Wieso? Weshalb? Warum? – Why? Posted by Sandra Rösner 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