There’s an easy morphological connection between question nouns (What, When, Where) and the “nonlocal” answer (That, Then, There), but the “local” answers vary more substantially (This, Now, Here). Poking around etymonline and wiktionary hasn’t given me a clear idea of why that should be the case; does anyone know?

In table form:

? local nonlocal
What This* That
Where Here There
Whither Hither Thither
Whence Hence Thence
When Hen? Then

Why “now” instead of “*hen”?

Regarding "This", etymonline shows the morphological relationship between "this" and "that", noting "this" is "...probably from a North Sea Germanic pronoun *tha-si-, formed by combining the base *þa- (see that) with -s"

  • 2
    This is an interesting question, but the title lets it down. At face value, you'd just look at it and say "It's 'Now', obviously - this is more suited to ELL or something". Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 14:26
  • Perhaps people don't want to bother with hen, which is an obsolete word meaning hence, henceforth or from now on. Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 14:28
  • 2
    I'd like to see this more fully fleshed out with whence, hence, thence, and whither, hither, thither as well.
    – Davo
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 14:34
  • @Clare Hen (adverb) was not even close to then in Old English. Then was spelled þonne/þanne/þænne, while hen (adverb) was spelled hionane/heonane/heonone/ hinan/hionan/heonan/heonon/heonun/ hiona/heona. But one spelling of hen (noun) in OE is henne and one spelling of hang in OE is honne, so there would've still been homographs.
    – Laurel
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 17:30
  • This question does not appear to be about English language and usage within the scope defined in the help center. Please correct the title to accurately reflect your etymological enquiry. Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 20:38

1 Answer 1


Now & Then

In a comment you said:

[A]fter some more research it seems that "now" is derived nearly unchanged from PIE *nu

This is true (although the spelling has quite obviously changed). Because PIE is a reconstructed language (and nobody ever wrote it down), the proof that this is the case lies in the fact that *nu has many, many cognates in other languages. From the OED:

Cognate with Old Frisian nū , Middle Dutch nu , nou , noe (Dutch nu ), Old Saxon nu , nū (Middle Low German nū , German regional (Low German) nu ), Old High German nu , nū , no , nō (Middle High German nu , nū , nun , nūn , German nu (now chiefly regional), nun ), Old Icelandic nú , Norn (Shetland) nu , Old Swedish nu (Swedish nu ), Danish nu , Gothic nu < the same Indo-European base as Hittite nu , Sanskrit nu , nū , Avestan nū , ancient Greek (enclitic) νυ , Gaulish nu , Early Irish nu , nú , Welsh †nu (13th cent.), Tocharian A nu , Tocharian B no , Latvian nu , Albanian -ni (in tani ), and (with nasal extension) ancient Greek νῦν , classical Latin num , Old Church Slavonic nyně , Russian nyne , Lithuanian nūn , and (with further extension) classical Latin nunc , probably ultimately related to the Indo-European base of new adj. Also as present tense verbal prefix in Early Irish nu-, no- and as affirmative particle in Welsh †neu (12th cent.).

In a comment, you said:

"[T]hen" in the sense of "at that time" might not have existed until Middle or early Modern English

This is... not true. There were two words that had this meaning in Old English, þa ("tho") and þonne ("then"):

Þa foron hie siþþan æfter þæm wealda hloþum & flocradum. bi swa hwaþerre efes swa hit þonne fierdleas wæs. (ChronA 894.11)

Then they went afterwards through the woods in bands and troops, on whichever side it then was without an army.’

Connective or “disconnective” discourse marker? Old English þa, multifunctionality and narrative structuring

OED says then is an "adverbial [formation] from the demonstrative root þa-".

OED indicates that þa has a similar etymology:

originally a case-form of the demonstrative stem þa- of the adj., pron.2, and n.2, that pron.1, adj., and adv.

Þa was the third most used word in Old English, and was used for quite a bit more than just then:

Þa (1) hie þa (2) hamweard wendon mid þære herehyþe, þa (3) metton hie micelne sciphere wicenga, & þa (4) wiþ þa (5) gefuhton þy ilcan dæge, & þa (6) Deniscan ahton sige; (ChronA 885.10)

When (1) they then (2) returned homeward with that booty, then (3) they met a large fleet of pirates, and then (4) fought against them (5) the same day, and the (6) Danes had the victory.’

In this example, we find þa appearing as a conjunction (1), an adverb (3, 4), pronoun (5), and demonstrative determiner (6). The second instance of þa (2) is either an adverb in the subclause introduced by the conjunction þa (1) or the second member of a doubled conjunction þa þa, which can be separated from the first member by an inserted element, though the two members mostly appear together.
Connective or “disconnective” discourse marker? Old English þa, multifunctionality and narrative structuring

That, The, There, This, Þonane, Thither...

That and the were the same word in Old English.

Like then, these words are all derived "from Proto-Germanic *þa, [which in turn is derived] from Proto-Indo-European *to, *te" (Wiktionary).

Þonane is an Old English word meaning "thence". This word would come to be spelled then or thenne in Middle English; thence is derived from it.

Here, Hither, Heonan, He, It...

These words are all descended from the Proto-Germanic stem *hi-, which in turn comes from the PIE root *ke- (also written "*ḱi- ~ *ḱe- ~ *ḱo- or *-ḱe"; see Wiktionary).

Heonan is an Old English word meaning "hence". This word would come to be spelled hen or henne in Middle English; hence is derived from it.

In Old English, it, was often spelled hit (which should make the etymological connection more obvious). It is still spelled this way in some dialects, like Scots:

Hit is nae less o an imposition fur a hits guise o freendly assistance.
D Greetin Bairn an D Soond U D Voice

Who, What, Where, When, Why, How, Whither, Whether, Whence...

The wh- part of these words (plus some others I didn't list) all come from the PIE stem *kwo. How, while not starting with wh, also comes from the same root, according to Etymonline:

Old English hu "how," from Proto-Germanic *hwo (source also of Old Saxon hwo, Old Frisian, Middle Dutch hu, Dutch hoe, German wie, Gothic hvaiwa "how"), an adverbial form from PIE root *kwo-, stem of relative and interrogative pronouns.

This is already covered by another question: Who, what, where, when, why, how. Why so many "Wh"s?

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