The term “what” comes from the Old English word “hwæt,” which means “what” or “which thing.” This is derived from the Proto-Germanic root “hwat,” meaning “what,” and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root “kwod,” which is a pronominal stem used to form interrogative and relative pronouns.

1. Proto-Indo-European (PIE)

The PIE root “*kwod” means “what” or “which.”

2. Proto-Germanic

From the PIE root, the Proto-Germanic word “*hwat” developed, meaning “what.” This root is also related to other Germanic languages, such as Old High German “hwaz,” Gothic “hva,” and Old Norse “hvat.”

3. Old English (c. 5th to 11th century CE)

The Proto-Germanic term evolved into Old English “hwæt,” meaning “what” or “which thing.”

4. Middle English (c. 11th to 15th century CE)

The Old English “hwæt” evolved into Middle English “what,” retaining the meaning of “what” or “which thing.”

5. Modern English (from 15th century CE to present)

The term “what” evolved into its current form and pronunciation, retaining the meaning of “which thing” or “which kind of thing.”

Phonetic Evolution

Over time, the pronunciation of “what” has remained relatively stable from Old English to Modern English, although the initial “hw” sound has softened to “h.”

Usage Examples

  • “What is often used to ask about the identity, nature, or value of something.”
  • “Another example of ‘what’ in a sentence is ‘What is your favorite color?'”
  • “It can also be used as a relative pronoun, as in ‘I don’t know what he wants.'”

Cultural or Historical Notes

The development of the word “what” was significantly influenced by its use in various contexts, including questions and relative clauses. “What” has been a fundamental part of the English language’s system of pronouns and interrogatives.

The word “what” reflects the concept of inquiry and identification, emphasizing the importance of understanding and determining the nature or identity of things in communication. It underscores the role of interrogative and relative pronouns in forming questions, providing clarity, and linking clauses in sentences. The evolution of “what” showcases the continuity and adaptability of language in addressing fundamental aspects of human interaction and communication.