Monthly Archives: April 2014

Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Wo Gone?

As I was out running today, it occurred to me that when you ask where someone is from in German – Woher kommen Sie? – the form of “where” you are using sounds much more like English than the shorter Wo form. Both English and German have a number of compounds formed with “where/wo,” however the German ones appear to be more frequently used and therefore warrant treatment in most German grammar books. (Note that the translations of the English where-compounds are mainly wo-compounds, however they tend not to be the included in such lists further supporting the notion that the English forms are of lower frequency of use.)

Woher kommen Sie? Where do you come from?
Wohin gehen Sie? Where are you going to?
Wofür ist das? What’s that for?
Worüber spricht er? What’s he talking about?
Womit kann man das reparieren? What can one repair that with?
Woraus ist das gemacht? What’s that made out of?
Wohin soll ich das stellen? Where should I put that?
Wonach suchst du? What are you looking for?

These examples come from

The English where-compounds do not appear to be treated as being of special grammatical interest, however the formations seem quite similar, “where” + preposition to create an adverb:

Whereabouts – wohin
Whereby – offers wodurch, womit and wobei
Wherefore – wozu
Wherein – worin
Whereupon – woraufhin

Several where-compounds in English do not follow this pattern and form other parts of speech:

Whereabouts – noun der Aufenthaltsort (“His whereabouts were unknown”)
Whereas – conjunction, offers wohingehen, während, hingehen
Wherewithal – noun das Nötiges (“He lacked the wherewithal to pay”)

This search also introduced me to the idiomatic expressions Woher wissen Sie das? – “Where did you get that from?” (or perhaps simply “Huh?!”) and Woher soll ich das wissen? – “How am I supposed to know?” – which seem like they might come in handy!

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