Spanish and Italian both have como / come if I'm not mistaken, however English has how. Where did we get how from?

I read somewhere that it's Germanic, but I thought German developed from Latin roots as well? Why didn't we get a similar word to Italian and Spanish?


The German branch (English, German, etc.) and the Italic branch (Latin, Spanish, Italian, etc.) of the Indo-European languages each split off from Proto-Indo-European, their common ancestor. This probably happened There is no other relation between the two branches (except reciprocal borrowings and influence). Both come/come and how come from the same Proto-Indo-European root (probably something like **kʷo-*, ), but they went through different phonological changes in the mean time, so they look very different now.

Spanish and Italian split off from their common ancestor Latin a short time ago, no more than, say, 1500 years ago, so they still look very much alike. There was also much contact between them, and hence more borrowings and mutual influence. This does not apply to the Germanic and Italic branches of Proto-Indo-European, whose oldest common ancestor existed over 5000 years ago; and the two branches generally didn't undergo much reciprocal influence either.

enter image description here

A map of the spread of the different Indo-European branches, from Wikipedia. Blue is Italic, Red is Germanic. Grey areas are mostly non-Indo-European.

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A chart of the history of the evolution of Proto-Indo-European, with approximate/hypothetical dates.

Probably from a paper by Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, “The Early History of Indo-European Languages” in Scientific American of March 1990. Probably from a paper by Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, “The Early History of Indo-European Languages” in Scientific American of March 1990.

  • Nice graphics :-) – Otavio Macedo Jun 11 '13 at 22:28
  • @OtavioMacedo: Thanks! I wish I had made them... – Cerberus Jun 11 '13 at 22:33
  • Interesting that Gamkrelidaze and Ivanov omit Albanian, but have a special provision for Armenian with Indo-Aryan. Warnow et al, by contrast, group Albanian with Germanic, but group Armenian with Greek instead of Indo-Aryan. This is pretty normal for intermediate groupings; these cover several thousand years and many many groups and dialects, and it's really really hard to find the details out. – jlawler Jun 12 '13 at 0:41
  • I also notice that the bottom image clearly supports the proto-world hypothesis (-; – hippietrail Jun 12 '13 at 1:17
  • @hippietrail: Ain't she pretty? – Cerberus Jun 12 '13 at 11:59

How comes from germanic * hwó, which an instrumental case of * hwaz (what). This comes from PIE * kʷod (the same meaning), composed of * kʷ- (iterrogative/indeterminate morheme) and * -o-d, ending for neuter pronouns.

Como/Come derives from Latin quo modo (by which way/mode), where the first part quo is ablative case of quod (which), bringing us to the same exact origin.

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    So, could the idiom 'how come' actually be a repetition? – amI Dec 1 '16 at 22:54

How about it is a direct inverse contraction of { w'Ho } to { Ho'w }, a member of ( who, why, what ) family.

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    That doesn't make sense. There is no /w/ at the end of "how". The spelling "ow" is just a convention for writing the diphthong /aʊ/, which developed from older /uː/. It is related to who, why, what, but there is no inversion going on. – brass tacks Nov 29 '16 at 13:29
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    The letter "w" is used in the spelling of "how", but there is no /w/ sound in the pronunciation. The slashes are meant to show that I'm talking about the pronunciation rather than the spelling. – brass tacks Nov 29 '16 at 13:41
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    How do you think it is pronounced exactly? Please explain. – brass tacks Nov 29 '16 at 13:52
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    @BekimBacaj Yeah, it's not a joke. There actually is no /w/ sound in 'how'. It may exist in the spelling, but it's phonetically /hau/. Furthermore, 'who' is phoneticaly /hu/; reversed, you get /uah/ for 'how' and /uh/ for 'who'. – Angelos Nov 30 '16 at 5:57
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    @BekimBacaj Why do you think I speak any Slavic language (and that there's a single language called Slavic)? I am, through and through, a monolingual English speaker. You know, you have a habit of making obviously bad answers and then wondering why people downvote you. – Angelos Dec 8 '16 at 12:31

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