably best for the non-native speaker to consider these fine words current but confined to the world of literature. It takes a certain gift, dare I say panache even, to dapple one’s speech with such words as these.

But if you do wind up using these somewhere, somewhen, please please make sure you use them correctly. Nothing is more grating on the ear and disruptive of the effect the author is trying to create in the reader than using them wrong.

It’s quite simple. As thither means “to there” and whither means “to where”, so too does thence mean “from there” and whence mean “from where”. On occasion thence can also mean “from that”, and whence can mean “from which”, but usually they are used in the locational sense given in the previous sentence.

Oh, and hence means (or can mean) “from here”, to make a matched set. It isn’t used that way very often, but I do have one instance of hence used as a match for whence and thence up in the Tolkien quotes: “Vengence calls me hence...” He uses hence there to mean “from here”, which lets you see how hence relates to its cousins.

In fact, all these words are interrelated.

Although their internal component morphemes are no longer used productively to form new words, the nine words each starting with one of h‑, wh‑, th‑ and ending with one of ‑ere, -ence, -ither are quite interesting, because once you learn what each of those residual bound morphemes means, you can infer what the pairing means. You can slice these either this way:

  • here, where, there
  • hither, whither, thither
  • hence, whence, thence

Or this way:

  • here, hither, hence
  • where, whither, whence
  • there, thither, thence

Each of those nine words has a unique meaning and use. They are essential location-related function words of the English language. Coming to understand the relation each of those words has to the others in its respective row and column (even the diagonals are interesting!) is guaranteed to bring insight if not enlightenment.

Samples follow.

George R.R. Martin

From A Song of Ice and Fire, we find:

  • Whence came their swords?
  • The guards let him out a postern gate in the north wall, and they rode down Shadowblack Lane to the foot of Aegon’s High Hill, and thence onto Pigrun Alley, past rows of shuttered windows and tall timber-and-stone buildings whose upper stories leaned out so far over the street they alm ost kissed.
  • Whence came the raven, then?”
  • Lord Vargo doubtless hoped that Lord Stannis would triumph at King’s Landing, and thence confirm him in his possession of this castle in gratitude for his small part in the downfall of House Lannister.
  • “Before he dies, the Enormity That Rides will tell me whence came his orders, please assure your lord father of that.” He smiled.
  • “Gulltown next,” her captain told her, “thence around the Fingers to Sisterton and White Harbor, if the storms allow.

Gene Wolfe

From the Book of the New Sun, we find these:

  • Palaemon too must have known whence all the apprentices and younger journeymen had come, having approved their admissions originally.
  • Then I know whence my dreams rose.
  • He came from the south, whence, as I am told, you come as well.
  • But I knew, I thought, whence he came?
  • When their universe was old, and galaxy so far separated from galaxy that the nearest could not be seen even as faint stars, and the ships were steered thence by ancient records alone, the thing was done.
  • He had vanished that morning as we walked down a gorge in Orithyia, when I would have taken him to Mannea of the Pelerines; on the ship I learned whence he had fled me.
  • But as the boy foreshadows the man, something of that faculty has reached you through the Corridors of Time. I cannot say whence you drew when you were on Urth. Partly from yourself, no doubt.
  • “We have such things in the House Absolute,” I said. “I see whence Father Inire took his model, though ours are not so well contrived.”
  • Whence comes this unslakable thirst to leave behind me a wandering trail of ink, I cannot say; but once I referred to a certain incident in the life of Ymar.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Saving the best for the last, also known as the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel category, from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, we have these impeccable exemplars:

  • Whence did the trolls get them, I wonder?’ said Thorin looking at his sword with new interest.
  • Whence it came we did not at first perceive.
  • Whence came the hobbit's ring?

  • ‘It is long since any of my own folk journeyed hither back to the land whence we wandered in ages long ago,’ said Legolas, ‘but we hear that Lórien is not yet deserted, for there is a secret power here that holds evil from the land.’

  • And when the wind is in the South the voice of Amroth comes up from the sea; for Nimrodel flows into Silverlode, that Elves call Celebrant, and Celebrant into Anduin the Great, and Anduin flows into the Bay of Belfalas whence the Elves of Lórien set sail.
  • Through Lorien we came – of which it were well that you should learn the truth ere you speak of it again – and thence down the leagues of the Great River to the falls of Rauros.
  • The water was gathered again into a stone basin in the floor between the trees, and thence it spilled and flowed away beside the open path, out to rejoin the Entwash in its journey through the forest.
  • Thence by strange roads I came, and messages I bring to some of you.
  • Thence it fell into the Deeping-coomb and out into the Westfold Vale.
  • There are caves in Helm’s Deep where hundreds may lie hid; and secret ways lead thence up on to the hills.
  • From the deep dales of Fangorn, Gimli, that is whence they come, I guess.
  • And in two days thence you shall see the purple shadow of Mount Mindolluin and the walls of the tower of Denethor white in the morning.
  • Thence it turned, smiting the Vale of Anduin with hail and lightning, and casting its shadow upon Minas Tirith with threat of war.
  • ‘But whence came the boat?’ ‘From Lórien,’ said Frodo.
  • ‘For it is perilous for mortal man to walk out of the world of this Sun, and few of old came thence unchanged, ’tis said. Boromir, O Boromir!’ he cried. ‘What did she say to you, the Lady that dies not?’
  • Whence do you come?
  • Still as stones they stood, staring, waiting for they did not know what. ‘It’s a trap!’ said Sam, and he laid his hand upon the hilt of his sword; and as he did so, he thought of the darkness of the barrow whence it came.
  • The entrance to the Citadel also looked eastward, but was delved in the heart of the rock; thence a long lamp-lit slope ran up to the seventh gate.
  • Whence came this?’ said Denethor.
  • The visit shall be short, a mere call of courtesy, and we will go thence to the butteries.
  • But whence this message came they are now in doubt.
  • Whence they came none knew, but they went up the stony road and vanished into the hill, as if they went to keep a tryst.
  • In the South the Haradrim are moving, and fear has fallen on all our coastlands, so that little help will come to us thence.
  • Whence come you?’ he said.
  • It is fifteen leagues thence to the vale of the Morgulduin, if they went straight south; and then they would be still five leagues westward of the accursed Tower.
  • As the dark drew on I knew that haste was needed, so I rode thence with three others that could also be horsed.
  • Swiftly then he told of the haunted road under the mountains, and the dark tryst at Erech, and the great ride thence, ninety leagues and three, to Pelargir on Anduin.
  • ‘And, maybe,’ said Imrahil, ‘the road that leads thence to the pass above will prove an easier way of assault upon the Dark Lord than his northern gate.’
  • Thence, turning and encircling all its wide girth from south to north, it climbed at last, high in the upper cone, but still far from the reeking summit, to a dark entrance that gazed back east straight to the Window of the Eye in Sauron’s shadow-mantled fortress.
  • Merry was summoned and rode away with the wains that took store of goods to Osgiliath and thence by ship to Cair Andros; but Faramir did not go, for now being healed he took upon him his authority and the Stewardship, although it was only for a little while, and his duty was to prepare for one who should replace him.

  • But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that they are its life and it is theirs.

  • But of Olórin that tale does not speak; for though he loved the Elves, he walked among them unseen, or in form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts.
  • And though the Valar knew naught of it as yet, nonetheless the evil of Melkor and the blight of his hatred flowed out thence, and the Spring of Arda was marred.
  • Thence he governs the flowing of all waters, and the ebbing, the courses of an rivers and the replenishment of Springs, the distilling of all dews and rain in every land beneath the sky.
  • For the Elves die not till tile world dies, unless they are slain or waste in grief (and to both these seeming deaths they are subject); neither does age subdue their strength, unless one grow weary of ten thousand centuries; and dying they are gathered to the halls of Mandos in Valinor, whence they may in time return.
  • There he lay upon his face before the feet of Manwë and sued for pardon; but his prayer was denied, and he was cast into prison in the fastness of Mandos, whence none can escape, neither Vala, nor Elf, nor mortal Man.
  • Therefore Oromë did not lead the hosts of the Eldalië into the far north, but brought them to the fair lands about the River Sirion, that afterwards were named Beleriand; and from those shores whence first the Eldar looked in fear and wonder on the Sea there stretched an ocean, wide and dark and deep, between them and the Mountains of Aman.
  • Of these one was afterwards planted in Tol Eressëa, and it prospered there, and was named Celeborn; thence came in the fullness of time as is elsewhere told, Nimloth, the White Tree of Númenor.
  • And they said that thence he had turned northward, for the Teleri in Alqualondë had seen his shadow going by their haven towards Araman.
  • The Eldar knew not whence she came; but some have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda, when Melkor first looked down in envy upon the Kingdom of Manwë, and that in the beginning she was one of those that he corrupted to his service.
  • Thence she had crept towards the light of the Blessed Realm; for she hungered for light and hated it.
  • Vengeance calls me hence, but even were it otherwise I would not dwell longer in the same land with the kin of my father’s slayer and of the thief of my treasure.
  • More than any others of the Exiles they carried thence memories of the bliss they had forsaken, and some even of the things that they had made there they took with them: a solace and a burden on the road.
  • Whence they came, or what they were, the Elves knew not then, thinking them perhaps to be Avari who had become evil and savage in the wild; in which they guessed all too near, it is said.
  • Thence on a sudden a great army came into Beleriand and assailed King Thingol.
  • When twenty years of the Sun had passed, Fingolfin King of the Noldor made a great feast; and it was held in the spring near to the pools of Ivrin, whence the swift river Narog rose, for there the lands were green and fair at the feet of the Mountains of Shadow that shielded them from the north.
  • Thence they thrust down the Pass of Sirion in the west, and in the east they burst through the land of Maglor, in the gap between the hills of Maedhros and the outliers of the Blue Mountains.
  • But their chief fortress was at Eithel Sirion in the east of Ered Wethrin, whence they kept watch upon Ard-galen; and their cavalry rode upon that plain even to the shadow of Thangorodrim, for from few their horses had increased swiftly, and the grass of Ard-galen was rich and green.
  • It was a hollow land, surrounded by mountains and great coast-cliffs higher than the plains behind, and no river flowed thence; and there was a great mere in the midst of Nevrast, with no certain shores, being encircled by wide marshes.
  • But in Angrod’s heart the memory of the words of Caranthir welled up again in bitterness, and he cried: Lord, I know not what lies you have heard, nor whence; but we came not red-handed. Guiltless we came forth, save maybe of folly, to listen to the words of fell Fëanor, and become as if besotted with wine, and as briefly.
  • Of old he was of the kin of Thingol, but he was restless and ill at ease in Doriath, and when the Girdle of Melian was set about the Forest of Region where he dwelt he fled thence to Nan Elmoth.

Ok, ok — I’ll stop there. That is not exhaustive, but you should certainly by now get the idea. There are many, many more where that came from. I’ve but scratched the surface of The Silmarillion. The thing to remember is that these examples are not even taken from Tolkien’s archaic-mode writings, whence many more example could be readily drawn at need.

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+1 just for the effort. You go way above and beyond the call of duty! – American Luke Aug 8 '12 at 2:16
Whether they were written when Tokien was in 'archaic mode' or not, I don't believe that fantasy novels are a reliable source for investigating archaism. It's a bit like investigating the modern use of double-spacing, but restricting the study to retirement homes :) – coleopterist Aug 8 '12 at 5:24
@coleopterist: As the closing comment of my answer says, I was surprised at how often these seldom-heard words were used in literature – and it's not just sci-fi, Gulliver's Travels, and the writings of Lewis and Clark. We believe infinite progress to be the destiny of man, because there is infinite existence from whence he came comes from a 1998 book discussing evolution; a 1995 encyclopedia of food and nutrition says, From whence meat comes, and on & on it goes. Maybe this answer could've been more balanced with fewer Tolkien references, but tchrist is right, the words are indeed in use. – J.R. Aug 8 '12 at 8:30
+1 so, to write 'from hence' is strictly reduntant -- because 'from' is part of the meaning of 'hence' itself? – Elberich Schneider Aug 8 '12 at 10:21
The important thing about Tolkien is that he was a linguist writing books about language disguised as adventure novels. – MετάEd Aug 8 '12 at 12:15

Upon first reading this question, my initial thought was, "Outside of the King James Bible, you won't find many modern instances of whence."

This is one of those times where one of the Ngrams is rather interesting, to say the least.

enter image description here

However, after perusing through the results of the Ngram, I was actually surprised at how often the phrase has been used in writing. Google books finds over 100,000 uses of "from whence" in literature published in the 1990s! Now, some of those are reprints of, or quotes from, ealier works from centuries ago, by the likes of Descartes and David Hume; others are biblical commentaries. Still, I found enough modern uses of the word sprinkled among the results to surprise me. This one was my favorite, as it's hardly in the context of the King James Bible:

In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the forces of commercialism obligated Russian rock music to return home, to travel back to the West from whence it had come. (Thomas Cushman, Notes from Underground: Rock Music Counterculture in Russia)

That said, whence I come from (the midwester U.S.), you won't hear these words very much in day-to-day conversation.

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A little skewed, perhaps, by the fact that you don't need 'from' with 'whence' to build your partition. – StoneyB Aug 8 '12 at 0:09
@StoneyB: Precisely why I said "one of the Ngrams" ~ I'm not sure a query like this can be fully answered by a single Ngram. Where/whence is much less remarkable. – J.R. Aug 8 '12 at 0:13
So 'from whence' now draws attention to itself as being old-fashioned, not rethorical! – Elberich Schneider Aug 8 '12 at 0:16
I'm not yet familiar with what can and can't be done with Ngrams - can you put 'whence' on one side and 'where ... from' on the other? (That is, look for expressions like "where he came from"?) – StoneyB Aug 8 '12 at 0:18
@XavierVidalHernández Actually, I think most people I encounter would say it would draws attention to itself as being like, weird. – StoneyB Aug 8 '12 at 0:21

I'm not sure what you mean by 'rhetorical' (and I'm not referring to the typo!), Xavier, but I think that to many people the term connotes an archaic system. If you're using it purely to mean (for the noun rhetoric) 'the art, study and skill of persuasive communication', then I'd say the old-fashioned language you mention would probably have an effect in the other direction. If you are using it to refer to an archaic, though respected and beautiful, form of communication, then your question becomes tautologous.

Some people think that there is an unassailable authority connected with the KJV. Certainly the writing has gravitas and grandeur, and is worthy of study - by linguists. However, the purpose of the Bible is not fundamentally to be a work of art. The original Scriptures weren't even written in English, but in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek of the day, and were meant to be accessible to the common man. More recent English translations are more accessible and useful than the KJV (if arguably not as grand-sounding) - though they all owe an enormous debt to the efforts of the early translators. And you won't find any whence's, thence's, cometh's or pre-modifying mine's in them.

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1) I think he probably means 'rhetorical' in the sense it most commonly bears in ordinary colloquy: 'oratorical'. 2) There was certainly an artistic purpose behind some components of the two ancient anthologies. 3) The KJV, too, was meant to be - and was, for centuries - accessible to the common man; and it, too, owed an enormous debt to previous translators, including Jerome and Wycliffe. – StoneyB Aug 8 '12 at 0:31

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