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In Schubert’s song Erlkönig, (written by Goethe), there is a line:

Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?"

I see it translated into

My son, why do you hide your face in fear?

I can't exactly understand it. I would agree if it were one of the following:

Warum birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?

Von was [or is it wasvon?] birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?

But here was seems to be the object word of birgst, and so is dein Gesicht. Which is the object of the verb birgst? And how do we interpret was here?

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Your sentence

Was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht

is a token of a German idiom which can be found pretty often in literatur from the older days. But the idiom can still be heared today even in everyday language.

The was here is not used in the otherwise usual sense of asking for an object of a verb as in

Was isst du da? - Eine Banane, das siehst du doch!

In your sentence, the was has a different meaning. See the following examples:

Was bohrst du dir dauernd in der Nase?

Was nestelst du immer an deinem Regenschirm herum?

Was bummelst du schon wieder so rum?

Was sendet der Trump da immer diese Twitter-Nachrichten, hat er nichts besseres zu tun?

Was regnet es heute schon wieder ohne Unterlass?

In all these cases, the "was" is used as a shorter synonym for

Warum nur...

Warum bloß...

Warum um Himmels willen...

which is like warum plus disapprobation of the behaviour or phenomenon in focus.

Bonus fact

An interesting case is

Was isst du denn?

Here, the was could be read as asking for an object; or it could be interpreted as

Warum isst du denn schon wieder?

as in

Was isst du denn schon wieder eine Banane? Du hast doch heute schon drei gegessen!

Things depend here simply on intonation (and other means of non-verbal communication accompanying the verbal utterance).

Is it provocative?

In certain situation asking things like

Was kuckst du mich so an?

can be perceived as provocative (as RoyPJ in his answer correctly noted). However, this depends more on the situation as such (in the above example the question would be provocative in most cases because asking somebody why he is looking at you is in most cases provocative independent of wording). But there are also cases where a was-disapprobation would not be provocative but simply carry the message of emotional involvement:

Was regnet es heute nur den ganzen Tag!

Was würde ich gerne nochmals nach Venedig fahren!

Oh. The last one even shows that was may also replace wie, since warum nur is not what the person speaking intends to say; and that it also may be used to express a wish, not only dissaproval.

  • I like your banana example. The difference of was (was) and was (warum) could also be shown in your nose-picking example: „Was bohrst du dir dauernd in der Nase“ versus „Nach was bohrst du dir dauernd in der Nase“, where the answer could be „Weil sie juckt“ or „Nach diesem großen grünen Popel hier, schau mal!“ – Philipp Nov 28 '17 at 12:51
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I will try to wrap this up from the start:

Mein Sohn birgt sein Gesicht.
Subjekt - Verb - Objekt

I think what confused you was this:

Was birgt mein Sohn?
Sein Gesicht.

Was can work as a substitution for warum in many cases, although it is barely used. The standard example is

Was schaust du mich so an?

I would advise you not to use this construction, since

  • it is incorrect in some cases
  • it is mostly perceived as bad style or provoking
  • warum always works

Of course this was all a bit different in the time of Goethe and it was in no way bad style of him to use it.

To conclude:

Mein Sohn birgt so bang das Gesicht.
Subjekt - Verb - Adjektiv - Objekt

Warum birgst du so bang das Gesicht?

And with explicit addressing to his son:

Mein Sohn, warum birgst du so bang das Gesicht?
Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang das Gesicht?

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