and welcome to our German is Easy Learn German Online Course . And today we’ll learn how to ask questions in German. Now, you’re like: “Pffffffff… asking… I got my I-Phone right here and I can just google everything I need to know.” That is certainly and totally true and a good argument against learning questions in German but your theory has one big flaw. Aliens.
What if Aliens came to invade earth. They’ll most certainly disrupt telecommunication with their Long-range-Shut-down-Smart-Phones-Ray right when they enter our solar system. And then what? How are you gonna find out where the next Starbucks is then? You will have to face the invaders without one of Starbucks’ amazing and refreshing Iced Chocolate Mocha in your system and that will be much much harder…. and then you find yourself spending the rest of your lamenting why you didn’t learn to ask questions in German when you had the chance to while you’re massaging hairy alien feet… hairy and STINKY alien feet….
So … who wants to learn how to ask questions in German? All of you? Awesome…. then while you’re motivated let’s start with some theory.
Types of questions
There are 2 main types of questions. one group are the so called “yes or no questions“…
- Are you hungry?
- Have you ever been to Paris?
- Do you know if there is an ATM around here?
No matter what the question is… you can always just answer them with just yes or no.
The other group are the questions that have a question word.
- Where is the train station?
- How do you like German?
- Due to what fact did … ?
Those questions are asking for one specific piece of information.. maybe about time, maybe about place maybe about something else but you can’t just say yes or no…
- “Where are you?”
this makes no sense. Just as it would make no sense to answer a yes-or-no-question with some specific information.
- “Are you tired?”
“Because I have been working.”
Based on context we could assume that the person is tired, but it still sounds really really really strange.
So… the 2 types are actually quite different and I think they actually exist in most if not all languages. And in German, as well as in English, also the grammar and structure are quite different.
So we’ll look at one type at a time and today we’ll start with… the one with question word. We’ll look at all the question words but first let’s look at the grammar. Now you’re probably all like “Uhm… I don’t wanna look at grammar first. I’d rather talk fluently and look at the grammar maybe more like… never.” to which I say one word: aliens. Imagine the aliens invading earth were feeding on grammar mista… okay, I’ll stop. But seriously… it makes sense to look at the grammar first because there is one big difference in sentence structure between English and German w-questions. When we look at this difference first you can check the structure of ALL the many example we’ll see later on and see the grammar in action.
Grammar of w-questions
In English, the structure of a w-question looks like this:
- [q-word] [verb] [ subject] [maybe verb] all the rest?
But verbs are not equal in English. Only a few can be in the position after the question words. Modal verbs like can, must or shall can. Also the axillt… aus… uh… auxhillbilly words like to have or to be or will can be there. But “normal” verbs like to read or to eat or to flabbergast cannot. You can say:
- What eat you?
I have no idea why but for some reason English at some point decided to use t to do as an artillary verb.
This is not the case in German. Any verb can come after the question word and there is no tun (to do)… so in German you ask using the same structure you would for a statement.
- Heute lese ich ein Buch.
- Wann lese ich ein Buch?
- When read I a book? (lit.)
- Today, I read a book.
- When do I read a book.
Now, that does not mean that all German questions look totally different to English. If there is a helper-verb or modal verb or whatever in the German sentence it might exactly look like English.
- Was kannst du machen?
- What can you do?
- What have you done?
- Was hast du gemacht?
But the safest way, I think, is to just to understand the underlying pattern:
- I verb something.
- [What/why/when/how…] verb I something? …… instead of
- [[What/why/when/how…] do I verb something? (wrong)
So… with this in mind, let’s start talking about the question words themselves…
German question words
In English, all question words except how start with w. In German ALL question words start with w. That is because they as well as the ones of Spanish and French and the other Roman languages come from the uber-ancient words *ku̯o-, *ku̯e-. Those words basically expressed that you want to know something … kind of like huh?:)
So… originally there was this one basic question word that you could use to ask for anything pretty much. Then, the languages started making modifications (mainly altering the vowels) depending on what the question was and so the questions words we have today evolved. The bad thing is that the modifications are somewhat random… so the Germans said:
“Hey folks, let’s make a specific question word for place… which vowel should we use?”
“How about wo… like Ort?“
“Yeah… that makes sense… so wo it is.”
(at the same time near London)
“Hey folks, let’s make a specific question word for place… which vowel should we use?”
“How about who… like LOcation?”
“Come on!… they don’t even sound the same. “
“Fiiiiine, then how about where… like ARea?”
“Yeah, that makes sense… so where it is.”
Little did they all know that they just created a source of never-ending confusion for beginners of both languages. But anyway… let’s look at the German questions words one by one.
And don’t think this is just gonna be listing of words… if you want that, just go and use the Google Search I have prepared for you (here) or download my nice and question-word-chart.
- German-Question-Words chart
The stuff you’ll find here will be somewhat more detailed. Because in fact, each German question word comes with a cool special gimmick that makes learning German extra fun and ever easier… so are you ready? Great.
Wann means when in questions.
- Wann kommst du nach Hause?
- When are you going to come home?
- Wann fährt der Bus?
- What time does the bus go?
There is a translation for what time in German too but it is almost never used so wann is really the word to ask for time. Now, when alone isn’t always enough so here are the 2 most important combinations:
- Seit wann wohnst du hier?
- Since when have you been living here?
- Bis wann musst du arbeiten?
- Until when/what time do you have to work?
And that is all there is to say… what? Oh you’re right… the special gimmick.
So here it is:
German also has the word wenn the translation of which can be when and if. But it is NOT a question word. Do NOT ever under no circumstances use it if you want to ask for something time related… that would REALLY super incredibly confusing to a German native speaker … so please please don’t do it.
use wann, and if you want to find out more about the difference between wann and wenn then read the linked up article.
Movin’ on. But first let me have a sip of my Strawberry-Cheesecake Frappuccino from Starbucks… hmmmmm … simply coffelicious. You should get one as well.
Wo looks like who but it means where.
- Wo ist die Bushaltestelle?
- Where is the bus stop?
- Wo hast du deine Hose gekauft?
- Where did you buy your pants?
- Wo ist der nächste Starbucks?
- Where is the next Starbucks?
I bet it will be confusing at first to say wo when you mean where but you’ll get used to it and that it is great fun. And that brings us to the special gimmick of wo which are the words hin and her or better, the underlying grammar of those little words.
When you talk about location there are generally 3 options:
- go there
- be there
- come from there
This is a universal fact but in language it is treated differently depending on the language. And Germans happens to be rather precise when it comes to indicating which of the 3 options you are meaning. Let’s look at English first.
You can use the word there to indicate where something is and also to tell where something or someone is headed.
- “Where is your house?”
- “Where are you going?”
So we are using the same word for 2 slightly different things… and this is not the case when it comes to German and location. All 3 options – go/be/come from – will always be marked in a way… like…
- “Where are you going?”
“There-to“ (kind of)
And this is where hin and her come in … and what I am going to say next is really really important:
- dogs bark, cats meow… wait… oh… that was a note-to-self…
here is what I mean:
- hin always indicates that we are talking about a destination
- her indicates that we are talking about an origin
Keep that in mind.
Now, if we add hin to wo we get wohin… and that means whereto or simply where in the same sense.
- Wohin gehst du?
- Where are you going (to)?
- Wohin fährt dieser Bus?
- Where is this bus going?
In both examples we are asking for a destination. Now what happens if you don’t use hin and just ask
- Wo fährt dieser Bus?
This is asking at what location the bus is driving and the answer could be
- On the road.
Same with her… her indicates origin and I am certain most of you have heard the word woher
- Woher kommst du?
- Where do you come from?
- Woher kennst du ihn?
- Where do you know him from?
Here, we can actually see what happens if we don’t use her by simply skipping the from
- Where do you know him?
This is understandable but for it to be correct something is missing and that is the indication that we are talking about an origin as opposed to a fixed location.
So… German is really strict about this indication and you will see hin and her not only together with wo as question words but all over the place… and by all over the place I mean ALL over the place… those 2 words are quite free …
- Woher kommst du?
- Wo kommst du her?
Those questions are exactly the same.
- Wohin gehst du?
- Wo gehst du hin?
No difference. The second version sounds a bit better and it is the one that people use more often in spoken language. But be careful… hin or her have to be SOMEWHERE or the question will be wrong… understandable for the most part but wrong. You will see and learn more about hin and her as you progress with your studies but for now this is enough. So…
- wo – where as in “In/at what location”
- wohin – where as in “to what location”
- woher /von wo – from where/where from
And to really absorb hin and her I suggest you associate gestures… like you point your finger to the horizon for hin and say hinnnnnnn and you move your hand towards your body for her... like heart :)
Wew, that was a lot of fun wasn’t it? Now how for are we… 2 question words out of 7… my god… we had better move on…
Was means what.
- Was willst du essen?
- What do you want to eat?
- Was ist deine Lieblingsfarbe?
- What is your favorite color?
- “The wolves in Twilight are the best special effect ever.”
- “Die Wölfe in Twilight sind der beste Special Effekt aller Zeiten.”
Sometimes in English you use what to ask for one item out of a group of things… so what in sense of which.
- What beer should we try first?
This what is not gonna be was but the German word for which …which we’ll talk about later. But using what in this context would be really confusing actually.
Speaking of confusing… the special gimmick of was is REALLY confusing to a lot of students of German… if you study German you will soon realize that the language is infested with words like wovon, woran, wonach or vomit … uh… I mean womit... well… those are the special fun secret of was. Here’s how it works.
In English can combine what with a lot of prepositions.
- What did you dream of last night?
- What are you looking forward to?
- What are you thinking about?
Of course you can do that in German too… but there are some differences… first of, the preposition is not at the end. Literally, in German it like this:
- Of what did you dream last night (lit.)?
- To what are you looking forward?
So far so good… but for some reason Germans really like using wo…. instead of von was, we say wovon, instead of mit was we say womit and so on… I think in essence this is a very visually based approach since we kind of pretend all the time that the answer is somewhere around us and we just have to point at it. That is also why we have all those da-words… davon, damit etc… those are answers to the questions. But I don’t want to get into that too much.
For now it is enough if you remember that instead of von/mit/nach/um/… was, we say wovon/nach/mit/rum/…. It means the same… it is just a different phrasing.
- Wovon hast du letzte Nacht geträumt?
- Worauf freust du dich?
- Woran denkst du?
I am sure this takes a while to get used to. And it is totally fine to ask von was, mit was, nach was and so on… sometimes it is even correct. But people will use the wo-word to ask you things. Often that makes students petrified because where as a question just doesn’t make sense. So when that happens just remember that they might be asking what :).
So… how do you like those little special secrets so far?… Oh… you said you really love them??… that’s great. Then let’s waste no time and find out what our next question word bri… what???… oh you said you DON’T like them… oh…
Wer looks like where but it means who. But you’ll get used to it :).
- Wer ist dein Lieblingsschauspieler?
- Who is your favorite actor?
- Wer will ein Bier?
- Who wants a beer?
So… what’s wer’s dirty little secret? We’ll have to open a few case to find out… ha ha ha.
Yes. Wer gets German case endings. Now before you say “That is sooooooo annoying… English is sooooo much better… I wish I could learn that again.” let me tell you that English does have case endings too. Behold…
- Whom have you seen?
- Whom did you give your book?
- Whose book is that?
German is just a little more consistent in the use… in that you MUST use them. So here they are:
Wen ?- is accusative case – asking for a direct object
- Wen hast du gesehen?
- Who/whom have you seen?
Wem ? – is dative case – asks for the indirect object
- Wem hast du dein Buch gegeben?
- (to) Whom did you give your book?
Wessen – is Genitive case – asks for the owner of something
- Wessen Buch ist das?
- Whose book is that?
Wechischen – is no case – asks for nothing but is lots of fun to pronounce
Do the case endings matter here? Yes,a lot… because they indicate hat function the thing or person has you are asking for has, and that can be really confusing. Now you’re like “Oh great, that puts a lot of pressure on me? I have no idea about cases and I don’t know which one to use when…”
I totally know how you feel (that is a lie) but you can do it like this… when it is whom in English then go for wen or wem, when it is whose the use wessen and when you want to know who did or does something (the subject) then use wer. This will not solve every situation but it is better than not asking at all.
Is there more to say about wer... let me think… yeah, maybe that prepositions are always in front of it. So you can’t do it the English way and have it at the end:
- Whom ….. with/of/from/to?
- Mit/von/zu/für wem/wen …. ?
Alright. So this was wer. 4 down. 3 to go. But we’re done with the tough ones and I think we deserve a little break… you know… when I have a break I also like a little snack. And I can tell ya’… the incredible Double Chocolate Muffin they sell at Starbucks has never let me down. It is just so tasty. And the best thing is it is made entirely of calories. Luckily, I have one here right now so I’m gonna take a huge bite hmmmmmmmmm…. yummie… there ain’t “muffin'” better … ha ha ha
Warum means why and there are no surprises.
- Warum lernst du Deutsch?
- Why are you learning German?
- Warum hast du mich nicht angerufen?
- Why didn’t you call me?
The special gimmick of warum is the fact that is has not 1 not 2 but 3 synonyms… which is a lot… I mean there is no one-word-synonym for when.
Warum, weshalb and wieso all mean the same and they are completely interchangeable. There is virtually no difference. As far as weswegen is concerned… well… there might be a nuance but it is really rare anyway so let’s not bother.
This Google-ngram shows how often the words can be found in written German (mainly books I think) and warum or weshalbthe more common ones… the way… have you noticed that there is somewhat of an increase in usage around the end of World War 2 and the Nazi era… I found that to be an interesting little phenomenon. Also, I find it quite baffling how much the usage has been increasing in the last 20 years… I checked French, English and Italian, too, and you can find the same tendency there… so maybe people are just asking more and more for the reason of things. But anyway…
So… why does warum have those synonyms. Where do they come from?
Weshalb and weswegen actually used to be wer–questions… in Genitive case… remember? It was wessen. Halb and wegen are prepositions that mean something along the lines of because and they need the Genitive case… and there you have it… weswegen, weshalb.
Wieso also has another question word in it… the one we’ll discuss next.
Wie means how and it is equally versatile…
- Wie geht’s dir?
- How are you?
- Wie komme ich von hier zur Superstrasse?
- How can I get to superstreet von hier?
- Wie groß bist du?
- How tall are you?
- Wie lange dauert es, Deutsch zu lernen?
- How long does it take to learn German?
- Wieviel/wie viel kostet das?
- How much is that?
On to the special surprise and this time…. there is non. Hooray! There is nothing special or complicated about wie. Okay… maybe I should mention that wie is not exclusively a question word but it is also used to make comparisons.
- Ich bin genauso groß wie du.
- I am exactly as tall as you.
- Die Suppe riecht ein bisschen wie Bier.
- The soup smells a little like beer.
So not every wie you’ll here will ask for something. But that’s it.
And what about wieso? Well, literally it is how so. And that is not that far from why.
- “The last question word is gonna be annoying.”
“It’s long and has cases.”
Welche means which and it comes in all kinds of forms depending on whether it is singular or plural and the case… so you will see welche, welcher, welchem, welchen and welches and even welch alone.
I don’t want to get into detail however, because the internet has not enough space at the moment. Seriously… this is something you will learn automatically when you are ready for it and I’d say just use welche for now. Everyone will understand you.
- Welche Sprachen kannst du sprechen?
- Which languages can you speak?
- Welches Bier wollen wir zuerst trinken?
- Which beer should (lit.: want ) we drink first?
Welche/n/m/s is also used as a pronoun… here is what I mean
- “I saw a movie last night”
- “Ich hab’ gestern abend einen Film gesehen.”
There is nothing like “welche eine” in German. But anyways… so on to the super secret special that makes things complicated and frustrating. What is it this time? Well… it is not so bad actually. The English which is not only used as a question word but also as a pronoun… so you use it to refer to things you have said before.
- My German textbook, which is full of mistakes by the way, is 10 years old.
The German welche-family can have the same function… however the use is quite different and German tends to use der,die, das and not welche. So I’d recommend thinking of welche exclusively as a question word with the meaning which or which one.
Finally, there is also the Which of the East in English … but that’s just a typo :)
We made it. Those are the German question words in detail and I think that was enough for today.
To wrap this up here is the opening song of the German version of the Muppet Show (called Sesamstrasse)… a real Ohrwurm that might help you fix some of the words in your head.
In part 2 we will look at the other kind of questions… the yes-no-ones and we will also talk about indirect questions in German.
If you have questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. Oh and if you are CEO of a big company and you want me to mention your brand in my next post please contact me at 0800-434-selling-out or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Use the sales code “German” to get up to 70% discount on the normal or the XXL-plug-bundle to boost your business. Let’s take marketing to the next level together. Reach up to 70.000 readers and infiltrate their brain while it is busy trying to learn German……………………………
For further reading: