and welcome to our German Word of the Day. And today, it’s time for some closure because we’ll do the last episode of the mini series about how to translate when and if in German.
Well, I actually never called it a mini series, but anyway. There are five possible options for when and if in German: wenn, wann, ob, als and falls.
We’ve talked about each of them in detail in a separate article and I’ll leave the links below.
But today, it’s time to tackle the last one…
Falls has a fairly huge overlap with wenn and the long and short of it is that falls is used for a conditional if.
But it’s not always idiomatic and wenn might be the better choice. That’s what we’ll explore today, so if you’re ready to jump in, then let’s go :).
First, a quick look at where it comes from. Falls comes from the verb fallen which is to fall in English. There is also the noun der Fall in German… and this translates to … surprise surprise the fall. But not only to that. It also translates to case. What’s that? Oh no… beer case is not Bierfall… der Fall is only a word for abstract cases. Like…
- In that case, I’ll come.
- In diesem Fall komme ich.
- Inspector Awesome solves the case.
- Inspector Awesome löst den Fall.
All right. And where does the s in falls come from? Is it like the plural s in cases? Well, no… the plural of der Fall is die Fälle. The s in falls came from the genitive case and then, over time, it just froze there. If you now secretly think “Oh German, genitive case, frozen s… good thing English doesn’t have these kinds of things…”, then I say, maybe not as many as German but English does have some of those frozen genitive s too… for instance the s in nowadays… or the one in anyways :).
So anyways… what do we have so far? Falls is closely related to case… let’s keep that in mind. In case we need it ;).
When you look up falls in a dictionaries you’re likely to find if as a translation. But that is so incredibly imprecise and confusing that it is almost wrong. You see, if (and the si of the Romance languages) is actually used for two different things. There is the whether-if and there’s the condition-if. The German word for the former is ob and ob only What’s left is the condition-if but this is actually very broad and falls only covers a fraction of it. So, let’s have a look at when and how falls is used and what the difference is between falls and wenn.
In my opinion, falls has two main characteristics.
- falls is grounded in the present and reality. It does NOT work for impossible “if”s
- falls is skeptical
Let’s look at them in detail. First, what do I mean by grounded in the present and reality. That means that it is not going to be a translation for if, if if is used in a completely unrealistic, hypothetical sentence. Like this one:
- If Marie had studied she would have passed the exam
This is an example for pure fiction or speculation. The exam is over, she failed and there’s no way for her to ever change that… unless of course she travels back in time (aint’ got a time machine yet? Get your own time machine at Amazon, 20% off till yesterday). Now let’s look at the German translation.
- Wenn Marie gelernt hätte, hätte sie den Test bestanden.
- Falls Marie gelernt hätte,… is wrong!
Okay, admittedly I am actually not sure how wrong it really is. It might be okay grammatically, based on what some books say. But it sounds off to me. People don’t usually use it that way.
Let’s do another one of those.
- If Thomas had known that Maria needed the book he would definitely have brought it with him to school.
- Wenn Thomas gewusst hätte, dass Maria das Buch braucht, hätte er es auf jeden Fall mit zur Uni genommen.
- Falls Thomas gewusst hätte…. sounds WRONG
Now, those two examples were in the past. How about the future, though? Can we come up with impossible things there, too?
- If tomorrow were yesterday, I would be surprised.
- Wenn morgen gestern wäre, wäre ich überrascht.
- Falls morgen gestern wäre…. sounds WRONGISH
- If aliens landed tomorrow I would be surprised.
- Wenn morgen Aliens landen würden, wäre ich überrascht.
- Falls morgen Aliens landen würden…. sounds WEIRD
Now, why does the first example only sound “wrongish” and second one only weird? Well, falls sounds wrong for IMPOSSIBLE things. But these sentence are in the future which we can hardly foresee. We can be pretty certain that tomorrow is not going to be yesterday but as for the aliens….. who knows. Maybe the will land. They told me they wouldn’t when they were done probing me but who kn… wait… you should not know this. Forget what I just said.
- If the world ended tomorrow, I would be sad.
This if-sentence is NOT impossible. It is the future, so we can’t know and it isn’t a paradox as the ones in the past. But it sure is speculation. And in highly speculative sentences falls doesn’t sound very good to me.
- Wenn die Welt morgen unterginge (untergehen würde), wäre ich traurig.
- Falls die Welt morgen… sounds WEIRD
So… for impossible ifs, falls sounds flat out wrong and for highly speculative ones it sounds a bit odd.
The same thing expressed in a more grammatical way: falls just doesn’t sound very good with conditional forms of verbs. Wenn is just way more genuine right there. Falls is more like this down to earth kinda guy. It hangs out with normal honest verbs, verbs that get up every morning and conjugate every day to earn their living… not some snobs from the could-should-would-club.
In fact, you know what… let’s actually put that to the test. Let’s look at some of our examples again and remove the speculation (or the conditional if you will) and make them realistic instead. We’ll have to make a few modifications here and there so as to not have it sound stupid but in essence they’re the same.
- If Marie has studied, she will pass the exam.
- Wenn/ falls Marie gelernt hat, besteht sie den Test.
- Falls /wenn Thomas wusste, dass Maria das Buch braucht, dann hat er es auf jeden Fall mit zur Uni genommen.
- In case Thomas was aware that Maria needed the book, then he certainly brought it with him to school.(lit.)
Thomas has certainly brought the book with him to school provided he was aware that Maria needed it.
- If aliens land tomorrow I’ll be surprised.
- Wenn / falls morgen Aliens landen, bin ich überrascht.
- If the world ends tomorrow, I will be sad.
- Wenn / falls die Welt morgen untergeht, bin ich traurig.
In all these examples falls sounds at least okay. Because they are realistic …more or less. But they don’t use conditional so at least from that point of view they are realistic. And now falls works. Even for this:
- Falls/wenn morgen gestern ist, bin ich überrascht.
- If tomorrow is yesterday I’ll be surprised.
This is not realistic at all, but the lack of the should-would-could club makes falls sound okay.
So… the first characteristic of falls is that it doesn’t work well with conditional forms and hypothetical things. But what’s the difference then between falls and wenn if we have a “realistic” condition? Well, that leads us to the second characteristic of falls… falls sounds doubtful. Now you are probably screaming: “CONTRADICTION!!!!”. Didn’t I just say that falls is down to earth and connected with the real world… well it is, but it has seen a lot. It has been disappointed a lot and now it is skeptical.
- If I have time tomorrow…
- Wenn ich morgen Zeit habe…
- Falls ich morgen Zeit habe…
The wenn-sentence is indifferent with regards to the probability of my having time. It may or may not be the case but there is a fair chance for it The falls-sentence is more like a “Well, there is a chance that I have time but I can’t by no means guarantee it so don’t be disappointed if I don’t”.
- If Marie has studied…
- Wenn Marie gelernt hat… (and there is a fair chance she did)
- Falls Marie gelernt hat … (despite her laziness or her being busy with work)
So in the realm of reality – and only there falls is used – falls sounds less likely than wenn does. The following dialog happens millions of times in some form and it perfectly shows it.
“Alles klar, also, du rufst morgen an, wenn du Zeit hast…”
“FALLS ich Zeit habe…”
“Ok, ok… FALLS du Zeit hast.”
“Alright, so you’ll call me tomorrow if you have time….”
“IF I have time…”
“Ok, ok… IF you have time.”
Now, this is kind of hard to translate to English. We can’t use when because the difference between wenn and falls is NOT the same as the one between when and if. Anyways… I think and hope you can understand it. The person saying falls just found the statement of the other person presumptuous and wants to stress that it is not just if but really IFFFFFFF.
This skeptical nature of falls makes it a nice counterpart of wahrscheinlich.
- Also, ich habe morgen wahrscheinlich keine Zeit aber falls doch,…
- So, I probably won’t have time tomorrow, but in case I do….
And here we actually had what I consider the best translation for falls… in case. Which makes sense by the way, considering the words are related (you may recall that now :)). But they have more in common than just origin. I don’t know how skeptical in case sounds but as far as the down to earthiness is concerned falls and in case are akin.
- In case you would have called me, I would have answered.In case tomorrow were yesterday, I would be still be surprised.
This doesn’t sound right to me and falls wouldn’t either here. I think, roughly we could say, whenever in case works, falls ought to work, too.
All right… so falls is a real world word for real situations and it is skeptical. You can always replace falls by wenn but not vice versa.
And I think that’s it. That was our German Word of the Day falls.
And now that it is done I can admit:
It was my nemesis.
It really was. I wrote the article, then changed large parts of it and then I deleted almost everything because … well … it sucked. I did it again, and liked it okay.
Then, a year later (which is now), I read it again and I was baffled at how jumbled and full of mistakes it was. My god. I changed quite a bit and I feel okay now but let me know if that actually makes sense to you or not :)
I definitely think it is a pretty accurate description of the word but keep in mind that it reflects what I perceive to be falls in daily use… not falls in grammar books. If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave me a comment. It is really always great to read them.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.
- Word of the Day – ob
- Word of the Day – als
- Word of the Day – wann vs wenn
- Word of the Day – wenn (outdated and a little wordy :)