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I've recently started learning Norwegian and I find that much of much of the language maps quite naturally into English, but there are a few phrases that don't. In English we say "how many" when requesting a quantity. In Norwegian they say "hvor mange", or "where many" where "hvordan mange" would have been how many.

I have talked to a few people here about it, but they seem to think it is just normal (how I thought of how many until now).

My question though is why do we say "how many"? It doesn't seem to match the other usages of 'how' that I can think of (otherwise replaced by "in what way").

  • "How much?" is the same, by the way. Note that German has "wieviel", which is also literally "how much"; the same German word is used in "wie geht es dir" ("how's it going", or "in what way is it going") as well as Wiktionary's example "Ich weiß nicht, wie die Katze hereingekommen ist" ("I don't know how the cat got in"). – Patrick Stevens Mar 28 '18 at 14:15
  • 1st words American babies learn when offered candy! How MANY! – lbf Mar 28 '18 at 14:18
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    Italians ask about "quantity" quanto (how much) and quanti (how many). I suppose, in English, it would make greater sense to ask someone: "what quantity?" (mass) and "what number?" (countable). Interesting reflection yours. – Mari-Lou A Mar 28 '18 at 14:35
  • How relevant is it to point out that how in English can often be directly replaced by to what degree/extent? – FumbleFingers Mar 28 '18 at 15:52
  • Off topic, but "where many" doesn't sound logical either. I'm now wondering if there are there languages that do have something logical. "What many" or something? – Mr Lister Mar 28 '18 at 16:48
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I don't know the answer precisely, but I can give some thoughts

  1. One of the meanings of how in English is "to what degree?"; so, not just "how many?", but also "how far?", "how quickly?"

  2. How and where both have their origins in case-marked forms of the Germanic interrogative pronoun, that underlies what (and who).

  3. I don't find it surprising that the ranges of meanings that these forms have acquired do not coincide in all Germanic languages.

Note that in English where also functions as the combining form of what: "wherefore", "whereupon" etc. This is identically true mutatis mutandis for German ("wovon", "woaus"), and I suspect for other Germanic languages, though I don't know. This surely has its origin in "where-" as an oblique case of "what".

Hvordan is transparently a compound of hvor and dan, and I suspect its origin is just like "wherefore" and "woaus" in English and German.

  • I had not considered the "to what degree" interpretation of how, and not surprisingly far/quickly are mapped to hvor in Norwegian also. – Christophe Mar 29 '18 at 13:25
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It's always been this way in English:

On hu manegum wisum is godes weorc?
In how many ways is God's work?
Ælfric's Anglo-Saxon translation of Interrogationes in Old English Literature and the Old Testament

There are other OE expressions that also mean "how many/much", like hu fela, hu micel, hu swiþe.

It's worth noting that who, what, where, why, and how all come from the same source ultimately: Proto-Germanic *hwaz, which is from PIE *kʷos, *kʷis.

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