Word of the Day – “vielleicht”

do you wanne go out with me - yes no maybeHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we might… have a look at the meaning of:

vielleicht

 

Vielleicht is a very very important word and whenever I learn a new language (god, that sounds like I do that every other month) it is one of the first ones I look up. The main English translation of vielleicht is definitely …  … maybe.
Get it? My song title pun?
Anyway, examples.

As you can see in the last example, vielleicht already counts as one position so the verb has to come after. Usually one position does answer to one question. For instance heute answers to when? For vielleicht things are not that obvious but still it is a valid answer to “how?” or simply “Will you do this?“. Anyway… vielleicht can very well open a sentence. Just note that the verb has to come after that. Now let’s get to the more interesting question and that question is…

What the hell are the Germans thinking?

Not every German might be aware of this, but vielleicht is a actually really  awk word… … … (they MUST find this funny… it’s just so clever… I mean come on… I’ll give them some more time to laugh) … … …
The English word maybe makes perfect sense as it is. Something may or may not be… hence maybe. Vielleicht however seems to consist of the 2 words viel and leicht. Viel means much, many and a lot and leicht means light and easy. So based on that vielleicht would be much-easily. And why does this mean maybe? It would make sense as probably or likely… but maybe? Really?
I have been wondering about this for a while and I was quite convinced that vielleicht actually has some Germanic root that has nothing to do with viel and leicht and that it just happened to look like that. But after reading this source I knew I was wrong.
Vielleicht really does consist of those 2 words and back a few centuries ago it used to mean something like probably or easily.

So originally it was used to express that something was very likely to happen, but it has changed and nowadays it really means just maybe.
Why this change occurred, I have no idea, nor have I found anything online. As a matter of fact probably and maybe are both giving information about how certain something is, only the degree of certainty distinguishes the 2… getting from number 80 to number 40 won’t take too long as long as it’s on the same street.

One explanation for this shift of vielleicht could be that the Germans just were overly optimistic back in those days. Everything seemed to be easy and possible, and yet the harsh cruel world taught them lesson after lesson… “Oh this war won’t vielleicht (probably) last for 30 years, I am so sure.” , “Oh vielleicht (probably) this Black Death thing is not going to spread around too much, don’t worry”. Let down after let down hit them until the once hopeful and positive vielleicht had turned into a  mere nihilistic maybe.
 Another possible reason would be that the Germans just plain sucked at keeping promises. Imagine a knight telling his maiden that he will vielleicht return from war and marry her… 10 knights later the maiden still hangs around in her dad’s castle and vielleicht just doesn’t quite feel the same anymore..

“yes yes… sure Sir Knight, sure… you will ‘probably’ marry me… I gotcha.”

Either way… those are just personal stupid theories. Vielleicht is a strange word for maybe but it is the only one we have… besides eventuell of course.

Eventuell is one of the falsetestest friends ever. It has taken me SO freakin’ LONG to realize that it isn’t eventually at all… but I did understand that eventually… see… I just proved it. I really did:).
The German eventuell means maybe and there is no real difference to vielleicht except eventuell isn’t really what a steel worker would say. So if you want to sound educated and business like, it might be a good choice.

So… looks like we have some time left here today so I guess we’ll take some calls… If you want to be live on the show, dial 0800-151-Vocab-4-You, I’ll repeat … 0800-151-Vocab-4-You…  and we already have a first call here from … uhm … Cock Wash in Australia, hi Lachlan what can I do for you?
 “Hi Emanuel, I just wanted to let you know that that joke o’ yours with the awk-word…  really wasn’t funny at all… nothing personal mate, just … don’t try please.”
Well thanks a lot man, I sure do appreciate critique. Our next call comes from Ontario Canada, hello Steve, how’s the weather over there… is it spring yet?
“Hi Emanuel, sure is…”
Cool, so what’s your question Steve?
“Ok so…  I have spent some time in Hamburg last summer and one day I was sitting with a German friend in a park when a woman with extremely long legs passed by. And my friend said something really strange:
‘Mann, die hat vielleicht Beine!’
I didn’t really catch on at first but later this sentence confused the crap out of me and still does. I mean… what does that mean ‘Maybe she has legs.’?
Is that like an ironical twist… like… she obviously HAS legs, she ‘GOT leg’ if you will,  and he said maybe just to be funny?”
Well Steve, that is actually a really good question, and I almost forgot about this meaning of vielleicht. Germans do use it sometimes to express that something was REALLY something. For example:

Literally that would mean:

  • Gee, the metro was maybe full for once today.

But the actual meaning is

  •  Gee, the metro was REALLY packed today, I tell ya’.

“Wow, that is pretty confusing.”
Yeah, I guess it is if you’re not native… I don’t know the reason why vielleicht is used that way. I don’t really perceive it to be an ironic statement as you suggested though… if someone says it, he or she sounds honestly impressed to me … without any sarcasm… but your theory does make sense nonetheless so if it helps to comprehend this meaning of vielleicht… why not.
“And is it like a very common thing to say?”
Well, that’s hard to say. Me personally, I barely say it… that’s why I forgot to think of it for this Word of the Day. But I think every German understands it without feeling strange about it so yeah… people talk that way.
“Cool, that cleared up a lot for me…”
Yeah well thank YOU for bringing that up man, that was really important to mention… and actually there is even a third meaning vielleicht can have…
“Oh damn…”
It is not really an entirely new idea but different enough I think… people use vielleicht also in sense of approximately or circa.

In that case the vielleicht doesn’t mean that some certain 20 people may or may not have been there… it really just expresses that the exact number is unknown.
“Oh, but that is quite the same in English actually… .”
Oh is it? See, I wasn’t quite sure… so

  • There were maybe 20 people at the party.

would be understood?
“Oh, definitely… people would say something like that using maybe…”
Ok cool, anyway… for those of you who’s mother tongue is not English… vielleicht can mean approximately too.
Well Steve, we’re at the end of the show now, but thank you so so much for your assistance…
“My pleasure… bye and thanks a lot.”

So… this was our German Word of the Day vielleicht. The main meaning is maybe, but it can also be used in sense of really to underline something or in sense of round about.
If you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time… vielleicht ;).

 

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Test yourself on vielleicht!

1 / 5

What is the main meaning of “vielleicht”?

2 / 5

What does “eventuell” mean?

3 / 5

How would you translate “Maybe you are right.”

4 / 5

Which of these sentences is NOT correct?

5 / 5

What does the vielleicht mean in this sentence:
“Am Strand lagen vielleicht 100 Bierdosen”?

Your score is

0%

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Kelvin
Kelvin

hi, got one or so question here..
if i use vielleicht in term of ‘really’ness, would it be appropriate to translate ‘I really should practice my german’ to ‘ich soll vielleicht mein Deutsch üben’ ? dankeschön :)

Kelvin
Kelvin

oh wow, I think i get the point, something like desperate-ish tone when you saying it.. :) so it wont work on writing-based statement then I guess? could ‘echt’ be applied here? :)

tom
tom

What else aside from maybe is in your list of important ‘go to’ words when learning a language?

Ray
Ray

Very interesting. Good stuff to know in case I hear it. While speaking, though, I’ll stick with wirklich=really and etwa =approximately. :)

demoneyes136
demoneyes136

It’s fascinating to come to this now because a couple of weeks ago our German teacher gave me a “modalpartikeln” worksheet which was the first time I realised that “vielleicht” had any other meaning than perhaps/maybe.

*However* what it said was that it shows *annoyance*. And it gave the example “Das ist vielleicht ein Service!” However the moment I started looking it up it became apparent that this was the recurring problem with particles of mistaking one usage for some intrinsic meaning/function of the word. Because immediately I found “Ich hab’ vielleicht geratzt” – I slept really well. “Du hast vielleicht Nerven!” – You’ve definitely got some nerve! “Das ist vielleicht ein Berg” – That’s a hill and a half [English idiom for the same thing!] and others, at least two of which have no annoyance in them whatsoever. I’m also thinking “Das ist vielleicht ein Service!” could also be used in a non-sarcastic fashion as genuine praise?

So what I think we actually have is three usages (one of which is actually three, but not worth splitting as they all map very easily to the English.

1aIt can mean “perhaps” or “maybe”
1b

demoneyes136
demoneyes136

Grr. That’s doubly annoying. First that it posted when all I was trying to do was hit space. And then it “ate” it when I tried it. Third time…

1 – It can mean “perhaps” or “maybe” (Use of “maybe” mid-sentence is more US English in feel, but probably migrating in UK English too)
– It can often translate to the English modal “may” – Er kommt vielleicht morgen – He may come tomorrow. (Which is really just another way of saying “Perhaps/maybe he will come tomorrow”)
– It can mean “approximately” in the exact same way English says “There were perhaps 20 people there”.

2 It can be used colloquially to means its exact opposite in the sense of “definitely” or “really some”. I had called this “ironic” in the sense that the word is being used to mean its opposite, but I see now this risks confusion in that the speaker is not being knowingly ironic, any more than we English are when we say “That’s quite something” to mean it’s extremely something!

3. The colloquial “ironic” meaning can itself be used ironically/sarcastically to convey the other exact opposite, that of “definitely not”. However the only difference between this and the previous usage is intonation/emphasis/context so it’s possibly I’m only bringing it out to minimise confusion if some other poor soul first encounters this usage of “vielleicht”, doubly so if they do so in something purporting to explain it!