A lot of questions ask why (German) language has some certain features. I have seen some discussions in the comments about this — usually claiming that this type of question can not be answered or does not make sense.[1] So, I think, we should clarify:

  1. Is there a problem with questions asking for causal reasoning in languages per se?
  2. Can we differentiate cases, where these alleged problem does not exist, i.e. where it actually does make sense to ask why?-questions?
  3. In the problematic cases, what exactly is the problem? (How can it be described in the most simple way?)
  4. If there is a problem, how can we deal with this kind of questions?
    1. How can we address the problem without alienating the questioner?
    2. Is there a way theses questions can be "rescued", i.e. interpreted in a way that the problem goes away, and we still meet the (supposed) intention and interest of the questioner?

For me, all these questions are of interest. But I am especially concerned about 4. Why? seems to be a very nearby thing to ask when approaching any phenomenon of interest. People who ask these questions come here with some interest in German language. Maybe they do not have the means to pour this interest into a form which would be valid in academic discourse. I think, the aim of this site should be to find out how to help them, including reformulation of their question, if this is required and helpful.

I fear, if we do not reflect on this, we easily risk to miss our goal of helping people and spreading knowledge about the German language and to unnecessarily create a rather repellent experience for these users.

[1] Just off the top of my head, some recent examples: Why is Dative Used for Location, Sentence structure in subjunctive passive with modal verb in a subordinate clause

  • 2
    It is not alway easy to tell what kind of answer is expected to a "Why.... ?" question. Sometimes, the question can be read as asking for a rule. But then there are questions which could be categorized under "Why doesn't this work the same way as in English?" when the asker seems to think that the way things work in English is the natural one and is very confused about German being different. In such cases, it is hard to come up with an answer other than "That's the way it works in German, get used to it". – RHa Mar 15 at 22:57

I think the problem here is that the askers have not enough metalinguistic competence: they have never reflected on the fact that different languages use different forms in different ways, and are thus stuck with "why would anyone do things differently than we do it?" (so this is not at all a German problem, but more prominent here due to the relative numbers of learners).

I have a hard time getting out of my linguistic background and putting myself into that perspective, so I don't entirely see what it actually is that an OP would like to hear as an answer in such a case. That's not to put them at fault, but I see the situation as a sort of X/Y-problem: we'd really have to educate them about comparative or historical linguistics instead, but that may not be what the asker is looking for. And it is not our duty to come up with all that.

But maybe this is also the way to an answer: one thing we could do is to just "misinterpret" (and perhaps accordingly edit) "why"-questions so that they make sense as legitimate requests for diacronic or functional explanations. For example, for the classic "why das Mädchen but die Wand?", there could be given a fine answer that mentions historical development of sexus and genus from PIE and Germanic, or explains the functionality of noun classes for co-reference disambiguation, redundancy increase, etc., cross-linguistically.

The hard part is how to communicate the forced reinterpreation nicely.

  • "so this is not at all a German problem" I disagree. Why would I not be interest in Sentence structure in subjunctive passive with modal verb in a subordinate clause? Awareness of other languages helps to incure interest, but do note that to "to educate them about comparative or historical linguistics instead" is only shifting the goal post: uncanny valley, it is just-so. Thus it seems you argue conversely with the same kind of native speaker bias in the opposite direction, "why would anyone do things differently than we do it?". Diachrony is only a tool, not the goal. – vectory Jun 14 at 7:46
  • I do suspect by the way that you are underestimating the difficulty of accounting for all historic and prehistoric developments that went into Maidche. Nevertheless, the answer that -chen is dimunitive and regularly inflecting neutre is standard probably for the sole reason that it helps learners to rationalize and memorize--not that it is very accurate, reasonable or entirely correct. This is a neat example, because a serious investigation and exposé could span many pages, but the abstract for an answer on this site can skip all that to rest on a summary of the most recent outcome. – vectory Jun 14 at 7:56
  • A serious why-question in contrast would need to consider, for example, the evidence and reasoning which lead to the official conclusion that Magd, maiden and the like should reconstruct (or be derived from, as a matter of perspective) from *maguz "boy". One may consequently ask, naively, why was *mawī, *mawilǭ "girl" not continued instead, if it was available. The priminary answer is deceptively simple, but too difficult to resolve: It's all nonsense. Editors refuse to recognize this either because of the severe implications for the field--or for individual lack of justification. – vectory Jun 14 at 8:31


Any answer to the question of "Why is A?", i.e. any causal explanation of the phenomenon A, is logically insufficient: if B is the cause of A, and C is the cause of B, then C can also be considered a cause of A. And of course, also C has a cause. The point is: Every cause in this line has a cause again, which leaves us with a regressus ad infinitum.[1]

This problem is perfectly analogue to Aristotle's problem of the unmoved mover, or, more general to Münchhausen trilemma. There are different strategies to deal with the problem that there is no such thing as an ultimate causal explanation. The strategy I have seen on german.SE most often is to, facing the logical impossibility to give a full causal explanation, refuse to give any causal explanation and to state: Well, it is just as it is.

What we should do: A Problem based Pragmatic Approach

Although this answer is perfect in a logical sense (it is the tautological option in the Münchhausen trilemma), in fact it does not satisfy anything the questioner wants to know, it does not provide them any useful information. It also does not appear to make an effort to do so. This is why I think, answers following this strategey have a high risk to come across rude, repellent, ignorant, distanced, unempathic, ivory-towerish or at least unhelpful.[2]

This social dimension lights the way to the approach we should take in my opinion. I think, we should not take a logical but a pragmatic approach here. We should interpret those why-questions not as an (insolvable) logical challenge, but we should interpret them as a high-level expression of a deeper lying problem the questioner has. The questioner might not be able to express their problem in a perfect logic form yet. But that does not mean that there would be no good answer to the problem. In order to answer the question properly we should try to help them find the question that both is answerable and addresses the problem the questioner has.

I think, it is also important to realize that this problem of not being able to formulate the question is not a problem which is rooted in the person of the questioner, but that this is the course of how learning and progress in realization goes with humans. The history of science, philosophy and mathematics can very well described as a struggle for asking the right questions.

How we should do it

I think, the problems being uttered in why-questions can often be described quite well with the following model:

  1. The questioner has some implicit premises.
  2. The questioner encounters a phenomenon which contradicts their premises.
  3. They wonder how this is possible.

Other words to formulate the same model would be:

  1. The questioner are equipped with a set of rules which define the state of "normal", i.e. the state which does not raise any questions (for them).
  2. They encounter a "deviant" phenomenon, i.e. a phenomenon which does not stick to the rules.
  3. They wonder how this can be explained.

Very often, a satisfying answer to this is to demonstrate, where their model of "normal" is mislead, i.e. which of the implicit premises is wrong. That requires to find out the implicit premises before. I actually believe that the communicative problem with why-questions is the implicitness of the premises. I think, making them explicit will very often solve the communicative problem. And I think this is the point what we can get better at. Instead of giving a non-answer in the way I mentioned above, I think we should try to find this out, by:

  1. Asking clarifying questions in comments to the question.
  2. Trying to guess the actual problem of the questioner and answer this.


Finally, to make the approach a little clearer, let me make some examples:

Question: Why does German capitalize the nouns?

Clarifying questions:

  1. Do you want to know why German capitalizes the nouns in opposition to all the other words?
  2. Do you want to know why German capitalizes the nouns while other languages (such as English) do not?
  3. Would a historical overview over the development of capitalization in German answer your question?

Question: Why does the German language have three genders?

Clarifying questions:

  1. Do you want to know why German has three genders in opposition to other languages (such as French, Spanish, Italian) which have only two?

  2. Would a linguistic theory of how gender evolves in language and where in this evolution the German language is to be situated answer your question?

  3. Would a general theory over gender in languages answer your question?

[1] Usually, causal relations are not linear, but tree-shaped, which makes it only more complicated, but does not change anything of my argument.

[2] It can be argued that this way to giving this social signal is fine. One could argue that the site cannot or should not make the effort, but should leave the duty of asking proper questions to the questioner. I disagree with this argument, but I do not want to focus my post on this question.

  • Infinite regress is not a problem in recursive structures. I think, therefore I am, etc. (A -> B, B -> A is probably true if Q accepted either A or B as premisse, unless either B or A is provably wrong). This is circular reasoning, which is not inherently fallacious, but it requires common ground. Few things are fundamentally agrred on, so it might require a bit of Überredungskunst to accept a premisse. This is often enough the target, to offer motivation, a rational, or conviction to accept something as correct. Problems arise when it's not clear whether the Q has a solid concept of something – vectory Jun 14 at 9:59

There are many different kinds of why in philosophical logic. We distinguish at least deductive, inductive and reductive reasoning. Epistemic logic might differentiate more, I don't know.

It should be notable that how and why are reasonably interchangable, as well as in translation wieso, weshalb, warum, but perhaps more commonly wie. Why would you say that, Wie kannst du sowas nur sagen (wie... so, was), how dare you, wie kannst du nur, why would you do that, what did you do that for, Oh Romeo wherefore are you, ... As we can see, the language offers a delicate selection of question words, and many more ways to paraphrase.

TL;DR: If people are asking imprecise questions, how (or why) should anyone know what they mean.

Simple answer: The most trivial questions occure repeatedly. I consider it a matter of didactic and pedagogy to deal with them appropriately, which might be impossible on such an impersonal level. Less frequent questions will be tendentionally even more complicated.

Long answer: If people use the site as extended web search and ask for "Dative, huh?", it should be closed for showing no own research, if a google search would in fact solve their problems. It might be necessary to be defensive here, erring on the side of caution. Less is more.

If a level of understanding is shown that warrants such a question, it might need motivation. Depends on the case. Constructing an example, or analysis of an example should be encouraged. This is so in particular because even seasoned editors might appreciate clever examples, too, but more so because asking the right question is half the way to an answer.

In the second case, the why-question isn't the target either. It merely sets the focus on word order. It does so only indirectly because, I reckon, they are not certain if the example is correct at all. I would not want to restrict the question on that point, if they already trust that it is probably correct. Again one might argue that it lacks research, relative to the difficulty of the construction.

Overall, in both cases I pressume those are duplicates inasmuch as they require thorough introductions to these textbook exame topics.

It should by the way not be a problem that these topics can be tackled with different approaches. That's not a fault of the askee, although it might be helpful if they offer a particular framework to work in. If this is missing, it should not be overinterpreted to go beyond the common curriculum.

So the basic problem is that a why-question is not self-explanatory about the askee's aims, and they can be open ended like why is the sky blue, why do I exist, or not? Open-ended questions are bad. However, lack of specifity also grants the opportunity to interpret the question appropriately. This is especially true when the askee is unaware of the actual problem. The question should ideally display some understanding and respective gaps in the understanding to come to an arbitrary point of interest.

Thus, to answer your questions:

  1. There is no problem with Y-Questions. Yes/no questions might be more direct, and still require elaborate proof on occasion, but people might more efficiently ask multiple choice questions, or how/why when they are not sure what their options are.

  2. If they know what the options are, the problem lies elsewhere .

  3. If you'll excuse the pun, they might want to know how (in)correct their chosen option is, but they'll do the accounting themselves, you will only need to explain the why. That's when the stern schol-masters insistince is needed that that's just so and they will have to learn it, whereby it will be appreciated if authority is proved and not just blankly asserted.

  4. There is unfortunately no general solution.

    1. There is in principle nothing wrong with closing a question, if the close reason is well justified, but the preset options, and the usual comments are often not justified. Arguably, you are interpreting the questuion at the moment that you deem it out of scope for the site. In case of why-questions this often implies that the existential questions would be basically theological or mystical in nature.

    2. The general rules about good answers apply. Even if you would consider an answer speculatively, it is usually permissable if adequately sourced. It is appropriate to addopt a question and edit it appropriately, if you are going to answer it yourself. Closure or deletion are in essence answeres as well.

However, the way you set up the questions with number 4.1. as the default case does not bode well for your general additude to these problems.

Corrolary: There should be no grounds to default to point 1 if only you don't know a suitable source, if you disagree with a particular line of research. Because, a maximally broad scope does not impede on a more narrow scope as you might have it in mind.

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