Questions in German – Part 1

german-question-wordsHello everyone,

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: “Uhm, no way man. I’m not gonna ask Germans anything in the foreseeable future. I got my phone right here and I can just google everything I need to know. Could we please learn how to speak fluently, instead?”
That is certainly and totally true and a good argument against learning questions in German but your theory has one big flaw. Aliens.
Conspiracy theories say that the new 5G causes Corona. But they got it all wrong. The new 5G is actually gonna alert the aliens that we exist, because their ships’ telecommunication is backward compatible to 5G. And then they’ll come and invade, for that’s what aliens do.
And they’ll disrupt telecommunication with their Long-Range-Shut-down-5G-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… are you ready to learn how to ask questions? Perfect :)And we’ll start with a little tiny bit of theory … I … I mean cool behind the scenes information.

Types of questions

There are two main types of questions, which are fundamentally different.
The first group are the so called: “yes or no questions“, which we’ll call yon-questions. That’s questions where yes or no are a proper answer. Maybe not a satisfying one, but they’re officially answered.

  • Are you hungry?
  • Have you ever been to Paris?
  • Do you know if there is an ATM around here?

The other group are the questions that have a question word, also known as w-questions.

  • Where is the train station?
  • How do you like German?
  • Due to what fact did … ?

Those questions are asking for one particular piece of information, like time, or place or reason, and the answer totally depends on what the question word was. But it totally can’t be yes or no

That doesn’t work. And neither does answering a yes or no question with a particular bit of info.

  • “Are you tired?”
    Because I have been working.”

These two different types of questions actually exist in most if not all languages.
And beacuse they have different structures in German, it makes sense to look at them separately.
Today, we’ll start with the questions with question words, the w-questions.

Now, the name w-questions  is well deserved because pretty much all the question words start with w. And it’s the same in German. The reason is that all these question words, including the ones of Spanish and French and the other Roman languages and also the Slavic languages come from one very VERY ancient ancestor: the Indo-European roots  *ku̯o-.  This root (and its variations) was basically a sound that expressed that you want to know something. Like… basically a universal Huh?
Over time, the languages started making modifications (mainly altering the vowels) depending on what they wanted to know and that’s how the questions words of today evolved.
Unfortunately, this is where the languages started to drift apart.
The Germans one day, over a few beers said this:

“Hey folks, let’s make a specific question word for place… which vowel should we use?”
“How about wo… like Lokal?
“Yeah… that makes sense… so wo it is.”

But meanwhile somewhere near London (also with beers):

“Hey folks, let’s make a specific question word for place… which vowel should we use?”
“How about who… like LOcation?”
“Come on, broth… they don’t even sound the same. “
“Yeah, we should use where… like ARea?
“Great, let’s do that… 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… enough with the history.
Ladies and Gentlement, give it up for… the German question words:

when – wann
where – wo
what – was
who – wer
  why – warum,
(wieso, weshalb)
how – wie
which – welche

 

I also made a neat little chart about this back when I started teaching,  so you can download that here:

German-Question-Words
(click the link or the image for the full version, pdf)

What we’ll do in the rest of the lesson is we’ll go over the words one by one, check out the most important variations and talk about the grammar and structure of these questions.
And that’s actually what we’ll start with. Because there is one REALLY big difference between German and English.
And no… I am not just referring to the weird verb-at-the-end-stuff…. which I’ll totally call Vate®, from now on.
Damn, why didn’t I think of that sooner in the course. That’s the perfect name.
Vating… makes it much less annoying.
Bro, I’m sooo vating every day, man. Vaters gonna vate.
Uh.. anyway, let’s look at the grammar.

Grammar of w-questions

In English, the structure of a w-question looks like this:

  • [question-word]   [verb 1]  [ subject]   [optional: verb 2]  all the rest?

But verbs are not equal in English. Only a select few can be in the [verb 1] slot right after the question words. The modal verbs can, and also helper verbs like to have  or to be or will can be there. But “normal” everyday verbs with normal jobs like to read or to eat or to flabbergast can’t. You cannot say this:

  • What read you?

That sounds really really really bad.
Instead, for some reason, English at some point decided to use to do as a helper here.

  • What do you read?

German does NOT do that.
In German w-questions any verb can (and does) come after the question word and we do NOT use to do.

  • Wann lese ich ein Buch?
  • When do I read a book?
    Lit.: “When read I a book? (lit.)”

Now, that does not mean that all German w-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.

But for the “normal” verbs, you’ll definitely need to get used to the weird flow of these questions, at least if your native language is English.
Cool.
Now, besides that, questions of course also have this Vate-thing going on. So if the verb has more than one part, the leftovers go to the end.
Take this sentence:

  • What do you want to eat on your birthday tomorrow.

We’ve just learned that German DOESN’T use to do as a helper. So instead of saying “What do you want to… ” the German structure would be “What want you … “.
And we’ve learned last time, that to want translates to wollen and we totally still know the conjugation, so we get…
So we get

  • Was willst du…
  • What want you…

And then comes all the rest and at the END comes the rest of the verb essen.

  • Was willst du morgen an deinem Geburststag essen?
  • What want you tomorrow for your birthday eat?

I know… the English version feels REALLY strange. So maybe it’s better NOT to translate back and try to get used to it in German instead.
Anyway, so now that we have a basic understanding of the structure, I’d say it’s time for a little coffee break. And a quiz :)

 

And now let’s look at the questions words one by one, learn some variations and also their annoying little secret… because many of them have one.

wann

Wann is the German word to ASK for a time.

And the two really important variations are of course  since when and until when.

And the annoying little secret? Well, German also has the word wenn which is a translation of when (and if) .
The difference, in a nutshell, is that wann is the word to ASK for a time. Wenn is the word to indicate one. I’ve talked more about this in a separate article (link below) but it’s not that important as a beginner. Just make sure, you DON’T use wenn if you want to ask something. It’s just one letter difference, yes, but it makes a big difference to a native speaker.
All right, m
ovin’ on.

wo

We’ve already mentioned it… this is one that’ll throw you of. Wo looks like who but it means where. You totally understand that now, but just know that you will mess it up. Many times. That’s normal, so don’t beat yourself up over it.
Here are some examples.

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 speaking of great fun… this bring us right to the annoying little secret and thereby also to a SUPER IMPORTANT core feature of German, that you’ll struggle with for years… encounter a lot.
You see, a location can have three distinct roles: it can be an origin, a current location or a destination.

  • go there
  • be there
  • come from there

That’s a universal truth, but the thing about German is that it really really wants to distinguish between those three.
In one way or another, German will mark which role a location has. English on the other hand sometimes relies on context.

  • “Where is your house?”
    There.
  • “Where are you going?”
    There.

The there in the first example defines a fixed location, the there in the second example defines a destination. The context makes it clear here, but German DOESN’T rely on context when it comes to this. It always marks the role of a location. It has various ways to do that, and one of them us to use the generic words hin and her.

hin indicates that we are talking about a destination
her indicates that we are talking about an origin

This is really important and you’ll have a much easier time if you remember it right from the get go. So here’s a mnemonic for you

  • hin: dest-hin-ation
  • her: hor-rigin

Not sure if that works :).
Anyway, these two are how German marks in questions whether you’re asking for an origin or a destination. Because German does mark that. ALL. THE.TIME. If you ask about an origin, you need her

Here, English actually also does a marking (with from).
But that’s not the case for a destination:

And if we skip hin and just ask

  • Wo fährt dieser Bus?

then we’re asking at what location the bus is driving and the answer could be

  • On the road.

Now, hin and her are not only very common in German, they’re also a little “free spirited” in that it’s often not really clear where they belong. Like… in the examples we had, they look like they’re part of the question word. But especially in spoken German, you often find them at the very end. So they basically “vate” as if they’re a verb prefix.

There is NO difference in meaning between the versions, but the ones with the hin and her at the end do sound a bit more spoken, actually, and I’d recommend you start using those. Just to get more used to this flow of having a prefix at the end, you know.
Anyway, you’ll see hin and her a lot and we’ll also talk about them in separate articles, but I think for now we’re good.
Here’s a quick overview again…

  • wo where as in “In/at what location”
  • wohinwhere as in “to what location”
  • woher /von wofrom where/where from

Oh and just to make sure… “current location” can also be a location that someone was at IN THE PAST. What matters is the verb/the question it answers.
Yes, the question “Where were you?” kind of includes the question “Where did you come from?” but the way it is phrased is a steady location.
I’m mentioning this because people kept getting it wrong in the quiz. So pay attention now :)

 

And now let’s get to the next word. 

was 

Was means what.

So far so good.
But there’s a couple of caveats. The first one is rather small. English also uses what in the sense of which, what kind.

  • What beer should we try first?

That is NOT gonna be was. The proper word here is welche(-) which we’ll get to later.
The other possible trap is more important and it has to do with prepositions. That’s these little words that express relations, like of, on or with. And they often come in combination with a verb..  like to dream of or to think about.
In questions, it looks like this…

  • What do you dream of ?
  • What are you waiting for?

But that does NOT work in German. Sometimes, beginner try to ask this way…

  • Was träumst du von?… NOPE

But that does NOT work. It’s actually really hard to understand for a German speaker.
Instead, the preposition goes all the way to join the question word at the beginning.

  • Von was träumst du?
    (“Of what did you dream last night ?”)
  • Auf was wartest du?
    (“To what are you waiting?”)

That probably sounds pretty bad to you. And it actually isn’t the most elegant in German either. But trust me… it’s the LESS confusing version for a beginner.
The other, more elegant and, as some would say, more correct way is at the same time the annoying little secret of was.
It’s what I call the wo-words. Those are for example wovon or woran or vomit… I… I mean womit.
English also has this type of word. Just take whereof or whereby. But in German they’re MUCH more common because they’re actually was in disguise. Was in combo with a preposition to be precise.
Take a look at these examples:

  • Wovon träumst du?
    “Whereof do you dream?”
  • Worauf freust du dich?
    “Whereto are yo

So that’s the “most properest” way to do it. But you don’t have to worry about that now. It’s fine if you do the version with was. I just wanted to mention it, so you already have it somewhere in the back of  your mind.
Oh and it’s kind of good to know because Germans of course use them. So sometimes you might hear a question start with wo- and you the notice it totally doesn’t make sense as where.  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

We’ve already mentioned it. Wer looks like where but it means who. Confusing, you’ll make mistake, but you’ll get used to it :).

The annoying little secret of wer is neither little nor a secret, though. It is … drumroll… the infamous German cases. German has four cases, Nominative, Accusative, Dativ and Genitals.. I… I mean Genitive. Sorry, I always get really bored when I talk about cases.
But yeah, the cases themselves aren’t the problem. The problem is that German MARKS them with endings.
The wer-question word gets case endings, as well, and before you start whining “That is sooooooo annoying… English is sooooo much better.” let me tell you that English does have case endings too. Behold…

  • 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

Wem  – is dative case – asks for the indirect object

Wessen – is Genitive case – asks for the owner of something

Wechischen – is no case – asks for nothing but is lots of fun to pronounce

Do these 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 (#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.
You’ll still make mistakes and that’s fine but the sooner you start, the easier it’ll be to perfect it later on, once you have a deeper understanding of cases.
Cool
Now, besides this big nuisance, there’s also a small side secret. But it’s not really something new. Do you remember what happened with was in combination with prepositions? The preposition went in front of was.
Well, it’s the exact same thing with wer. 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.
Four down. Three 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
Okay, enough fun. Here’s your quiz:

warum

Warum is the German word for why.

Pretty simple, and it wouldn’t be fair to say it has an annoying secret. But it does have a little gimmick. Three, to be precise.
I am talking of course about its three(!!) synonyms.

Which of course begs the question why it has so many synonyms. I asked warum for a statement as to why it has so many synonyms, but it just said “Warum nicht.”
My personal theory is that it kind of has an inferiority complex. I mean, all the question words we had so far had a lot extra going on. Wo has the variations wohin and woher, wann has bis wann and seit wann, was has these weird wo-words and wer has its case versions. And warum got itself some synonyms to be more interesting and mysterious.
And it works. Like… students are like “Oh.. what’s the difference. There’s got to be one.”
But the truth is… at least warum, weshalb and wieso all mean the same and most of the time they’re completely interchangeable. Well, okay, weshalb and weswegen can be used in a relative sense of “which is why”, Warum can’t do that. But that’s a bit too much for today.
Anyway, here’s a little usage statistic for all of them

warum-weshalb-wieso-most-co

This Google-ngram shows how often the words can be found in written German, and as you can see, warum or weshalb the more common ones, by far. Oh and by the way – have you noticed the uptick in use at around the end of World War 2 and the Nazi era? I found that to be an interesting little phenomenon. People were clearly questioning. Also, I find it quite fascinating 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. That’s awesome!!
Anyway, I digress.
So…  when you want to ask for a reason, German offers you quite a few options. But warum is the most common one and it’s totally fine if you just stick to it. Don’t worry. It won’t sound boring.
Cool, five down, to more to go.
Let’s do this :)

wie

Wie means how

…and just like in English you can add all kinds of word behind it and ask things like how much, how tall or how fast.

And as far as the tricky little secret goes… there is none.  Hooray!
Okay… maybe I should mention that wie is not exclusively a question word but it is also used to make comparisons.

So not every wie you’ll hear will ask for something.
But as far as asking questions goes, wie is as easy as it gets.
All right. Quick test and then we’ll tackle the last one.

welch(-)

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/n/m/s is also used as a pronoun… here is what I mean

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 :)
All right.
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 cash-in@german-is-easy.com. 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……………………………

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