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Does the word whither mean to where?

Does that mean you can use it this way:

This is the sea whither we were sailing.

This is the city whither the ship was sailing.

This is the island whither the crew was sailing.

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    It is good to know what the word means, but I would not recommend using the word today, because it is extremely old-fashioned and has been declining in usage for years: books.google.com/ngrams/… – stangdon Feb 4 at 15:28
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    Never let pop culture trends prevent you from expanding your vocabulary. – barbecue Feb 4 at 20:14
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    @barbecue Using that word probably makes you to look funny... or strange XD – Victor VosMottor Feb 5 at 13:14
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    @barbecue I wouldn't exactly call a 200-plus-year trend "pop culture", but maybe your horizon is further than mine! :-D – stangdon Feb 5 at 16:26
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    @stangdon Today's pop culture is tomorrow's historical trivia. – barbecue Feb 5 at 18:58
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(The short answers to your two questions are yes, it does, and yes, you can.)

The entire sequence of the mostly archaic "adverbs of place" is:

Whither - to where
Hither - to here
Thither - to there
Whence - from where
Hence - from here
Thence - from there

For example, the popular song Do you know where you're going to? might have been Dost thou know whither goest thou? (reversing the last two words to make them fit rhythmically — poetic license) 300 years ago. It sounds very archaic to the native ear, though.

There are a few expressions that survive, such as a come-hither look, meaning a seductive look. Also, hither and yon (or sometimes hither and thither means all about chaotically with no sense of direction). And hence is still pretty common, but with the meaning of something that follows logically from a stated assertion: I was in San Francisco last night, hence you could not have seen me in New York.

This is a nice summary of the words' meanings and usage. Also, here's an Ngram of the frequency of the words from 1800 to the present. You can see from it that hence is currently used much more often than the others. (Interestingly, I find from looking over the books in this that thence is still in very common use in surveyors' descriptions.)

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    That would be "Dost thou know whither goest thou? "(or probably, goest thee) and definitely archaic (except perhaps in the hillier parts of Yorkshire) – Brian Drummond Feb 4 at 16:24
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    @BrianDrummond "Dost thou know whither thou goest", surely? – Kate Bunting Feb 4 at 16:40
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    Re "sounds very archaic to the native ear", that really depends on the ear. Or the eye, since it'd mostly be used in writing. If you're writing for popular culture, probably not, but a reasonably literate audience should have no problem with it. – jamesqf Feb 4 at 20:00
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    @KateBunting: I see your "whither thou goest", and raise you with "Knowest thou whither thou goest?" – TonyK Feb 4 at 21:34
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    @BrianDrummond Yup, it was late. That's what I meant to write. But goest thou instead of thou goest is just poetic license, to put go on the strong beat. I think a lot of poets do that, although I'm no Keats. As for thee, certainly not IMO. That would be analogous to "does he know where him is going?" – BobRodes Feb 5 at 7:48
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The simple answer is, unless you are writing in the style of an 18th century poet, don't use whither. The word is not used in unmarked modern English.

The meaning of "whither" is "what direction" and yes, it means "to where". So if you are sailing on a sea, from a city and to an island then the first two are wrong. The last one is correct because it is the only one which uses a destination.

Modern Engish would use "to"

This is the island to which the crew was sailing.

or more likely

This is the island the crew was sailing to.

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    Aye, my generation also. I also read Shakespeare and Marlowe at school. But that doesn't make "Wither dost thou wander" unmarked modern English. I agree that "whither" and "hither" would enrich the language. As would "yonder" but these are now all marked and poetic in modern use. – James K Feb 4 at 8:25
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    My mother used to say that certain women had a 'come hither' look about them, and she was by no means a student of Shakespeare and Marlowe. – Michael Harvey Feb 4 at 8:35
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    I'm not sure why you assumed that the OP's first two examples were wrong, rather than referring to situations where we're sailing towards a sea or towards a city. – rjpond Feb 4 at 8:48
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    @MichaelHarvey "come hither" or even a "come hither look/gaze" is a set phrase with its own meaning. The relationship to the meaning of "hither" is still apparent, but using and understanding that phrase doesn't require understanding "hither" itself. – aschepler Feb 4 at 13:13
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    @James K: Yonder, as in "over yonder", is fairly common use, at least in the western US. – jamesqf Feb 4 at 20:03
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Yes, ‘whither’ roughly means ‘to where’.

Historically, Germanic languages differentiated between direction and location. Some still do (you can see this in modern Swedish for example, ‘hit’ is ‘here’ as a direction, and ‘här’ is ‘here’ as a location), but English has largely lost this distinction. As a result ‘whither’, and the equivalents ‘hither’ (to here) and ‘thither’ (to there) (and their related words ‘whence’, ‘hence’, and ‘thence’, which indicate ‘from where/here/there’) are largely archaic in modern English vernacular.

There are four places you will potentially see these words used in modern English:

  • The word ‘hence’ has shifted to become a synonym with ‘therefore’ in a number of dialects, and is still used in that way.
  • Historical texts, or texts emulating historical texts, obviously still use these because they are archaic. The shift away from whither/hither/thither/whence/hence/thence is relatively recent (compared to the age of the language as a whole), happening only within the last few centuries. As a result of how recent said shift was, a lot of people associate these words alongside a number of older pronouns (such as thee and thou) with ‘Old English’ (except it’s very much not Old English, it’s Early Modern English they usually end up replicating).
  • Poetry will sometimes still use them. This kind of goes alongside the above point, but even when not emulating older styles these words may still find usage in poetry simply because the sound and/or rhythm may fit better.
  • A small handful of idioms and fixed phrases still use them as well.

Additionally, on rare occasion, I have seen some people choose to use these words when translating from languages that do make this differentiation in cases where the difference cannot be inferred from context otherwise in English. This type of usage is uncommon to say the least though, so you are not very likely to encounter it.

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Whither is a locative adverb.

Note the table at the bottom of the linked wiktionary article showing the relationships between where, whither and whence on the first line. There are similar relationships between here, hither and hence, and there, thither and thence. This is one of the few instances of English being surprisingly logical.

"Where" indicates a place. "Whither" means "to that place", and "whence" means "from that place." The usage of "whither" generally indicates a question, just as "where" and "whence" do when the place is unknown.

Your examples, for instance, "This is the sea whither we were sailing" are not really in accord with correct usage. A more likely use of whither would be something like, "We are here in this sea. How did we get hither? And now whither?" Whither does mean "to where" but not as literally as you have used it in your examples.

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  • Yes, "We are here in this sea" is what I meant, meaning a specific sea. I left a word out, sorry. Edited. – Wastrel Feb 5 at 8:06
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Welcome to ELL, sovomon!

"Whither" does indeed mean "to where". Unfortunately it is now considered archaic.

Shakespeare used many similar words ('locative adverbs'):

hence (from here), thence (from there), whence (from where);
hither (to here), thither (to there) and whither (to where).

But although we encounter these words in literature and poetry of earlier times, we no longer use them, unless we are being deliberately archaic.

Whom is the only survivor, but its days are numbered!

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  • "Hence" and (less often) "whence" are are still used, but metaphorically rather than with reference to physical space. "Whither" survives in the set-phrase "Whither X?" (e.g. "Whither the United States?"). "Hither" survives primarily in the compound "hitherto" and also in "come-hither" as mentioned by Michael (but "come-hither" is also "old-fashioned" according to Cambridge - dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/come-hither ). – rjpond Feb 4 at 8:46
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    Quite right about hence and whence. "Henceforth and thenceforth" too. Here/to/in/of/unto", "there/to/in/of/unto", "where/to/in/of" and monstrosities like "heretofor" and "hereinunder" (which I can't remember meeting in literature) all survive in legal documents. "Hither and thither" was used when I was/were a boy/lad. And it appears in a 1944 poem. – Old Brixtonian Feb 4 at 9:20
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    "Whom" is not "to who". It's the word "who" when it is used in objective case. If a clause substituting any other noun or pronoun as the object would use the word "to", then the version with "who" uses "to whom" or "to who"; the "to" would not be omitted. – aschepler Feb 4 at 13:18
  • Quite right. I was thinking of the words "to whom" and stupidly said whom on its own meant that! Thank you. Now deleted. – Old Brixtonian Feb 4 at 16:28

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