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When do you use wie and was in German?

For example:

What is your name?

I understand you ask the question with wie instead of was.

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Welcome to the site. An upvote to get you going. –  Tom Au Apr 4 '12 at 14:10
    
@TomAu: You don't need upvotes to get going. You're misusing the voting system. Are you buying friends? –  user unknown May 6 '12 at 22:34
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@userunknown: For people of less than 100 "earned" reputation, I will up vote a "pretty good," rather than "very good" answer. The most vulnerable period for new people is when they join the site. People need to get "quick" upvotes so they come back to the site. Once they're more or less established, then stricter standards apply. But this upvote for newbies means, "You're on the right track, I'm keeping an eye on you." –  Tom Au May 6 '12 at 22:41
    
@TomAu: That is your personal opinion. I don't think people are vulnerable. Nor do I believe in immunization by votes. Ich halte das im Gegenteil für eine durch und durch korrupte Denkweise. –  user unknown May 6 '12 at 22:46
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@userunknown Inwiefern ist das jetzt nicht Deine persönliche Meinung? –  Jan May 7 '12 at 12:30
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4 Answers

-- "When do you use "wie" and "was" in German?" --

In general we use those words similar to English. We ask wie when we want to know how something is and we ask was if we want to know what something is.

For some abstract things the two languages handle it different if you ask with wie/how or was/what and sometimes they're equal. In many cases both languages support phrases for the same thing with both words (with sometimes a subtle different meaning):

Woran denkst du? - Where is your mind? (*)

Was denkst du? - What do you think?

(*)Note: If you ask What's on your mind it expresses - imho - that something weighs someone down while Where is your mind does not.

In case of name English is different to German, but note that in other languages may also be different ways to ask. In Russian they ask with как(how), in French with comment(how) or quel(which/what) and in Spain and Italian I think it's similar to French.

B2T - In German we usually ask:

Wie heisst du?

But those are also possible (but are less in use):

Wie ist dein Name?

Welchen Namen hast du?

Wie lautet dein Name?

And if you ask Was ist dein Name? I think that's absolutely OK, because it has almost as many hits on google as Wie ist dein Name? but, though, I would never say that.

Summarized: In case of name it's much more usual to take wie or welchen rather than was, but in general (and that was your first question) it's not possible to give a clear answer. For every abstract thing the way how you ask can be different and there is no rule (and also no rule of thumb). It's something which is developed with time. Fortunately, it's often the same word.

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Wie means how, and was means what.

But the confusion arises from the fact that the same idea is rendered differently in English than in German.

In English, we say, "What is your name?". The literal German translation is "Was ist dein Name?".

But in German, we say, "Wie heißen Sie?" or "Wie heißt du?" (respectively, formal and informal). And the literal English translation is "How are you called?"

Other expressions also have different renderings. "Ich habe Hunger" literally translates into "I HAVE hunger", but the English equivalent is "I AM hungry".

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Regarding I am hungry. We do say the literal translation in German: Ich bin hungrig. In English you can say I feel hungry what is not possible in German. –  Em1 Apr 4 '12 at 14:37
    
But +1 for the second sentence. I think THIS is the most important point. German and English language handles it different. It's something what you've to learn, get the feeling for it. It's not a part of speech for what a rule exists for. –  Em1 Apr 4 '12 at 14:46
    
As a apart to my previous comment. There are a lot of examples the use of which is different. Example: Wofür ist das? - What is that for? - (Literally (bad) translation: Where is it for - Was ist das für). –  Em1 Apr 4 '12 at 15:00
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actually the literal translation for "How are you called?" is "Wie werden sie genannt?" and not "Wie heißen sie."... it is nit picking though :) Also the question "Wie ist Ihr Name?" is common. The actual confusion is there. Why is it "wie" and not "was"... I think some people might also say "was" –  Emanuel Apr 4 '12 at 20:41
    
@Em1 An even worse translation I regret to here often is "Für was ist das?". I fear we loose a lot of the German constructs that makes the language what it is, altough I know that it eveolves permanently. –  harper May 7 '12 at 5:50
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"Wie" means how and "was" means what. In general, you can translate them that way, but as you noticed, there are some special cases that you learn best by comming across them and looking them up.

Translating "what is your name" would literally result in "was ist dein Name". This actually is a valid sentence/question!

"Wie heißt du" might be a bit more common, but "wie" makes sense here. How something "heißt", makes the something valid: if "A heißt B", A is called B. Now you can also ask what A "heißt": "was heißt A", which translates to what does A mean.

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Welcome to GL&U!

The difference between the two mainly has to do with the verb being used or the action taking place. To ask for someone's name in German, you are really asking "how" they are called or how their name is called, not "what" their name is like in English. Look for what verb is being used or implied to help determine which is correct.

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