6

I have learned that when someone wants to know where a person comes from, one must ask:

Woher kommen Sie?

A lot of people have asked me:

Wo kommst du her?

or

Wo kommen Sie her?

Indistinctly. So the question is what is the difference?

9

The difference is in the meaning, but this can change by adding words.

The first phrase Woher kommen Sie? asks more where you are coming in the moment. For example: Ich komme gerade aus der Universität. But it can sometimes also have the meaning of the second, depends on the context. So standard meaning: From where do you come in the moment?

In the other phrase Wo kommen Sie her? one asks about your origins, town or country. So standard meaning: From which town/country are you?

But the phrases can be modified. If I ask Woher kommen Sie eigentlich?, then it has the standard meaning of the second. If I ask Woher kommen Sie gerade? underlines the meaning, where do you come in the moment.

And if I ask Wo kommen Sie denn jetzt her?, the second has the standard meaning of the first.

  • Very complete and comprehensible! Vielen Dank! ;) – Charlie Dec 15 '15 at 20:34
  • 1
    Could the downvoter please identify himself and explain his downvote. – Karl Dec 17 '15 at 11:02
4

Structurally, we have the following correspondences:

  • Wo kommst du her? (Or: Wo kommen Sie her?) = Where do you come from? (Or: Where are you coming from?)
  • Woher kommst du? (Or: Woher kommen Sie?) = From where do you come? (Or: From where are you coming?)

The German variant in parentheses is the variant using the formal form address, which doesn't exist in English. The English variant in parentheses is the variant using the progressive, which is colloquial and rarely used in German, because its German version is clumsy.

While these two ways of putting it are a priori equivalent, English has a strong preference for the first in general, and particularly when asking for someone's home. In German the distribution is much less skewed, but there is a tendency to use the first structure when asking for someone's home and the second when asking for the origin of a recent movement.

3

There's no difference. One is colloquial and the other is standard.

  • 2
    Isn’t that quite a difference? If so, it’s even one to be aware of. – dakab Dec 14 '15 at 21:18
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    Nope, this is not correct. – Jan Dec 14 '15 at 23:33
2

While the meaning of the two forms is rather similar, they derive from different starting points.

Woher kommen Sie?

The question word woher is asking for a place you came from and the from is included in that question word. The rest is rather simple, the verb is to come just signifying a movement.

Wo kommen Sie her?

Here, the question word wo asks about a static location and the directional aspect is included into the separable verb herkommen (to come here). So very literally translated it would be: Where did you come here from?, not where are you from? The literal translation gives a wrong picture though since the usage in English would be quite different.

You could even combine both forms (although that is rare) to generate:

Woher kommen Sie her?

Usually, marking the directional aspect once is considered enough.

If I had to guess, I would term it a North-South dualism, but I’m not too sure on this.

-2

"Woher kommen Sie?" is a more formal and slightly outdated version of "Wo kommen Sie her?". Both mean "Where are you from?" (or literally, "Where do you come from", as in "what place/event were you at before you arrived here" but it is less often used to mean that).

"Woher kommen Sie?" is not used in spoken language very often, as far as I'm aware. (I'm German, from the Cologne area). It sounds stilted.

  • It’s not about formal versus informal. See the other answers. – Jan Dec 17 '15 at 23:40

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