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Wieso? Weshalb? Warum? – Why? Posted by on Oct 14, 2011 in Language

 

Wer? Wie? Was?Der! Die! Das!Wieso? Weshalb? Warum?

Wer nicht fragt bleibt dumm!

Tausend tolle Sachen,

die gibt es überall zu sehen.

Manchmal muss man fragen,

um sie zu verstehen!

Who? How? What?This! That! This!Why? Why? Why?

Who doesn’t ask, remains dumb!

Thousands of great things

can be seen everywhere.

Sometime you have to ask

to understand them.

 

You have just read the lyrics of the theme of the German version of Sesame Street.

 

What strikes the eye of the German lyrics are the question words: wieso, weshalb, and warum. A reader of the blog asked what is the difference between these three words because all of them are translated with “why” in English.

I checked my German grammar book but couldn’t find a paragraph that discusses this problem. Thereupon, I surfed the net to find some answers and convincing explanations but could not find anything plausible. There are even a lot of native speakers of German (beside me) who ask themselves about the distinctive meaning of each of these question words and they are discussing this topic in various chat forums.

One theory is that the German question word warum asks for the REASON, wieso for the CAUSE, and weshalb for the PURPOSE. I find this explanation far-fetched and very confusing because a reason can also always be the cause and/or purpose of something. Therefore, I cannot give a satisfactory answer because basically there is no difference between these three question words. In other words, you can use them synonymously.

However, after I thought about that for a while, another German question word came to my mind, which is weswegen, and I decided to put these four question words to the test. In English, you can ask “Why are you late?” This has four German translations:

 

Warum kommst du zu spät?

Wieso kommst du zu spät?

Weshalb kommst du zu spät?

Weswegen kommst du zu spät?

 

It took me a lot of my Sprachgefühl (feeling for language) to recognize a slight difference between these four question words, all meaning “why” in English. The words warum and wieso are more, let’s say, innocent and open. That is, when you ask a question with warum or wieso you indicate that you don’t know whether there is a particular reason at all. For example, children often ask Warum machst du das? (Why are you doing this?) because they are just curious. Whereas, when you ask your question with weshalb or weswegen you already presuppose that there must be a particular reason “why something went wrong” or, according to the example above, why someone is late.

 

I hope that was helpful … ?

 

 

das Sprachgefühl – feeling for language
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About the Author:Sandra Rösner

Hello everybody! I studied English and American Studies, Communication Science, and Political Science at the University of Greifswald. Since I have been learning English as a second language myself for almost 20 years now I know how difficult it is to learn a language other than your native one. Thus, I am always willing to keep my explanations about German grammar comprehensible and short. Further, I am inclined to encourage you to speak German in every situation. Regards, Sandra


Comments:

  1. Alison:

    Thanks! In German class we learned warum. But in the movies I’m watching now it seems like people are always saying wieso when I think they should be saying warum. I tried it out on a German fellow I met the other day and he didn’t flinch so I guess I used it correctly.

  2. shaihulud:

    thank you! it was highly and definitely helpful 🙂 danke und euch ein schönes Wochenende 🙂

  3. m:

    I’m entirely guessing, but I thought “wieso” was more of “how did this come about”, in a more material sense than the simple, curious “why?”

    I’m curious about the frequency of use of each word. Also, are there sentence structures which lend themselves to use one ‘why’ over another? That is to say, are some “why”s less frequent at the beginning of a sentence than others?

  4. Dominique:

    Thanks for the explanation. Is there, by any chance, a possibility be noticed always when you put something new on your blog? I’m starting with German language and I found it very useful. Cheers from Brazil.

  5. Ian Colville:

    I tend to agree with the above post regarding ‘wieso’ as I’ve always thought of that as meaning ‘how so’ as “How is that so?” or “How did this come about?” You could interpret that as asking for the ’cause’, which means the previous suggestion in the blog post isn’t so far fetched at all. Warum is a straight ‘Why’. Weshalb is a little more tricky, but I’ve not come across it that often anyway, not being a native German speaker. Be interesting to read other’s experiences.

  6. Robbie:

    good . very very good !!! i m beginning to understand . thank you very much

  7. rachelle frehmann:

    thanks this is highely awsome
    p.s.it help me find out what
    warum (why)

  8. Julia:

    this was just great! thanks!

  9. Kirle:

    I think there is a difference as far as usage is concerned. You are hardly likely to encounter a ‘wieso’ in an official document, a scientific text or in a solemn speech. It’s vernacular / colloquial. ‘Weshalb’ is rather antiquated / obsolete. It used to mean ‘For the sake of what?’ (like in “Weshalb klaut man ein altes verrostetes Fahrrad?”) but is hardly used anymore (unlike ‘deshalb’), they use ‘wozu’ instead. In fact, ‘warum’ can have this meaning, too (like in “Warum hast du eine Pistole?”), while ‘wieso’ usually cannot.

  10. shoulder adequate:

    Thanks for finally writing about > The Gedman why’s: warum, wieso,
    weshalb, weswegen | German Language Blog < Loved it!

  11. Morgan:

    I just returned from living a month in Germany and attending school there and the only two I ever heard were “Wieso” and “Warum”. As far as I could tell there was no difference, it purely depended on who was speaking and which word they preferred. The people I was living with said it did not matter at all.

  12. Martin:

    I am a native German.
    For me, these four words are pretty much interchangeable one with another. In some contexts I would maybe prefer unconsciously one for another, but none is awkward or even incorrect. – Below two links to German forums discussing just that (and coming pretty much to the same conclusion).

    I rather see this as a piece of my culture; I learned from very early on to ask, and not to hold back, any question and to most essentially understand the why.

  13. Martin:

    I am a native German.
    For me, these four words are pretty much interchangeable one with another. In some contexts I would maybe prefer unconsciously one for another, but none is awkward or even incorrect. – Below two links to German forums discussing just that (and coming pretty much to the same conclusion).

    I rather see this as a piece of my culture; I learned from very early on to ask, and not to hold back, any question and to most essentially understand the why.

    http://www.gutefrage.net/frage/unterschied-zwischen-wieso-und-warum

    https://de.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20061017052916AAp2L8A&p=%2Bunterschied%20zwischen%20warum%20wieso%20weshalb%20weswegen

  14. Gary Garnier:

    Is either warum or wieso more appropriate to the following example questions?

    1. The innocent “Why do you ask?”
    2. The accusing “Why did you just punch me in the face?”
    3. The plaintive “Why did you marry me if you don’t love me?”
    4. The purely curious “Why can’t my diesel car burn gasoline?”
    5. The frustrated “Why does it always rain on the weekend?”

  15. Gary Garnier:

    I’m thinking that my #5 might not use any form of “why”; rather would be something like “Must it always rain…”

  16. Peter Schroth:

    Frank Witzel, Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion (2015), winner of the German Book Prize, page 24: “Kann ich den Unterschied zwischen beiden Fragepronomia erkennen? … Das eine Auge fragt warum. Das andere fragt weshalb. Kann ich den Unterschied erkennen?” The original paragraph on this is about six times as long as what I have quoted.

  17. Senpiĉulo:

    In addition it is about class where “wieso, wozu, wofür” and worst “für was” are restringierter Code “warum” is an edgecase and “weshalb, weswegen” is elaborierter code(in terms of Bernstein-Hypothese).
    If you encounter someone using “für was” or “wieso” you know instantly it is a poor working class person.
    Maybe some people, especially worker class people, think this comment is insulting or think it is wrong and “weshalb” is just an old word that is barely used or something like that but I tell you it is only about class and I do’nt intend to insult anyone.

  18. Finn:

    It might help to note, that warum, weshalb and weswegen each have a counterpart.

    Warum? Darum!
    Weshalb? Deshalb!
    Weswegen? Deswegen!

    Wieso lacks a counterpart. According to my Sprachgefühl I would say, Wieso is often used, when you don’t really expect an answer, or subconsciously know, that you’re not asking a reasonable question and don’t expect a Darum, Deshalb or Deswegen as an answer or don’t want one. Like:

    Wieso is this always happening to me?

    Wieso does also sound slightly more flippant than the others.

    A: Did you see my phone?
    B: Wieso are you asking me?

    A: This was your fault!
    B: Wieso mine?

    A: What did you say to her?
    B: Wieso do you want to know?

  19. Duncan:

    As a Scot, I have noticed that there seems to be a similarity between “wieso” and the scottish use of (at least in the area I grew up)
    “how-come”.

    “How-come” seems more like it ishould being used to say “how is it that..” or “why is it that..”

    So I think that this is more like “wieso” than “warum”

    “how-come
    he left before you but arrived after you?”

    “how is it that,
    he left before you but arrived after you?”

    I may be entirely wrong. Any thoughts?