and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will have a look at the meaning of:
Her is a really common word and it actually comes up very early on in the German learning journey when you learn to talk about where you’re from.
- Wo kommst du her?
So I am sure all learners know that her is a thing most probably also know that it is related to here and has something to do with location.
And yet, forgetting her or using it the wrong way is a REALLY common mistake of intermediate learners, and it happens because most people don’t really know what her actually is – a powerful idea, a free spirit roaming the vast plains of a German sentence, sometimes as prefix, and sometimes at the heart of some of the greatest stories of mankind. Like Her-cules, Her-r der Ringe, Her–ry potter and Sup–her Man.
But seriously, understanding and using her is not so much about a translations, but about a function. And that’s what we’ll explore today, so are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s go.
Her is basically the brother of German hier and both are of course related to English here. And to really understand her we actually need to understand a general feature of the German language that we could call spatial OCD. When it comes to talking about location, German is extremely precise and explicit.
You see, when you take a location pin on Google maps, that pin can have three roles: an origin, a current location or a destination.
And what German does is that it mark these differences explicitly in language, particularly the distinction between a fixed location and a destination.
That’s for instance the essence of the two way preposition, where the case is used to make this mark. And it’s also the key to the difference between hier and her. Because hier is about a current location, her is a destination.
Both can refer to the same location, mind you. They’re just giving it a different role.
Here’s an example…
- Ich bin hier.
- I am here.
- Komm her!
- Come here!
In the first sentence, I am talking about my current location, so I am using hier. In the second example, I am telling someone to come to that location that I just called “hier”, but now, for the person, it is a destination and so I am using her.
English is like “Look Bro, I can do it with just here. The verbs make it clear.”
But German is like “Naahh, I think imma use two different words.”. And itll go into drama mode, if you get them wrong.
- Ich bin her…. NOPE
- Komm hier!… NOPE
These two are not just “normal” wrong, they’re “stick out”-wrong. Why? Well, because the roles of hier and her (location vs destination) are hard wired in the brain of a native speaker and combining the verb sein in the first example with a destination just makes no sense. It’s like saying
- I am to the park.
It’s just really really really weird.
So yeah… we can basically think of her as “to here“. Or as here #destination. That’s the essence.
And I am sure at this point there’s a question slowly creeping up in many of you… and that question is something along the lines of
“Wait, doesn’t her mean from?”
The paradox of German “her”
As we mentioned in the intro already, beginners meet her very early on as part of the question about where someone is from.
- Wo kommst du her?
- Where do you come from?
So in terms of a location pin, we’re actually talking about an origin here, NOT a destination.
The thing is… in this case, ENGLISH is actually the one making an explicit marking. By adding from.
- Where are you? (current location)
- Where are you from? (origin)
But German is like “You know what… imma skip that origin marking. I’m still gonna mark the destination though.”.
And English is like “Isn’t that super confusing then?”
And German’s just like “Yeah!”
So here’s what’s going on…
- Where do you come from [to here].
- Wo kommst du [ ] her.
Her is NOT a translation for from. It’s an element that simply doesn’t exist in the English sentence. And the from is just missing in German. The translation for that would be von and actually, we can also phrase the question that way. We just need to make sure that von is in front of the wo.
- Von wo kommst du?
- From where do you come?
And sometimes, people even combine the two…
- Von woher kommst du?
The literal translation of this is:
- From where do you come to here?
So yeah… you can either ask von wo, which literally means from where, or you can use wo in combination with her, which means the same, but technically, it has skipped the from-part entirely.
And once again, I feel like there’s a question creeping up to many of you. So… let’s answer it :)
woher… vs. wo… her
We’ve used both versions in this article already and you’ll also find both versions in most learning material.
- Woher kommst du?
- Wo kommst du her?
And the question is of course if there is any difference.
And the answer is … no!
Both mean the exact same thing, so you can pick the one you like better.
To me, woher sounds a bit more formal and official and I prefer wo… her. And I think that might be a general preference, at least for colloquial German, because it has this typical VATE™-pattern (German’s trademarked “Verb At The End” thing).
In fact, in a structural sense, the her in wo… her is actually prefix. Something we can make visible if we add a pinch of side sentence to the mix :)
- Ich habe sie gefragt, woher sie kommt.
- Ich habe sie gefragt, wo sie herkommt.
See what I mean? herkommt is one word in the second version, so the verb there is herkommen, while in the first version it is just kommen. It doesn’t make a difference in meaning, and Germans are not even really aware of this, until the have to spell it.
- Ich frage mich, wo sie diese Hose herhat/her hat.
- I ask myself, where she got these pants.
Lit.: “…, where she has these pants from.”
If you have German friends, ask them which is correct. I’m sure many of them will at least have doubts or second thoughts.
But generally, her isn’t a standalone very often and often it is structurally part of the verb.
And in fact, it’s actually a pretty common prefix with a function beyond what we’ve discussed so far.
her- as a prefix
Like many prefixes, her- broadens its core idea into an abstract theme. So it takes the notion of “to here” that we’ve discussed and makes it into a rather generic “toward the speaker“. That CAN be the speaker’s actually location
- Meine Mutter kommt später noch her.
- My mom will come here later.
but it can also be a more general sense of “this reality”.
- Wo kommt deine schlechte Laune her?
- From where does you bad mood originate?
And sometimes, it is essentially just a generic stand-in…
- Gib das her!
- Give me that!
Giving is an act (a verb) that implies that there is some sort of recipient. So there is a direction, a destination. In English that’s me and in the German version, her basically takes fills that role. We could also say mir but then we’d normally take her out because otherwise we’d have two indications of destination. Which is not wrong, but it sounds a bit awkward.
Another great example where her is incredibly generic, is herstellen, which is the German word for to produce, to manufacture. Like… you “put” something “into reality”. It’s kind of a childlish word, if you think about it.
- BMW stellt Autos her.
- BMW produces cars.
And I guess we should also mention also mention those r-prefixes, like rein or raus or rauf. Those have slowly grown into units of their own, but originally they’re just shortened versions of herein, heraus and so on. And the her really has no meaning here except indicating a direction in space.
Some textbooks or smarty pants teachers might claim that we still have this notion of “toward the speaker” in these, but I think that’s really missing the realities on the ground. People use r-versions and her-versions regardless of whether the direction is toward here or to there. And there are some regions where people don’t use them at all, but use the hin-versions for both directions.
“OMG, we were gonna ask about hin? That’s kind of the opposite of her, right?”
Well, yes… at the core of hin is the idea “toward there” and I actually have an awesome article about that, as well. I’ll leave the link to that below.
And actually, we’re almost done for today, but there’s one more important thing we need to talk about real quick. And that is her in context of time.
“her” and time
Now, we’ve learned that the origin of her is the spatial domain, but of course we all know what Einstein said.
“Time and space is kinda sorta the same stuff.”
And so it makes sense that her is also used in context of time, to express how long ago something is.
- Es ist lange her, dass ich richtig betrunken war.
- It has been a long time since I have been really drunk.
- Es ist 3 Jahre her, dass ich in Paris war.
- It’s been 3 years since I was in Paris.
When learners see this, they’re tempted to think that her is the counterpart of ago, but that’s a bit misleading, as we can see if we plug in our core theme that we learned earlier…
- It is 3 years to here, ….
I hope that makes sense, to you. It’s definitely a phrasing that you should add to your active vocabulary.
And last but not least, the other really important use in the time domain is the word vorher, which essentially expresses the idea of “before that”…. just from angle of “before here”.
- 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.
In all honesty, vorhier would actually make more sense in this case, because we’re NOT talking about a destination here, but oh well… there will always bee little glitches in the matrix like that.
Anyway, I think that’s actually it for today. This was our look at the meaning and function of her. The core takeaway is that it is basically like a #destination and because German is so OCD about marking the distinction between a location pin and a destination pin, her is basically your best friends annoying new girlfriend… you see her way too often for your taste.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.