Wieso, weshalb & warum: Interrogative Adverbs in German (and English)

As a learner of German, you may have seen memes, such as this:


Or perhaps the lyrics from the German version of Sesame Street:

Der, die, das (the, the, the)

Wieso, weshalb, warum (why, why, why)

Wer nicht fragt bleibt dumm (if you don’t ask, you’ll stay stupid)

Despite the fact that there are serious limits to the usefulness of Google Translate and word-for-word translation, it is evident that the number of words which mean why in German is significant.


Interrogatives in English

In order to understand what is going on here, we must first examine examples in English. It is no accident that many “question” words start with a w- in English, eg what, why, when and where. These “question” words correspond, to some extent, to “answer” words:

  • what? -> that
  • when? -> then
  • where? -> there

However, this phenomena has many exceptions:

  • which? -> thich
  • why? -> thy
  • who? -> tho

And the curious:

  • how? -> ???

At least some of these exceptions have an explanation behind them. Why and how have replaced the archaic forms wherefore and whereby.

  • wherefore? (why?) -> therefore
  • whereby? (how? OR in what way?) -> thereby (in this/that way)

These t-words are formally known as demonstratives, function words which “point to” something, often in response to an interrogative, ie “question” word. The things that demonstratives “point to” are not explicitly stated and require additional contextual information in order to understand them. An exhaustive list of these words can be found here.


Interrogatives in German

This phenomenon is also present in German; however, demonstratives are usually d-words. For example:

  • was? -> das
  • wo? -> da
  • wann? -> dann

But, like in English, we also have exceptions to this rule:

  • wer? -> der… (this sort of works if the thing in question is masculine)
  • wie? -> die (the demonstrative answer to wie is so)

The most important of these pairs is wo/da since these they readily combine with other words (including prepositions) to add more information:

  • wohin? (where to? OR whither?) -> dahin (to there OR thither)
  • woher? (from where? OR whence?) -> daher* (from there OR thence)
  • worüber (what about?) -> darüber (about this/that)
  • wofür (for what? OR wherefor) -> dafür (for this/that OR therefor)
  • wozu (to what?) -> dazu (to this/that)
  • womit (with what?) -> damit* (with this/that)

*daher and damit have another meaning which we will get to in the next section

The fact that German prepositions do not neatly align to English ones makes these words frightening for beginners, but what is even more frightening is the fact that some of these words have crossed over into the semantic “territory” of the why words: wieso, warum and weshalb.


The why and therefore words in German

And finally, we get to the why and therefore words, which like the previous set of words are normally formed from two words: a w- or d– word and a preposition.

First, we will deal with wieso since it does not really fit with the others. One literal but misleading morpheme-to-morpheme translation of wieso is the English how so. However, how come is a better translation.

Apart from this outlier, the why interrogatives and therefore demonstratives form neat pairs.

  • warum? -> darum
  • weshalb? -> deshalb
  • weswegen? -> deswegen

The –a- in warum possibly came about to distinguish it from worum. Um is an accusative preposition that suggests something is “around” something else. My (clunky) approach to understanding this word is:

  • warum? (“around which circumstances?” OR why?) -> darum (“around these/those circumstances” OR therefore)

The –halb in weshalb appears to originate from the archaic genitive postposition halber which means “for the sake of” OR “on account of” (der Leute halber = “for the sake of the people). Therefore:

  • weshalb? (for the sake of what?) -> deshalb (for the sake of this/that)

Weswegen contains the preposition wegen which tends to take a dative argument in informal speech (wegen dem Wetter = “due to the weather”); it was previously a genitive postposition (der Ehre wegen = “due to honour”).

  • weswegen? (due to what?) -> deswegen (due to this/that)

And since wegen and halber were originally genitive postpositions, the w- and d-words are declined with the genitive suffix -es.

Our little friends daher (from there OR thence) and damit (with this/that) appear to have evolved a second meaning synonymous with the three therefores: darum, deshalb and deswegen. Be aware that damit has a third meaning when it is used as a subordinating conjunction in infinitive clauses (see here).


A note on usage

Since I’m not a native speaker of German, my Sprachgefühl (language instinct) is not perfect, but, for me, the major difference between the various why words is formality. Here’s a crude way of showing this:

<- less formal – wiesowarumweshalbweswegen – more formal ->

Wieso sounds slightly childish and facetious, whereas weswegen sounds very academic and a bit pompous.

Here is another view on usage from a native German speaker:

In English, you can ask “Why are you late?” This has four German translations:

Warum kommst du zu spät?
Wieso kommst du zu spät?
Weshalb kommst du zu spät?
Weswegen kommst du zu spät?

It took me a lot of my Sprachgefühl (feeling for language) to recognize a slight difference between these four question words, all meaning “why” in English.

The words warum and wieso are more, let’s say, innocent and open. That is, when you ask a question with warum or wieso you indicate that you don’t know whether there is a particular reason at all. For example, children often ask Warum machst du das? (Why are you doing this?) because they are just curious. Whereas, when you ask your question with weshalb or weswegen you already presuppose that there must be a particular reason “why something went wrong” or, according to the example above, why someone is late.

Examples of how the why and therefore words are used in whole sentences can be found here.

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