Sometimes I think German will make me go completely crazy. How can you have so many words for expressing "falling"?

Can someone explain me the difference and in which way are they mostly used?

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    Du hast auffallen, abfallen, gefallen, anfallen, herfallen, usw. vergessen. Hast Du in ein Wörterbuch geschaut? Welche Fragen sind danach offen geblieben? – user unknown Jun 14 '19 at 21:18
  • So English has only "to fall" for all these? What about "to fall over", "to fall down", "to tumble"? – RHa Jun 15 '19 at 11:43

Fallen means to fall, to fall down. The generic meaning is to have a downwards movement, falling. If you throw a stone from a very high position, this stone fällt. You cannot interchange it with the other words.

Fallen has a lot of meanings that I'm not going to cover in this answer, because they aren't related to the question.
Just some brief examples:

  • If a king has been toppled over, he's gefallen, but not lying on the floor.
  • If an empire has been defeated, it's gefallen.

Now, when a person fällt, he drops to the floor. When a pencil fällt, it drops to the floor.

In both cases, you can use hinfallen. In the first example, hinfallen doesn't really add much here. Hin- implies dropping to the floor. In the latter example, however, there's a subtle difference. You would use hinfallen especially in those cases where it falls accidentally to the floor. For example when you were holding that pencil in your hand and it slid out of your grasp. Fallen, again, could also imply the general process of falling. Think of that stone you threw. Thus, you'd prefer hinfallen over fallen if fallen were ambiguous. In case of this pencil, it doesn't really matter though.

For using umfallen there is one condition to be met. The object needs to be in an upright position. When I was writing my comment earlier, I was just thinking of a person. My comment was universally incorrect, because you wouldn't interchange umfallen with fallen or hinfallen when talking about a pencil.
You put it on the table, it rolls to the edge and falls down. It is gefallen or hingefallen (you'd prefer the former one here). If, however, you put it in an upright position and the pencil topples over and is still lying on the table, it is umgefallen.

Now consider a person, that has fallen down to the floor, you can use *fallen, hinfallen and umfallen without any difference in meaning (usually), provided the person was in an upright position. If the person has been fallen out of bed, he's just "aus dem Bett gefallen".

One last example:
A pile of books that toppled over is umgefallen or umgekippt. When you would say that something toppled over, use umfallen or kippen.

Stürzen is a synonym to fallen. There's also hinstürzen (quite rare, I guess) and umstürzen. You see that you can apply the same prefixes here again. And you can use stürzen in the two examples above with that king and the empire, too.

To cut a long story short:

  • fallen: generic term for having an downwards movement; context may already imply falling to the ground
  • hinfallen: implies falling to the ground, especially when happening without intention
  • umfallen: toppling over from an upright position
  • Kannst Du einen Beispielsatz mit einem hinfallenden Bleistift angeben? Das erscheint mir merkwürdig. – Carsten S Jan 18 '15 at 20:03
  • Wenn ein König gefallen ist, nehme ich an, dass er auf dem Schlachtfeld gefallen ist. Wenn er gestürzt ist, nehme ich an, dass er auf der Nase liegt, nicht, dass er gestürzt wurde. – Carsten S Jan 18 '15 at 20:06
  • @CarstenSchultz Du willst sagen, dir ist noch nie ein Bleistift hingefallen? Oder ein Buch? Oder eine Lampe? "Letzte Woche ist mir XYZ hingefallen". Bzgl. König... duden.de/rechtschreibung/stuerzen#Bedeutung7a und duden.de/rechtschreibung/fallen#Bedeutung5 – Em1 Jan 18 '15 at 20:06
  • Ich bin mir nicht sicher, in welcher Situation ich sagen würde, dass mir ein Bleistift hingefallen sei, das kann ich mir vorstellen. Eher fallen mir Bleistifte runter, wobei ich mir nicht sicher wäre, was ich daraus schriftsprachlich machen würde, wahrscheinlich würde ich dann auf den Boden oder ähnlich präzisieren. Vor allem aber würde mich wundern wenn ein Bleistift von sich hinfiele. – Carsten S Jan 18 '15 at 20:12
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    @em1: Das ist aber eine Dialektfrage! In Hessen beispielsweise kann ein Stift "hinfallen", in Franken, wo ich herkomme, würde er "runterfallen", weil er aus einer erhöhten Position in einer niedrigere Position fällt. "hinfallen" hat daher eine leicht andere Bedeutung als "fallen" oder "runterfallen". Beispielsweise fällt man hin, wenn man stolpert. – Thorsten Dittmar Jan 21 '15 at 9:56

All these have slightly different connotations.

While EM1 wrote that hinfallen can also be used if something is dropped (herunterfallen), this is not true in all dialects (there are, however, German dialects where both are equivalent).

Hinfallen is normally used when a person trips and falls. You could, for example, say:

Schau, da hinten ist ein Kind hingefallen

This is equivalent to stürzen in this meaning. If used in the same meaning as herunterfallen in some dialects, it is not equivalent to stürzen!

This word is used to say that something or someone that/who previously was in an upright position fell over and is now no longer in an upright position. For example:

Durch die Last des Schnees ist der Baum einfach umgefallen.
Er wurde ohnmächtig und ist einfach umgefallen.

These words are used when something falls from an elevated position, either by itself or by someone dropping it.

Mir ist der Stift runtergefallen.
Das Kind ist vom Klettergerüst runtergefallen.

This word means to fall in general (also some other meanings apply as EM1 correctly pointed out). Usually, you would use the specialized expressions above, as you can not say the following:

Mir ist der Stift gefallen.

In addition to what I wrote on fallen: As EM1 points out correctly in the comments, it is very well possible and very common to say something like

Mir ist der Stift vom Tisch/aus der Hand gefallen
Mir ist die Tasse auf den Boden gefallen

It would be very very unusual (I'd even say impossible) to use Mir ist der Stift gefallen without any attribution from where or whereto it fell.

  • Yeah, we also use "hinfallen", when someone trips and falls. I heard someone use "umfallen" in Hospital and read it in the newspapers that reported about a fight... i think it is used when someone does not trip over something and falls, like when someone pushes you and you fall to the ground or disease or something else. – Capuccinolady Dec 20 '20 at 3:25

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