Did these words evolve in pairs?
June 14, 2018 11:49 AM   Subscribe

I was listening to a song recently that included rhyming pairs when / then and where / there, and I realized that, in English, both of those question words reflect their definitive counterpart. Did they, for lack of a better word, 'intentionally' evolve that way, or is this purely a coincidence?

I'm assuming that when/then evolved from whence/thence, and so maybe this question rightfully includes 'here' and 'hence' as part of the research. There appears to be an old stackexchange discussion about where/there/here, but it doesn't really feel like it answers my question.
posted by hanov3r to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
These words rhyme because they follow the same grammatical pattern.
from where = whence, whither
to where = thence, thither

Internet says these are ancient constructions, from Germanic roots to Indo European.

What occurred to me when I read your post was the simplicity of rhyming in the romance languages! Words rhyme because they are the same tense or the same part of speech. (l learned Spanish vocabulary listening to late lamented K-LOVE radio station).
posted by ohshenandoah at 12:36 PM on June 14, 2018

A bit out of my field, but as I understand it, English question words tend to start with wh, and all go back to the Proto-Indo-European interrogatory stem qwo, (thus, we get when, who, where, which, whence, whither) The answers start with th, going back to PIE demonstrative base to, (thus, we have "then, them, there, that, thence, thither.) So, yes, they evolved this way, and have very old roots, and are part of a pattern quite a bit bigger than your two examples. If one of our MeFi linguists drops by, they can probably explain it better.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:37 PM on June 14, 2018 [10 favorites]

Did they, for lack of a better word, 'intentionally' evolve that way, or is this purely a coincidence?

Language doesn't seem to work that way - even extraordinarily prescriptive institutional efforts to systematically "evolve" language (Académie française, e.g.) generally wind up being fairly descriptive. See also Esperanto.

The phenomenon under discussion is common enough in other languages that I'd suspect it's a very low-level aspect of phonemes, specifically minimal pairs. For instance, Spanish has aquí, allí, and allá, German has die/der/das . . .
posted by aspersioncast at 12:40 PM on June 14, 2018

Sorry aspersioncast, the various parts of your answer are off for a number of different reasons that I won't get into here but you can message me if you want.

Pater Aletheias is on the right track. These words all go back to Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed ancestor of most of the languages spoken in Europe today. They are basically two parallel paradigms of pronouns: the relative/interrogative (wh- in English today) and the demonstrative (t-). You also find this parallelism of k-/kw-/w- interrogative words vs. t- demonstratives in the other Indo-European languages. Whether the interrogative ones have k-/kw-/w- depends on what those languages did with the Proto-Indo-European *kw sound.

Here and hence, as you mentioned, can also be seen as parallel to these. They go back to a Proto-Indo-European demonstrative pronoun, *ko (it became h- in the Germanic branch, which includes English, due to Grimm's Law -- this also explains why the t- demonstratives start in th- in English).

*Historical linguists use the asterisk to denote sounds/words that are reconstructed, i.e., they aren't found in any attested writing but we infer their forms based on careful comparison of the attested daughter languages.

Source: I'm a linguist. Also consulted my handy American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.
posted by karbonokapi at 12:53 PM on June 14, 2018 [14 favorites]

Here is a comic that explains it pretty well.
posted by number9dream at 1:11 PM on June 14, 2018 [6 favorites]

Japanese has kinda similar situation.

No idea if it happened via the same process as it did in English though.
posted by aubilenon at 1:46 PM on June 14, 2018

Oh! And, of course, what/that follows the same pattern, even if the pronunciation is slightly different between the two.

English question words mostly follow the pattern karbonokapi speaks of, starting with wh- - who, what, where, why, when (we can skip 'how' here). Are there demonstrative words to accompany the 'who' and 'why' interrogatives?
posted by hanov3r at 2:27 PM on June 14, 2018

Are there demonstrative words to accompany the 'who' and 'why' interrogatives?
I don't think there are, but there is the obsolete wherefore = 'why', and its counterpart therefore.

Also you pointed out that how isn't part of the wh- set, but it's worth noting that it does have a demonstrative counterpart: thus.
posted by nomis at 3:18 PM on June 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

karbonokapi, do the latter part of these words go back to PIE as well as the beginning of the words?

That is, do "-ere" from where/there, "-en" from when/then, "-at" from what/that also have an origin as far back as PIE?
posted by lewedswiver at 3:46 PM on June 14, 2018

Old English had þȳ matching why.
posted by wanderingmind at 5:50 PM on June 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Lewedswiver: It's kind of a mixed bag. Some yes (that), some are Proto-Germanic innovations I think (then/when?), and some might be Old English innovations. I'm not really a Germanic expert and the materials I have here at home were not very helpful in this regard.
posted by karbonokapi at 7:32 PM on June 14, 2018

I think nomis has it re: wherefore/therefore. The demonstratives to accompany 'who' are basically the regular pronouns like 'him, her, them'.
posted by karbonokapi at 7:34 PM on June 14, 2018

There's also whose/those.
posted by aws17576 at 9:48 PM on June 14, 2018

The demonstratives to accompany 'who' are basically the regular pronouns like 'him, her, them'.

Well, if you sort them by part of speech* it fits the pattern pretty well: who/he/they and whom/him/them

* and, sorry, ignore the feminine forms
posted by aubilenon at 9:58 AM on June 15, 2018

This structure is still explicit in German, where the demonstrative "das" and relative/interrogative "was" can be combined with any number of prepositions to build pairs of similar pronouns, so "für das" = "dafür" (for that) / "für was" = "wofur" (for what, or why); "damit" (with that) / "womit" (with what); "darunter" (under that) / "worunter" (under what).

In English the same kind of thing happens with both of our demonstrative pronouns ("this" and "that") a very limited group of prepositions, so that "for that [reason]" becomes "therefore", "for what [reason]" is "wherefore", and for some reason nobody ever uses "herefore". We also have "hereafter", "thereafter", and "whereafter" (the last is very rare) to represent "after X". "Hither", "thither", and "whither" are irregular forms from the template "to X"; from the time-based template "until X" the only common form is "hitherto" (there's no reason "thitherto" and "witherto" couldn't be usable words, but they aren't). But there are a lot of prepositional forms which, applied to a relative, interrogative, or demonstrative pronouns can be turned into a single word, even if some of them don't spring to mind as common usage: it's not common speech, but you can totally get away with using "whereupon", "hereupon", or "thereupon" to signify "immediately following X".
posted by jackbishop at 4:46 AM on June 16, 2018

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