Hither - hence

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Hither and hence, thither and thence, and whither and whence are three pairs of adverbs showing place that can confuse modern readers. They are replaced in current English by extended meanings of the three words here, there and where. All are primarily adverbs, although they can be used as adjectives, nouns or conjunctions.

  • Hence, thence and whence are essentially 'ablative': the common element of their meaning '-ence' is 'from [the origin]' - hence is 'from here', thence is 'from there and whence is 'from where'.
  • Hither, thither and whither are 'allative' (not a term of English grammar), denoting 'movement towards'. Hither means 'to here', 'in this direction', thither means 'to there', 'in that direction', and whither means 'to which direction', 'to where'.

The wh- words Whence and whither, like Where, can be used as relative pronouns or Interrogative pronouns. "Whither goest thou?" is an archaic form of "Where are you going?"; "I will go whither thou goest" is an equivalent of "I'll go where you're going". (In the Bible, in chapt !, v 16 of the Book of Ruth, Ruth says to her mother-in-law, "whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge.")

Modern place-word
now used for all meanings
towards from
here [in] this place hither to this place hence from this place
there [in] that place thither to that place thence from that place
where [in] which place [?] whither to which place [?] whence from which place [?]

The phrase "hither and thither" has a meaning of 'in all directions', 'in many places at once'; it is an equivalent of the current 'here, there and everywhere'. In older English, the verbal 'to hither and thither' was 'to be very busy'.

Etymological note: the common element -ither is an ancient Germanic suffix meaning 'motion towards'. Old English had an adverb hider, which developed to hiðər in Middle English and, following a common phonetic change, became hither (pronounced with the voiced '-th-', IPA: /ð/) by the sixteenth century.
The Old English adverb for 'from here' was henne; for 'from there' it was thenne; and 'from where' was hwanone, spelled many ways but settling on when or whenne in Middle English. (All these forms are last recorded in the fifteenth century. By that time, they had all added an inflection -es, which is the normal genitive for OE nouns used - as often - to form adverbs. So the modern forms, ending in -ence, are doubly adverbs.)