The meaning of “wohl”

wohl-picture

Hello everyone,

and “wohl”-come to our German Word of the Day. This time we “wohl” have a look at the meaning of:

wohl

 

Wohl is a very versatile word.
A word with multiple meanings it seems.
Evading your grasp, just like a bird
its core and its essence totally blurred
but crow because a new hope for us gleams.

These words, written by the composer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe during the great corona quarantine back in his hometown Cornwall, bear witness that wohl has been confusing for generations of students. Little is known about the hope Goethe was referring to, but it doesn’t really matter because with our modern technology wohl is not the problem anymore it used to be a few centuri.. what? Cornwall isn’t a city? Ohhhh… well, then…

  • Da hab’ ich wohl was verwechselt.
  • I guess I mixed something up.

Which brings us to our word of the day wohl and what it has to do with guessing. So are you ready to jump in? Very well.

We’ll start with some history (yaaawwwn)

The history of “wohl” (yawn)

Wohl has quite a few very very famous words in its family. On the German side we have wollen (to want) and wählen (to vote, to chose) and on the English side wohl is related to well (as in good) and will.
Wow.
They all come from a very very very ancient Indo-European root that looks exactly like all the other Indo-European roots we have seen here… *u̯el . The core ideas of this root were wanting and picking (selecting), so the German wollen and wählen are actually pretty much conserved that. And also will has a clear notion of willingness, even though it has shifted toward being used for the future.
And also the word well is easy to connect. Think about it, something done well is kind of done desirably or the way you want it. And English then started using that as the adverb for good, because… well… goodly was wrong.

“You fence very goodly, Sir Arthur.”
“What say thee, goodly?! Goodly is of the devil.”
“What shall I say in its stead, then.”
“How about well.”
“Well it will be.”

I… think this might actually be how it happened. Not saying, it was. But it might have been.
Anyway, German, doesn’t mark the distinction between adjectives and adverbs, so gut can be both, good and well.

  • You speak English well.
  • Du sprichst gut Deutsch.

But does have its own version of well: wohl.
And it actually does have the same core sense. So let’s find out what we can do with that.

“wohl”  – feeling well

Wohl is rarely directly translated to well, but it’s made from the same cloth. And that shows in the verb sich wohlfühlen; where wohl is actually kind of a prefix.

  • Ich fühle mich in meiner neuen Wohnung sehr wohl.

Taken literally, this means that I feel very well in my new apartment, though the translation is a bit more general.

  • I really like being in my new flat/ I like my new flat.

Gut would also work, and the difference is that wohl has a vibe of comfy-ness. You feel comfortable.
It might actually be more clear if we negate it…

  • Ich habe mich in der Bar nicht wohlgefühlt. Da war eine komische Athmosphäre.
  • I didn’t feel at ease at that bar. There was a strange atmosphere.

Note that it does NOT mean that you didn’t feel well, in the sense of feeling sick. It’s really about feeling good about where you are.
And it’s actually not just for locations, either, as you can see here:

  • Ich fühle mich mit der Entscheidung (nicht) wohl.
  • I (don’t) feel at ease with that decision.
  • Ich fühle mich irgendwie unwohl, wenn eine Katze in meiner Nähe ist.
  • I feel strange/uneasy, when there’s a cat around me.

Generally, sich wohlfühlen has a very ring tone to it and so it is no surprise that marketing loves it.
If you spend time in Germany, you will sooner or later use shampoo with a Wohlfühleffekt, use a bit of Sauna-Wohlfühlsalz in a Wohlfühl-Oase or eat a plate of Wohlfühlpasta with a glas of Wohlfühlwein.
And no, I am not exaggerating. You can google all these words. There is even the absolutely incredibleWohlfühlgefühl (check it here). Give that man the Nobel price for literature. What a great creation of a word.
People LOVE adding Wohlfühl to things to add the notion of comfortable or good about where they are.

Anyway, is fühlen the only verb that wohl? Well, yes and no. It’s more or less the only one that’s actually really conjugated. But there are words like wohlschmeckend (well-tasting) or wohlriechend (well-smelling) or wohlwollend (well-meaning), which are based on a verb, but they only really exist in this d-form.
If you read old German books you might also find wohl used in a sense more close to the English well.

  • Habt ihr wohl geruht, (mein König)?
  • Have you rested well, (my king)?

And there are a few fixed expressions…

  • Leb wohl!
  • Farewell/Happy life!
  • Wohl bekomm’s.
  • Enjoy your meal.
    Lit.: May it serve you well.
    (this is only used in the South of Germany, I think… I never hear it in Berlin.)

But by the majority of wohl you can hear in daily life is made up of a different one. One that might be confusing for learners. And it is about … assumptions.

“wohl” – making assumptions

Take this sentence:

  • Es ist wohl nach Mitternacht.

An English speaker might be tempted to think that this means

  • It is well past midnight.

But nope. The real meaning is this:

  • It probably is past midnight.

I know you’re like “Bruh?!”,  but let’s first look at a few example before we explain.

  • Na, facebooken während der Arbeit? Sie haben wohl zuviel Zeit
  • So… using Facebook during working hours huh? You must have too much time (I guess you need more work on your desk).

 

  • “Mist, wo ist mein Handy?”
    “Wenn’s nicht hier ist, dann hast du es wohl im Café liegen lassen.”
  • “Crap, where is my phone?”
    “Well, if it is not here, you’ve probably forgotten it in the café.

Wohl is a really really common way to express that you’re making an assumption about something. And while I couldn’t source up a reason for it, I wouldn’t be a nerd if I had no theory about it, would I?
And deep inside of you, you like it. You want me to talk nerdy to you. You like vanilla grammar from the books but sometimes you need it a bit harder, don’t you?
So call me daddy and let’s go.
Ew… that… that was weird.
Anyway, so the key to the assuming-wohl is actually the English future tense. We know that this is built with will and we’ve learned that will and wohl are related.
Now take a look at this sentence:

  • “Where is my book about linguistics?”
    “Well, you took it with you when you were going to take a dump so it will be in the bathroom.”

Is this really about the future? No! The speaker is not talking about the future, but rather making an assumption about the present. The book is probably there.
This phenomenon of future expressing an assumption is not limited to English. We can also find it in German, French and Italian and possible all languages (please let me know if this exists in your language too).
And that makes a lot of sense because at the core, ANY statement about the future can always just be an assumption. Because we don’t know yet.

  • Tomorrow, I will start working out again.

This is actually a weird blend of things. A statement of intent, a statement about the future, an assumption. It really depends on how you look at it.
Now, wohl doesn’t directly have anything to do with future tense. But it is related to will and German wollen (to want) so this whole notion of assumption runs in the family, if you will.
Now, in the examples we had so far, it was translated as probably. But it actually has a wider range of certainty
and it has a more personal, subjective tone than probably and the German translation wahrscheinlich.
Like, it’s more about your personal impressions or gut feelings, than about actual probabilities.
That’s why “I guess” and “it looks like” are often fitting translations.

  • “Wo ist denn eigentlich Maria?”
    “Die war vorhin da. Sie ist wohl schon los.”
  • “Where is Marie, by the way?”
    “She was here earlier. I guess, she’s already left.”
  • Wenn du heute keine Zeit hast, dann müssen wir uns wohl morgen treffen.
  • Well, if you don’t have time today, I guess we’ll have to meet tomorrow.
  • Ich wollte heute Konzertkarten kaufen aber es ist wohl schon ausverkauft.
  • So I was gonna buy concert tickets today but apparently they’re sold out already.
  • Du siehst enttäuscht aus. Der Film war wohl nicht so gut?
  • You look disappointed. Looks like the movie wasn’t that good, was it?
  • WAAAAS?
    Du willst komplett ohne Training einen Marathon laufen? Du bist wohl wahnsinnig…
  • WHAAAT?
    You want to run a marathon with no training whatsoever? You MUST be crazy…

I hope you can see the personal, or let’s say subjective vibe. Using wahrscheinlich in all these examples would sound kind of weird and detached.
This assuming-wohl ss really really common and you should definitely add it to your active vocabulary.
But it’s still not all the wohls out there.
There are some more, so let’s take a look

other uses of “wohl”

And I’m actually gonna kind of just run through them without much effort to tie them to the themes we had, because it’s a lot of mind yoga and I don’t even know if it is possible.
So just pick the ones you like and learn them as a fixed phrase, so to speak.
That said, let’s go.
The first one is wohl used to reaffirm something.

  • “Frau Schmidt hat gesagt, dass ich viel besser  in Mathe bin als duuuuu.”
    “Hat sie nicht.”
    “Hat sie WOOOOHL.”
  • “Ms. Smith said that I am much better at math than youuuuu.”
    “No, she did not.”
    “Yes, she diiiid.”

Some of you might wonder if we could also use doch here. And yes, in this kind of conversation, wohl and doch do the same thing. But the more common way is in combination with sehr.

  • Du könntest sehr wohl auch mal den Abwasch machen, ohne dass ich es dir sage.
  • You could very well do the dishes without me telling you to do so.

This use of wohl does sound a bit childish though, so I would recommend not using it. It’s enough to know what it means if you come across it.
Besides those, there’s a couple of fixed expressions that also are about affirmation.

  • “Du, du und du… ihr putzt jetzt die Klos… mit der Zunge.”
    “Sir, jawohl Sir.”
  • You, you and you… you will clean the toilets now… with your tongue.”
    “Sir, yes Sir.”

 

  • “Mal ist das Wetter gut, mal ist es schlecht.”
    “Wohl wahr.”
  • “Sometimes, the weather is good, sometimes it’s bad.”
    How true/well spoken.”

    (this one could actually also be the assuming-wohl, so here it depends on context and how you say it.)

And then there’s the fairly important combination, wohl aber which is a normal but with an added reaffirmation.

  • Ich esse zwar kein Fleisch, wohl aber Eier und Käse… ich bin also kein Veganer.
  • I don’t eat meat but I do eat eggs and cheese… so I am no vegan.

 

Another fixed phrase is wohl kaum which is a pretty affirmed “I don’t think so”... you know… the one that borders on “In your dreams.”

  • Um 6 aufstehen und joggen gehen? Wohl kaum.
  • Get up at 6 and go running? Hardly / I don’t think so.

And then, there is the real idiomatic gem of wohl after a question word.
Which is basically a one word way to express that you find something an obvious or dumb question.

  • “Wer hat mein Bier getrunken?”
    “Na, wer wohl?”
  • “Who drank my beer?”
    “Well, guess who?”

And it works for all question words so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to try it out :)

  • Wo/wie/warum/wer wohl?
  • Who/where/what/how/why do you think? Duhhhh....

Seriously, this will make you sound super native. So if you drop it at the right moment in conversation with German friends, they’ll be super impressed. And it works with all question words.

Cool.
Last but not least we have the phrase sowohl als auch which literally means “so well as also” and which is the German version for as well as. With the very very notable difference that sowohl is placed BEFORE the first option.

  • A as well as B
  • sowohl A als auch B

 

  • Um Deutsch zu lernen braucht man sowohl Geduld als auch mehr Geduld.
  • To learn German, you need patience as well as more patience.

And oh, let’s also not forget the noun dasWohl which kind of brings us full circle because it basically means the well-being.

  • Zum Wohle des Pferdes.
  • For the well-being of the horse. … (this is actually a book title as you can see here)

 

And this one is part of a nice alternative to the somewhat rough sounding Prost! Like, prost is great for beers and shots, but when you’re there with a fancy wine at an elegant candle light dinner, I recommend zum Wohl.

  • Zum Wohl.
  • Cheers!
  • To the well-being (lit.)

And speaking of cheers, it’s time to do that, because we’re done for the day. Wohoo!!
Now we can go back to being bored in quarantine.
Nah, seriously… I’d actually recommend you take the little quiz I have my interns prepare for you right as we speak… I mean… you can’t yet, because it’s not finished. Hurry up, interns. Hurry up! The people need their recap quiz.
But yeah, so the main points were… sich wohlfühlen, expressing assumptions and then a bunch of more or less related phrasings that you can pick from.
I really hope you had fun and I could shed some light on this word. Of course, if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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Mukesh
Mukesh
9 months ago

Sowohl als auch entweder oder zwar aber…. Was soll ich machen.. Wenn ich Adjektive benutzen muss zum. Beispeil….. Ich kaufe ein schönes Auto , aber das Auto ist sehr teuer…
Hier… Ich kaufe zwar schönes Auto, aber es ist sehr teuer….. Ist das richtig????? Sagen Sie mir bitte ,was ich machen soll

Mahmoud
Mahmoud
9 months ago

It exists in Arabic too …. and I believe that when you say: ” it’ll be there” it means that “when you look for it in the bathroom it will be there”

zaidaas
zaidaas
8 months ago
Reply to  Mahmoud

yeahh. pretty interesting isnt it. I find the similarities between Arabic and German (with an English language background) super interesting

Peidong Yu
Peidong Yu
1 year ago

“please let me know if this exists in your language too”

Here’s a report from a native Chinese speaker. And yes, I believe there is this phenomenon in Chinese, too, although not exactly the same. We have the word “会” (hui4). As a verb, it normally translates into “can” or “be able to”.

你会开车么?
Can you drive? / Are you able to drive? / You know how to drive?

Although originally not meaning “well”, as “wohl” does, in a similar fashion, “会” can also indicate an assumption.

你的华为手机会被你忘在咖啡店里了么?
Maybe you forgot your Huawei cell phone in the café?

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago

Aa

cheng
cheng
2 years ago

Sorry i forgot to add the question :) i couldnt be sure what that “wohl” adds to the question. Maybe “probably”? But klingt weird i think. thanks.

cheng
cheng
2 years ago

Hello. i have a question from a simplified version of faust: -ich will sie kennenlernen, mephisto. Wie sie wohl heißt? -Sie heisßt Margarete.

Tom O'Grädy
Tom O'Grädy
3 years ago

* Wenn du heute keine Zeit hast, dann müssen wir uns wohl morgen treffen.
* Well, if you don’t have time today, I guess we’ll have to meet tomorrow.

Does the German sentence have the same connotation as in English? There is a sense of necessary-it’s-gotta-get-done-yet-I’m-disappointed-ness (almost annoyed depending on context) in the English when one would say “I guess we’ll have to meet tomorrow”. The softer way is “I guess we could meet tomorrow”. Is it the same in German? Does the statement convey a Boss-to-worker/Teacher-to-student/My-wife-to-me feeling?

Victor
Victor
3 years ago

Awesome Piece of Work. The thought upon a word changes completely when you study its roots and the way it has evolved.

Ruslana
Ruslana
3 years ago

Ukrainian language also has that notion of probability if use the future will “це буде…..”
Like in this example:
“Where is my book about linguistics?”
“Well, you took it with you when you were going to take a dump so it will be in the bathroom.”

– Де твоя книжка по мовах?
– Гаразд, ти взяв її коли йшов випорожнитись, отже вона буде в туалеті

‘Вона буде’ taken in the meaning of probability

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
5 years ago

I’ve come across a couple of examples of “ja” and “wohl” being used together, usually (in addition to the one you don’t/can’t translate above!). Given that (and please write that article soon!) “ja” as a particle tends to mean certainty and “wohl” means kind of probably, this wants to make my head explode!

Ich habe gar keine Lust dazu, aber ich muss es ja wohl tun.
I don’t fancy the idea, but I have to do it.

Aber das ist er ja wohl nicht mehr
Well he isn’t anymore, is he?

Would I be right in thinking though that this is the affirming “what I am saying is true” meaning of “wohl”, much as it is in “wohl aber”, only here the “wohl” has gone for a walk off to the middle of the statement! So you get a kind of double affirmation – “I don’t fancy the idea, but it is true that I definitely have to do it”.

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
5 years ago
Reply to  demoneyes136

Ignore that “usually” in the first sentence. Oh for an edit function! :-)

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Many thanks yet again! That helps a lot (and I look forward to the “ja” article with great anticipation!).

Which said, of all the German particle usages to date, this is the one I’m struggling most to find a remotely idiomatic English way of translating. It’s somewhere between “as we’ve discussed before”, “as we know”, “you know”, “as we were thinking” and even “as was being suggested by what we already knew”.

MichaelVG
MichaelVG
4 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Native-speaking friend of mine said “ja wohl” basically has the sense of “obviously.” E.g. conversationally in English one might say, “Well that is obviously not what I meant!”–“ja wohl” maybe has that rhetorical color that offensichtlich/offenbar maybe don’t, that could carry a slight sense of impatience (this sense of, well *of course* it’s this-or-that way).

MichaelVG
MichaelVG
4 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Ah, dang…
I just looked up “ja wohl” here (context.reverso.net/) and I wonder if “presumably” gets at the gist of it better. (Of course the whole difficulty is that with these super common particle-type words there is no one-to-one, but it still helps to try…) Similar to “wohl” (very roughly “must be”) but very slightly less uncertain/more insistent…?

MichaelVG
MichaelVG
4 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Gotcha, thanks. Could you say how it’s different from “vermutlich”? Just more casual?

Hugh Warren
Hugh Warren
5 years ago

“Wenn’s nicht hier ist, dann hast du es wohl im Café liegen lassen.”
“Crap, where is my IPhone 8?”
“Well, if it is not here, I’ve probably forgot it in the café.” should be ‘you’ve’, not ‘I’ve’.

Hugh Warren
Hugh Warren
5 years ago

I’ve barely started reading your post, but already have a question. Your example “Du sprichst gut Deutsch.” uses ‘gut, as an adverb; can the sentence also be “Du sprichst gutes Deutsch” with it being an adjective?

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
5 years ago

>Another fixed phrase is wohl kaum which means hardly
>Um 6 aufstehen und joggen gehen? Wohl kaum.
>Get up at 6 and go running? Hardly / I don’t think so.
>And again I have no idea what exactly wohl does… it is kind of affirming but also assuming at the same time.

My dictionary gives “wohl kaum” as “hardly likely”, and I think the “likely” makes the presence of “wohl” far easier to understand. And if you do just say “Hardly!”, which is perfectly idiomatic, I think a “likely” is still implied there. Similarly with the other idiomatic translation of “Fat chance!” – again it is talking of assumed probability so the “wohl” makes perfect sense.

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
5 years ago

As always, thanks for really helpful insights into how words are used!

Ich wollte heute Konzertkarten kaufen aber es ist wohl schon ausverkauft.
So I was gonna buy concert tickets today but apparently they’re sold out already.

So how (if you can) would you express the difference in “wohl” meaning between, say, “I’d like to buy concert tickets for tonight but it’s probably sold out already” and “I’d like to buy concert tickets for tonight but it’s apparently sold out already.”? In English the “probably” and “apparently” have quite different meanings – the first is assuming that they have probably sold out of tickets; in the second the speaker has heard that it’s been sold out and is assuming this second-hand information is probably true (but is making the distinction that they haven’t actually checked themselves). Yet looking at the example here, both would seem to translate to “aber es ist wohl schon ausverkauft”?

Presumably one could dodge the issue by using “wahrscheinlich” or (I’m guessing amongst dictionary entries!) “anscheinend”? But if I saw “wohl” there, how would I know which it was meaning?

(PS Glitch-spot: In the lost iPhone example earlier you switch from second (du) to first person (I’ve) when you give the English!)
– Wenn’s nicht hier ist, dann hast *du* es wohl im Café liegen lassen.”
– “Well, if it is not here, *I’ve* probably forgot it in the café.

— Phil

girlfromtheseaside
5 years ago

hej there,
Could you tell me the name of the German title of the Goethe Gedicht you are citing in this article? That would be awesome : )

dan80210
dan80210
5 years ago

“Na, wer wohl?” sounds like “well, who indeed!”, so it feels like an affirmation-wohl. In Hebrew there’s an equivalent expression (נו, מי באמת?)

Nour khaled
Nour khaled
6 years ago

well why you have said {Die war vorhin da}
i thought it would be {sie war vorhin da}

Nour khaled
Nour khaled
6 years ago

hi there’s this: “Well, you took it with you when you were going to take a dump so it will be in the bathroom.” in arabic as we use the word {سوف} which means will

Alessandro Adandedjan

hi there’s this: “Well, you took it with you when you were going to take a dump so it will be in the bathroom.” in italian too as you said we use “sarà” which is the 3 person singular of the future tense of “essere”(to be) in this case it would translate as:
“beh l’hai presa con te quando sei andato a cagare quindi SARà in bagno ”
or on phrases like “sarà cosi” which replies to someone by saying :well i guess tha’ts how it is .

der Libyer
der Libyer
6 years ago

Also is “wohl alles” a collocation?