There are a few "question words" that mirror their answer words-

  • When/Then
  • Where/There
  • What/That
  • Who/Thou (might be stretching it here..)

Do these words have origins where this makes sense, or is this a coincidence?


1 Answer 1


Not really etymological reasons, but historical ones. These words come from old paradigms that have been broken up for the most part but still provide some order.

The English wh-words all come from the Proto-Indo-European *kʷo-, described as "the stem of relative and interrogative pronouns"

  • what, which, where, when, why, how, who, whither, whence, whether
    [who and how have lost /w/ because they contained /u/ already; now they just have /h/ left]

These *kʷo-words were also in Latin, where they were spelled with the letters QU. Many of them were borrowed into English with the same meanings

  • quis, quid, qui, quo, quantus, qualis 'who, what, how, why, how much, what kind'
    [change of /kʷ/ to /hw/ is part of Grimm's Law, which happened to Germanic but not Latin]

There are also various other words often answering these questions, as well. They come from the PIE roots *so- or *to-, which became TH or H in English:

  • there, then, thither, thence (distal)
  • here, now, hither, hence (proximal)

and the demonstrative pronouns, both distal and proximal:

  • this, these (proximal s/pl) and that, those (distal s/pl)
  • 11
    Your answer starts with "not really" and then appears to provide a perfect etymological explanation (different prefixes are used to indicate different functions in PIE). Am I missing something? (I'm no linguist -- would that not count as etymological?) Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 6:14
  • It's not English etymology; it's the history of I-E languages. English is one, but Julius Caesar and Aśoka are not English history, Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 14:32
  • 1
    May I understand you as "It's not English etymology"? Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 15:07
  • 10
    Question asks why the suffixes of interrogatives "when" (time), "where" (place), "what" (thing) seem to mirror those of adverbs/demonstratives of the same class, i.e. "then" (time), "there" (place), "that" (thing). This answer here explains the origin of the "wh" and "th" preffixes but does not establish any relation between them nor explains what is it that they are preffixing and why it is so similar. I don't understand how this answers the question in any way. But then again, the OP accepted the answer, so maybe I didn't understand the question?
    – walen
    Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 16:00
  • 2
    @walen this is a fair criticism - I went into this question assuming it was probably lost to history in some way, so I marked this as the accepted answer since it satisfied my curiousity enough - and there were no other answers. If somebody else has a more complete answer, I'm happy to change it though! Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 17:54

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