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I am not a German speaker and I don't speak German well but I have to ask a German where she is from originally. I think I shouldn't say "Woher kommst du?", because that literally means "where do you come from?" and I want to ask for her ethnicity. So, can I say "Woher bist du?" which means "Where are you from?" or are there any better translations to ask ethnicity?

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    Nebenbei erwähnt, you should use "Sie" when talking to strangers (though "du" is used a lot these days, for colleagues (at least in software) and people you meet at parties). – RedSonja Mar 16 '15 at 14:19
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    @RedSonja: Seconding the "Sie". "Du" always needs to be offered (personally), set (by company policy), or really obviously safe to assume -- and the latter can be tricky. A LAN party would be safe "du" terrain, but a software symposium could be not, depending. If in any doubt, always play it safe and start with "Sie". – DevSolar Mar 17 '15 at 10:31
  • He-he. Germans live in the shadow of the "political correctness", so they need often tricky solutions. :-) Mostly they ask me 1) the city where I worked before Germany 2) my first language. Unfortunately, because of the PC I can't say them "ask freely, I hate PC much more as you" :-) – peterh Mar 17 '15 at 12:39
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    @peterh: Well, there's a whole world of difference between asking someone where he has lived before, or what the reason for his strange accent might be -- and asking for ethinicity in specific. The first two might be interesting, even important to know depending on context. But ethnicity should never, ever matter in any way, so it can make for a casual topic between good acquaintances, but a very touchy one in any other context. (Doubly so in Germany, I agree with you on that.) – DevSolar Mar 17 '15 at 14:22
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    For most practical purposes, "where did you grow up?" is probably the question you want to ask, isn't it? That is, are you interested in culture (okay) or genes (why the heck would you care?)? – Raphael Mar 17 '15 at 16:29
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I’m not sure what the question actually is. If you already know that she is German, why would you ask her about her ethnicity?

You could ask about what city she is from:

Aus welcher Stadt kommst Du?

Or you could ask about what region she is from, but that’s a bit trickier.

Aus welchem Bundesland kommst Du?

is closest but does not necessarily reflect the region accurately.

Or you could generally ask

Woher kommst Du?

Or do you suspect that she or her parents may have settled in Germany very recently? That would often be an extremely delicate subject to ask about in the first place. You could ask

Woher kommt Deine Familie?

Some people may be proud to tell you that they are from Turkey or Croatia, but some may also take it as insinuation that you do not consider them real Germans.

Personally, I always found questions about my background invasive and somewhat offensive. That goes for both countries I lived in, Germany and the USA.

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    +1 for invasiveness of question about ethnicity. See also mgp.berkeley.edu/fremd-im-eigenen-land-by-advanced-chemistry – Residuum Mar 16 '15 at 12:51
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    If you already know that she is German, why would you ask her about her ethnicity? - because ethnicity is not the same thing as nationality? – Davor Mar 16 '15 at 14:42
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    Personally, I consider as ideal the state where I can ask, "Woher kommt deine Familie?" (or similar) and the asked person answers "Bavaria" or "Sri Lanka" without missing a beat. Hence, I truly see no reason not to ask this question; if a person becomes offended, they are being silly. (The reason for asking may be just curiosity, but even if it's a divergence from the askers expectation you don't know what it was: language, food choice, skin color, favorite soccer team, a perceived mismatch of multiple such things, etc pp.) – Raphael Mar 17 '15 at 7:28
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    @Raphael: That very much depends on circumstances. If you're already on friendly terms with someone, you can ask him about ethinicity, no problem. But at a job interview? Definite no-go. – DevSolar Mar 17 '15 at 10:34
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Woher kommst du?

is fine, to answer your first question, and the only way I can think of to ask where a person comes from.

To talk about your second question: Ethnicity is still a bit of a 'dangerous' topic in German society, as we stopped drawing the line between people. At least from an official side, while movements like "Pegida" prove this wrong. (Pegida is a racist movement against Muslims, spawning thanks to fear from ISIS.)

This is the reason I can't think of an example to ask for ethnicity, except through where they're from.

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    To stress that, you'll never have to enter your "ethnicity" in a form in Germany, only your nationality. (These form fields are most ridiculous in the US as the options are quite incomparable.) – Raphael Mar 17 '15 at 7:23
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    I once applied for a job in the USA, and on the form I had to give "race". I wrote "homo sapiens". Well, I didn't get that job, but it's probably just as well... – RedSonja Mar 17 '15 at 14:39
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    @BenVoigt to even draw a line between races and not see each and everyone as one species is considered racism in Germany, doesn't mean that it is, but it is considered as such. After all, races are something we made up, in nature there never where races, since they mostly are part of allopatric speciation. – Darian Mar 17 '15 at 15:42
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    @Darian: Doesn't change the fact that you are using the wrong word. (In addition, there are so many differences between the two, that lumping them in the same category is ill-advised) – Ben Voigt Mar 17 '15 at 16:18
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    Darian, I'm not sure that's true. "Rassist" is used for people discriminating because of race or nationality (the latter being a stretch of the word), but I've never heard it used for discrimination based in religion. Keep in mind that there's also "Ausländer-/Fremdenfeindlichkeit". (cc @BenVoigt) – Raphael Mar 18 '15 at 6:44
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In cases where it's not clear whether a person was born in Germany or not, you could ask about the family's background instead of just the person's. If you want to stress that you mean the ethnicity rather than the location, you could use the verb 'stammen' instead of 'kommen'.

Woher stammt deine Familie?

I believe this is acceptable when talking to visitors, first or second generation Germans.

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    You still have to be careful. People get offended fast these days. – RedSonja Mar 16 '15 at 14:23
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There should be useful information behind your interest, that might help you to avoid the very direct and awkward question about ethnicity (I mean, if you are not or don't want to be mistaken as racist). Ask rather for that information (e.g. Sprichst du nur Deutsch als Muttersprache?). Anyway, there is a short solution: suppose you are in certain hypothetical[1] city, say Bielefeld. Ask

Bist du hier [in Bielefeld] geboren?

If the answer is no ask where, and you will have your answer. If the answer is yes, ask:

Auch deine Familie?


[1] „Weil es Bielefeld nicht gibt”.

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It is easy; if you want to know her original ethnicity, you can add ursprünglich to your sentence, so:

Woher kommst du ursprünglich?

It means "Where do you come from originally?".
I do it all the time and it's accepted in society.

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    The answer to a question like this might be "Berlin" or "Regensburg" while the one asking expects "Turkey" or "Ghana". The motivation for such a question might be a foreign name or darker skin color. The one asking wants to know the "true" origin as somebody with a unfamiliar name or phenotype is not seen as a German citizen in second or third generation. This question is the worst of all the ones proposed. – lejonet Mar 16 '15 at 10:01
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    I've never experienced the situation where someone replied this answer with a city he lived in before. Maybe in Germany this answer is interpreted differently. Here in Switzerland, 99% of the time you'll get immediately the original country of one's person with this answer. I am a second generation swiss citizen myself and talk a lot with second or third generation citizens. They all relpy positively to this answer. – exhausend Mar 16 '15 at 10:20
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    @Merrythought i guess there is a difference if someone who appears to have a foreign origin asks such a question (to a "fellow foreigner", or if it is "a native", especially in Switzerland. – Burki Mar 16 '15 at 12:59
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    I actually like this answer. It is often asked between (apparent?) Germans when one recognizes a dialect of another (German or German speaking) region. This leaves open all options. If you only receive the answer "Regensburg" (ex.), you know this is all the other one wants to disclose. But it's easy to continue with "but my family originally comes from Nevada". Still a potentially delicate matter - one should only ask, if there is a deeper interest (say you have studied Ghanaian literature and search for for someone to discuss it with). – linac Mar 16 '15 at 13:38
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    @ThorstenDittmar yes, he is, I agree with you. But this answer is not expected by the one who asks. It's like "Well, you may have a German passport but where are you really from (as Germany can't be your homeland)." – lejonet Mar 16 '15 at 15:30
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I lived and worked in Germany 20+ years ago. Certainly, in that time (and in Bonn), Duzen (using the Du form) was not acceptable work language unless you knew the person well.

And if you knew the person well, you'd already know their background.

I've been asked where I'm from (my german is not educated, I had almost no formal German education when I went over there to work, so people realize quite quickly that I'm not a native speaker). I say Canada. And that's not invasive.

But additional questions can, given both the history and current events (someone mentioned Pegida) start to feel invasive quite quickly.

The truth is, most people in Europe are from somewhere else, if you ask more than a few questions. For a start, the boundaries have moved so often. My ancestry is Hungarian - many people self-identify as Hungarian (by mother tongue or holiday observance or whatever) but grew up in places that are outside of Modern Hungary.

Some people are more ready to talk about this than others.

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I think it really depends on how close you are with the one you want to ask about his ethnicity. If you are friends there should be no problem to ask such a question. Either way, I would suggest the following:

Darf ich dich nach deiner Abstammung fragen?

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    I wouldn't dare ask that of anybody except a very close friend. One could ask for the origin of someones name instead. – PMF Mar 16 '15 at 7:47
  • You're right. I've never asked anybody except a close friend. But the name is not always an indicator e.g. the name of a former schoolmate was Markus and his ethnicity was Egyptian. One of my friends Ethnicity is Italy/South Africa and his name is Philip ;) – Kagemusha Mar 16 '15 at 9:02
  • Using "du" kind of implies that you're already somewhat befriended though. – Thomas Mar 16 '15 at 11:05
  • @Kagemusha: I was referring to the last name, actually. – PMF Mar 16 '15 at 16:11
  • @PMF: I see. But imo it's the same with surnames. If one married a native to the country or if it's the second generation one might have a perfectly normal surname for this country. – Kagemusha Mar 17 '15 at 6:31
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I'm a native German speaker and come from Switzerland. It really depends on the type of person you want to ask.

All the other comments are totally correct, but a common phrase in German would also be:

Was ist deine Nationalität? / Was hast du für eine Nationalität? (What's your nationality?)

This is the case, if you're already talking to this person and you notice, for example, it's "different" looking. As already mentioned, for some people it could be a little bit offensive.

So I prefer to ask in general:

Bist du von hier? Oder woher kommst du? (Are you from here? Or where do you come from?)

So you normally haven't any problems, because the person will tell you the rest.

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