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While trying to understand the meaning and usage of hin- and her-, I came across explanations like the following several times (here and here):

HIN describes movement away from the speaker and towards a particular destination

HER describes movement away from a particular destination towards the speaker.

What is confusing for me in this explanation is how "away from the speaker" part interacts with "towards a particular destination". Specifically:

  1. Is the explanation correct? Is the "towards a particular destination" part important in the first place? Or can we drop it and have "HIN describes movement away from the speaker" as complete explanation?
  2. Can hin express the "away from the speaker" meaning without the "towards a particular destination" part? That is, the speaker does not intend to express towards where the action is directed, only that it's goes away from the speaker.
  3. Can hin express the "towards a particular destination" meaning without the "away from the speaker" part? That is the speaker intends to express the directedness of the action towards the destination, but does not want to express how it's directed with respect to the speaker.
  4. If the answer to 2 is No, how can we express that?
  5. If the answer to either 2 or 3 is Yes, how do we distinguish the partial case vs the full meaning (speaker only vs destination only vs speaker+destination)?

At this point I am more interested in understanding the general rule, not some irregular idiomatic phrases.

2 Answers 2

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I'd consider the explanations you quoted not necessarily wrong, but probably overly simplified.

"Hin-" and "her-" make note of the perspective that is expressed in the sentence. This can of course be the perspective of the speaker and refer to the speakers physical location, and often will do so. But it doesn't necessarily have to.

Let's look at an example. Imagine your house is located at the road from the harbor to the town hall. A family is walking from the harbor towards the town hall. To describe this, you can say

Die Familie kommt vom Hafen her.
The family is coming from the harbor.

or you can say

Die Familie geht zum Rathaus hin.
The family is going towards the town hall.

Both sentences describe the same action, but with a different focus, with a different perspective. In neither version it matters where you as the speaker are at the moment.

So, regarding your specified questions:

  1. The "towards a particular destination" is not only important, it's the crucial point. As we've seen, the perspective in question can very well be the speaker's, but it doesn't have to.

  2. No, "hin-" always expresses a sense of direction towards something.

  3. Yes, that's possible. You might say the basic meaning of "hin-" is to express a sense of direction towards something.

  4. If moving away from the speaker is the crucial point, you could use something like "weg (von mir)", "away (from me)".

  5. As we've seen, the crucial point is the perspective that's expressed. Whether or not this is the (literal) perspective of the speaker needs to be derived from the context.

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  • Do I understand the perspective here correctly? For your example: "Die Familie kommt vom Hafen her." It means that we put a metaphorical camera in the city hall, direct it towards the hafen and "observe" how the family is approaching the "camera"? And generally, the speaker is not "obliged" to "hold" the camera in his "hands", but rather they are free to place it wherever it helps to convey the message better.
    – Alexey
    Jan 9, 2023 at 14:21
  • Still a bit unclear: does her here expresses that movement is happening towards the the "camera" ("focus", like in en.wiktionary.org/wiki/come#English), or does it mean that her expresses movement away from the Hafen?
    – Alexey
    Jan 9, 2023 at 14:23
  • @Alexey Maybe it helps to think of "hin-" and "her-" as referring to a point of reference. With "hin-", the movement is typically towards that point of reference, with "her-", it's away from the point of reference. That point of reference may or maybe not the position of the speaker. In "Sie kommen vom Hafen her", the movement is described relative to the harbor. In "Sie gehen zum Rathaus hin", the movement is described relative to the town hall. Obviously, they're doing both at the same time, but each sentence puts the focus on one of the aspects. Jan 10, 2023 at 9:42
  • You are saying: "with "her-", it's AWAY from the point of reference." But en.wiktionary.org/wiki/herkommen defines it as "come here (TOWARDS the speaker)" The direction in your explanation and Wiktionary's definitions contradict each other.
    – Alexey
    Jan 11, 2023 at 12:44
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    @Alexey This is roughly the place where things get murky ;) "Herkommen" can be used in two ways, one compliant with the rules I've tried to lay out, one contradicting the rules. You have "Wo kommt ihr denn her?", "Where are you folks from?" on the one hand. This is the one about the origin, away from the reference point. But you also have "Komm' bitte mal her!", "Please come here!", which contradicts the rules. That's language for you ;) Jan 11, 2023 at 16:13
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From my experience, the quoted explanation is wrong. This can be recognized most easily from the example:

Ich war heute zu einer Feier eingeladen, bin aber nicht hingegangen.

Since the speaker was the invited person, hin- is impossible to mean away from the speaker.

I also note, that with these prefixes either

  • no actual movment may be described, like in hin und her überlegt
  • a movement without connection to any speaker may be described, like Der Hund lief die ganze Zeit hin und her.

I admit, that in these examples not the prefix version is shown, but the corresponding preposition.

Wo bist Du hergekommen?

more convincingly represents towards the speaker, but the more generic herrühren (being caused by) is also a non-movement verb. Even if causing chain is considered a movement, it is hardly towards the speaker.

Zu mir easily adds the towards direction, but the opposite would most likely required a subclause.

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    "Since the speaker was the invited person, hin- is impossible to mean away from the speaker." One would assume what is meant is away from the current position of the speaker, which fits perfectly (the speaker isn't at the party when uttering the sentence).
    – David Vogt
    Jan 8, 2023 at 23:10
  • As I tried to explain in my answer, "hin-" and "her-" describe the perspective that is expressed in the sentence. That can be, but doesn't have to be the speaker's literal perspective. In "Ich bin nicht (zur Feier) hingegangen", the direction isn't towards the speaker, but towards the party location. You might translate it overly literal as "I didn't go to it / to this place". Also, the direction doesn't have to be literal. In your example "hin- und herüberlegen", the movement is figuratively. Think about somebody pacing to and fro, trying to get to a decision. Jan 8, 2023 at 23:29
  • I agree with @DavidVogt here. The first part is totally wrong, "hingegangen" is from the perspective of the speaker when talking, so it is from the speaker away to the location of the party. Concerning "hin und her" standalone, I would be wary to call it an example, because "hin und her" is a phrase like "back and forth" or "to and fro", and the meaning is similarly "away (from me) and back again."
    – Dubu
    Jan 9, 2023 at 11:30
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    Better counterexamples, with the prefix: hinrichten and herrichten
    – Bergi
    Jan 9, 2023 at 12:43
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    "Meine Tante ist auch nicht hingegangen." Es ist nicht notwendig die Perspektive des Sprechers, sondern der Person, um die es geht (so es überhaupt um eine Person geht). Die Vase ist runtergefallen - jetzt ist sie dahin. Jan 9, 2023 at 14:49

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