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 with a quick and indecisive look at the meaning of:

vielleicht

 

Vielleicht is one of the words I look up first whenever I learn a new language. Yeah… as if I am learning new languages all the time. I am inching slowly toward something that losely resembles an actual effort of learning Bulgarian, at the moment.
But I do indeed know vielleicht in Bulgarian. It is “може би“. And that sounds awkwardly similar to what it is in English…. drumroll please… maybe.
And that’s no coincidence. Bulgarian and English are actually related in this case, while German chose vielleicht. Which is actually a really awk word…  get it?
-> fun has left the chat
Oh no… why am I even trying.
Anyway, so the English word maybe basically IS made up from what its meaning… something may or may not be – hence maybe. It can’t make more sense than that.
Vielleicht on the other hand… well…. viel means much/many and leicht means light and easy so vielleicht is much-easily. Why on earth would that mean maybe?
I was actually kind of expecting there to be some Germanic root that has nothing to do with viel and leicht and that it just happened to look like vielleicht.  But after my interns told me … erm, after reading about the history of the word, I knew it was true.
Vielleicht really IS a combination of viel and leicht and back a few centuries ago it used to mean something like probably or easily.
Originally, vielleicht was used to express that something was very likely to happen. But then it slowly shifted toward the lower end of probability.

I don’t really know why, to be honest. Maybe Germans were just incredibly optimistic and everything seemed to be easy and possible. But the harsh cruel world taught them lesson after lesson…

“Oh we’ll vielleicht (probably) defeat those Sweds.”
“Oh this war won’t vielleicht (probably) last for 30 years, I am so sure.”
“Oh this Black Death plague is vielleicht (probably) gonna go away in warmer weather, don’t worry.”

 

Let down after let down hit them until the once hopeful and positive vielleicht had turned into a  mere nihilistic maybe.
 Or perhaps Germans just plain sucked at keeping promises. Imagine a knight telling his maiden that he will vielleicht (easily) return from war and marry her… only to never be seen again. 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.”

Those are just my personal stupid theories, though. If they make sense, great. But if not, well, just take vielleicht as a freaky word.
Time for a few examples:

The use is pretty much the same. I think the only problem you’ll have is to actually remember this weird word, because it’s just so different to maybe.
So don’t beat yourself up, if you forget it a few times. You’ll remember it eventually.

Oh and speaking of eventually… that kind of brings us to one of the falsest pairs of friends out there. German also has eventuell, but in German, it actually means maybe. So it’s a synonym for vielleicht.
And it’s a super sneaky pair of false friends. Like, it has taken years before I realized eventually is NOT eventuell.
I actually talked about this pair in a separate article, so if you want to know which language is to blame for the confusion, I’ll post the link below.
But yeah, eventuell is an alternative for vielleicht. It does sound a bit formal and stilted though, so please don’t overuse it.

Cool.
Now, there actually isn’t much more to say about vielleicht. But we actually have some time left here, so how about we take some calls, for a change… if you want to be live on this podcast, 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?
 “Hay mate, I just wanted to let you know that the joke you made with the awk-word wasn’t funny at all… nothing personal mate, but … stop trying, please. It’s cringe.”
Well … erm… thanks a lot man, I do appreciate criticism.
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 the sentence stuck with me and confused the crap out of me to this day. Is that… some sort of irony to say that she maybe she has legs, when she very obviously has them?”
That’s actually a really good question, Steve, 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 don’t really know why we do that, though. I don’t really perceive it to be an ironic statement. It actually sounds pretty genuine to me… like, honestly impressed without any sarcasm.
Your theory does make sense, though, so if it helps to remember this meaning of vielleicht.. well, perfect.
“And is it like a very common thing to say?”
Hmmm… hard to tell.  Me personally, I barely say it… that’s why I almost forgot to mention it. But it’s common enough to not feel strange in the ear. It’s nothing you as a learner need to use though.
“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’s quite the same in English actually… .”
Oh, is it? See, I wasn’t quite sure… so, if I say

  • There were maybe 20 people at the party.

that would be understood?
“Oh, definitely… that’s perfectly idiomatic…”
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… now we’re out of time and this is it. This was our German Word of the Day vielleicht.If oyu want to test how much you remember, you can take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
And of course if you have any questions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time… vielleicht ;).

 

further reading:

eventually vs. eventuell (and another pair of false friends)

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