German Word of the Day – “her”

komm herHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will have a look at the meaning of:

her (pron.: hair)

Her is a very important word in German and people use it every day. It is not part of the top 100 most frequently used words by itself but it is part of so many compounds that it would certainly deserve a place on that list. Her is also a very confusing word and even advanced students of German often forget it entirely… it is not quite crucial if you just want to be understood, but a missing her is like a picture that hangs at an angle… it hangs and yet it can drive people crazy, especially because the problem could be solved with minimum effort… for the angled picture that is. 
I am sure that using her appropriately does take some effort if you’re not a native. So today we will look at this word and its mechanics. It won’t be so much about finding an actual translation… her is really more a concept, an idea most of the time, a free spirit, roaming your vast sentences at will, hooking up with all kinds of words for a quick menage, just to kiss them good bye as soon as you grab a dictionary… her… 3 letters short and yet powerful beyond compare, her has inspired people of all times who expressed their fascination by naming their noblest and strongest after herher-o, Her-cules, Her-ry potter and Sup-her Man… and many many more…. and I see we have a call here, Martin from San Diego, Hi Martin, welcome to the show!
“Yeah hi, look …. can we start with the explanation already, I really have better to do than listen to you trying to be funny and su…”
Ooooh and the connection has died, what a pity… so I guess we’ll start.

As I said, it is better to think of her as an idea than as a translatable word. However there is a word in English that is pretty similar both in looks and in meaning and this word is… here. Now some of you may know here to be translated as hier in German. That is correct. Actually hier and her are brothers with different jobs. Hier means here, when you talk about a fixed location, and her means here when you talk about destination.

  • Ich bin hier.
  • I am here.
  • Komm her!
  • Come here!

 That is it’s core of her… it means here in sense of towards here. By the way… the 2 are not interchangeable ever!!!!

  • Ich bin her.
  • Komm hier!

These 2 sentences are just sooooo wrong, and the second one actually does mean something you really don’t wanne say in public… Let’s look at one other example.

  • Gib das her!
  • Give that here! (lit.)
  • Give me that!

Now her does not always mean the real place you are at… it has kind of broadened and can be a very abstract to here at times. And as such it serves a VERY important purpose in German.

Her … the general gist

When Germans talk about location they make a STRONG distinction between moving at a place or to a place. Every verb of motion… i repeat… EVERY verb of motion can be done at a place or to a place. English only occasionally makes a difference and marks it.

  • I run in the subway.
  • I run into the subway.

In this example it is marked, but in the following it is not.

  • There is a golf course. Thomas drives there.

There is no indication as to whether he drives to the golf course or at the golf course and you have to decide by context. Such situations DO NOT exist in German. You ALWAYS need an indication that the movement is TO a place… if that is missing, people will perceive whatever motion to be done AT the place, even if the context suggests otherwise.
There are many ways this indication can be done, for example prepositions or cases or … the word her. It serves as an indication that the motion (go, come, put, jump, throw, beam, give, …) is done TO a place as opposed to AT a place and the destination is here. And as I said before, this here can be very abstract.
Let’s look at some verbs. The first one is herleiten. Leiten means to guide and to conduct so herleiten would be “guide to here”. The actual meaning of herleiten is to deduce… you literally guide something unknown to here, where we all can see it. Another one like that would be herstellen. Now stellen for itself is to put so herstellen should be to put to here or in correct English to put here… that is one meaning of herstellen but another is … to produce. Herstellen is actually THE German word for to produce… it is kind of … well… a little dumb when you really think of it :)

  • BMW stellt Autos her.
  • BMW puts cars here (on the planet).
  • BMW produces cars.

Funny…
Her doesn’t only come together with verbs… you can also see it with prepositions a lot without being aware it is there. Do you know the words rein, runter, rauf or raus? Well all these are actually short forms of heraus, herein, herunter andherauf. They serve as “names” for places.

  • Das Wetter ist schön. Deshalb gehe ich raus.
  • The weather is good. That’s why I go outside.

Remember… just saying outside in German won’t  be enough. You want to express that you go TO a place so you need to indicate that and a simple way is her. Now especially with these words her has lost the notion of here pretty much… it merely does indicate that the motion is TO a place and not AT a place. So in return that means that “Ich bin rein” isn’t really proper. You can’t say “I am to a place.” just like this.
So… to stress it again… the very core of her is here in sense of to here and it can be very very abstract or subtle.
And now I am sure, that a lot of you thought her was from, because in language class you learn this:

  • Where do you come from.
  • Woher kommst du?/Wo kommst du her?

That is the paradox of her…  beware :)

The paradox of German “her”

To clarify this we need to look at how Germans ask for locations.
Generally you can be at a place, you can move to a place and you can come from a place. Each possibility has its own question in German.

  • Wo bist du?
  • Where are you?
  • Woher kommst du?
  • Where do you come from?
  • Wohin gehst du?
  • Where do you go (to)?

As you can see, the her is part of the question that asks for…  an origin. Now isn’t that the total opposite of what I told you before????? Haven’t I clearly said that her means here in sense of to here… and isn’t that clearly a destination and NO origin???? Doesn’t the example clearly imply that her means from??? Untangling this might require some brain yoga but I am sure you are up to it, but oh I see we have another call here, Meena from India, what can I do for you?

” Hi Emanuel… I think I have an idea what you are going for and I’d like to try to explain it if that is ok…”
Well, sure why not. So go ahead.
“Great. Oh… I am nervous…  So… The question woher (from where) does ask for an origin, that is true. We have been told that her means to here, so if that is true too there seems to be a contradiction… but only on first sight. “Woher kommst du?” is asking for an origin. Her is indicating a destination so the answer to where to? is part of the question where from?…  it is her. That is not necessary but it is fine… because we are asking for an origin. Her just gives additional information on the destination, though very very vague… the from however does not exist in the German woher. It is there in meaning but technically it is missing.”
Ab-so-lutely … wow Meena, that was perfect. I couldn’t say it any better.
“Thank you … (laughs).”

In woher, the German equivalent of the question from where, there is no from but a kind of pointless to here instead. This becomes obvious, when you look at the other ways to ask from where in German. All are exactly the same and all valid and proper. One way is von wo?, which is actually the literal translation of from where.

  • Von wo kommst du?
  • From where do you come?

But there is also the combination of the 2:

  • Von woher kommst du?

or similarly:

  • Von wo kommst du her?

The literal translation of this is:

  • From where do you come here?

And this shows it… the question word woher does actually not contain any from at all…from is missing but the idea is there anyway. Just like English leaves out to in “Where do you go to?” at times, German leaves out from in “Where do you come from?” and says an undefined to here instead. But at least this needs to be there as makes clear that we ask for about a movement TO a place and not AT a place. Wo can only ask for a fixed location.

  • Wo gehst du?

This does NOT mean “Where do you go (to)?”. This means “At which location are you going?” as in you are walking around AT a place. Another example:

  • Woher hast du deine Hose?

It means:

  • From where do you have your pants?

But it is actually:

  •  (Von) woher hast du deine Hose?

From is just missing in the German sentence. You could also ask:

  • Von wo hast du deine Hose?

All these questions are asking for the same information… But one thing you cannot do… leave out her AND von.

  • Wo hast du deine Hose

This is asking:

  • Where are your pants NOW?

You are asking for a fixed location because that is all wo? can do. If you have movement TO a place from some other place, you need to indicate that.

In daily life her in woher does feel like from to a lot of people . It did to me too till I tried to deal with the paradox. You can of course think of her as from if that is easier for you but then you will have her as from at times and her as hereat others… avoiding this was the purpose of the this part. But now let’s go back to speaking reality a bit :)

German “Her” in practice

So… her means here as in to here but here can be anywhere. It has broadened to be a general here. If you talk about the dress of a friend who is NOT there right now you can still ask woher she has it? It is not the here where you are… it is just indicating a direction. Her is used in a LOT of compounds. Depending on the perspective it can either be the her of woher, that is the one just indicating a movement to it’s present location or the actual here as in here. The best example is herkommen… this can either mean to originate (come from some place to here) or to come here.

  • Wo kommt deine schlechte Laune her?
  • From where does you bad mood originate? (kind of stupid example but I hope it helps)
  • Meine Mutter kommt später noch her.
  • My mom will come here later.

Other verbs with her are herstellen (put here/produce), herwerfen (throw here) or  herbringen (bring here). Her is also the very opposite of hin. A pendulum is swinging hin und her – side to side. Hin und her has become a fixed idiom for “movement” without any real progress… imagine you are planning a BBQ and you keep changing the person responsible for the grill. That would be an appropriate use of hin und her.

  • Ich habe keine Lust auf so ein Hin und Her.
  • I don’t like such see-saw.

Beside location her is also used in the time domain –  mainly in 2 occasions. The first one is this:

  • Es ist 3 Jahre her, dass ich in Paris war.
  • It’s been 3 years since I was in Paris.

Based on what I have been preaching throughout the post this literally-literally means

  • It is 3 years to here, ….

So generally “It has been x time, since…” translates to “Es ist x her, …”.

  • Es ist lange her, dass ich richtig betrunken war.
  • It has been a long time  since I have been really drunk.

The other occasion of her in the time domain is the word vorher.

  • Ich gehe schlafen. Vorher putze ich mir die Zähne.
  • I go to bed. First/before I brush my teeth.
  • Ich muss zur Arbeit gehen, aber vorher muss ich meine Brille finden.
  • I have to go to work but first I have to find my glasses.

Literally-literally vorher would be before here. And that makes sense as soon as you look at here as a more general somewhere. :)… I mean to me it makes sense. Just as a side note… whenever you say first in sense of before that as in the examples, vorheris THE word to go for… Now… I think we are almost done but there is one thing I want to talk about.

“Her” … the free spirit

I said in the introduction that her is a free spirit, and that has a reason, because just like its antagonists hin, her can do its job at different positions in the sentence as soon as it is a question.

  • Woher kommst du?
  • Wo kommst du her?

Both questions mean the same and which is used depends solely on personal preference or flow. This has some important consequence though. The verb in the first question is kommen, the one in the second is herkommen. Why? Let’s look at the past.

  • Woher bist du gekommen?
  • Wo bist du hergekommen?

So… her is part of the ge-form,or the past participle for the nerds of you ;). If you were to look up the verb of the second sentence you have to look under h, because the verb is herkommen. However, both questions mean the same, because her has the exact same function in EITHER sentence. So as soon as you have one her in your sentence, you have someone to do the job of indicating to here (or origin if you can live with the confusion). So you don’t need a double her. You need exactly one. Where it is (verb or question word) is not important. As far as her goes this freedom is not such a big issue, but it is the same basic idea for hin and there is way more room for mistakes related to verbs. So just keep it in the back of your head.

Now all that is missing is a summary… her originally means here in sense of to here. From there is has broadened its meaning in that it is not the very here where you are. In combination with wo, woher, it does nothing but indicate that we are talking movement rather than fixed location. It seems that it means from but technically the from is missing in the question “Woher?”… just like you don’t need to in English to ask for a direction, you don’t need from in German, to indicate origin. Bottom line… her is more a function word as a translatable one.

So… tough one this time… this was our Word of the Day her. I will post this as it is but I am not so sure as to whether it is understandable so please give me some feedback if it is not and tell me the parts that sucked so I can improve them or accidentally make them suck even more.

I hope you liked it and see you next time with something less grammarlicious.