Most interrogatives start with wh- and come with the demonstrative pronomina:

  • where - there
  • what - that
  • whence - thence

But "how" is different. Is there a simple reason for this?

(I posed a similar question on German Language and Usage:

https://german.stackexchange.com/questions/1333/gibt-es-einen-grund-warum-das-antwortwort-zu-wie-namlich-so-nicht-mit-d-be )

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    "Which" and "why" are also like "how", aren't they? – Dave DuPlantis Jun 15 '11 at 15:25
  • Not to mention "who" ("he/him", "she/her", "it") and "whose" ("his", "hers", "its"). And "what" and "that" only have the /t/ in common in pronunciation: /wʌt/ vs. /ðæt/. You'll need to explain all of the other cases that don't match up before there is any point in trying to come up with a story for "how". – Kosmonaut Jun 15 '11 at 16:25
  • @Kosmonaut: who: he, whom: him? :) – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jun 15 '11 at 17:29
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    @Mr. Shiny and New: Sure, if you're my grandfather :P – Kosmonaut Jun 15 '11 at 17:31

I can confirm that there does not seem to be any corresponding 'th-' word for 'how' ('how is a 'wh-' question word).

As far as I can tell, the corresponding cognates in German, French and Latin (with cursory investigation of other IE languages) for 'how' are also lacking a demonstrative counterpart.

As to reason why there is none, as alluded to by the others, one can only speculate.

"How are you going to get to San Diego in time?"

"I will get to San Diego...by taking the freeway."

The answering phrase is a prepositional phrase, whose question would have been 'By what way...'.

Given that very particular example, I'd guess it is because, given that 'how' covers too many possibilities, too many 'manners' could be answers, so there's no simple one word response indicator.

  • So would be the demonstrative pronoun, but it appears to have a different (i.e. uncertain) origin. Apparently etymologists dare not go further back than Proto-Germanic *sa. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jun 15 '11 at 19:11
  • @Cerberus: neat...but it doesn't act like the other pronouns because it can't stand at the head of a relative cause.Etymonline goes back a little further (I'm not sure where they get their data). – Mitch Jun 15 '11 at 19:26
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    It may not have any etymological connection (I've no idea), but there certainly is a corresponding 'th-' word for 'how'. Thus. – FumbleFingers Jun 16 '11 at 16:06

I think user9325 is asking about the "when/then" patterning, rather than the "wh".

It's rarely possible to give a satisfactory answer to "Why doesn't X language have Y feature?" Languages are not designed by committees, or engineered: they just happen. Some patterns exist, but they may have exceptions or holes.

Notice that beside the examples you give, we have "whither/hither/thither" and "whence/hence/thence", but these are obsolete or obsolescent: one might just as well ask why they should be falling out of use.

I'd never linked up "what" and "that" in that way; and I'm not sure that isn't a coincidence ("what" goes back to IE forms in '-d', but I don't think "that" does); but in any case there is no "hat"; and "who" does not enter into this pattern at all.

Not a real answer, but as I say, I don't think there is one to be found.


Well it's not obvious to me that how is particularly different.

If you're just wondering why it doesn't start with a w, you might as well wonder why we don't pronounce the w in who, for example.

This from Merriam-Webster...

Middle English, from Old English hū; akin to Old High German hwuo how, Old English hwā who — more at who.

  • Or, to put it another way: it used to have a "w", but lost it along the way somehow :-) – psmears Jun 15 '11 at 15:21
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    @psmears: Not to mention we Brits have always been crap spellers, which is why we reversed the Germanic hw into wh :) – FumbleFingers Jun 15 '11 at 15:23
  • and your username fits this comments to a t (which is also weird... oh, wait, a question coming after googling) – Jürgen A. Erhard Jun 15 '11 at 16:32
  • @jae: As I expect you've already googled, that usage comes from "to a tittle". So I for one won't be upvoting the question if you ask it! :) – FumbleFingers Jun 15 '11 at 16:54

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