Does "wollen" ever function like English "will" (or "be going to" if in the past tense) to signal a future event without any element of volition?

Question Explained

I came to have the question upon reading passages like these.

A: Da erzählte er [der Königssohn] ihr, er wäre von einer bösen Hexe verwünscht worden, und niemand hätte ihn aus dem Brunnen erlösen können als sie allein, und morgen wollten sie zusammen in sein Reich gehen. (Der Froschkönig oder der eiserne Heinrich.)

B: Wenn du [der Arzt] zu einem Kranken gerufen wirst, so will ich [der Gevatter Tod] dir jedesmal erscheinen: steh ich zu Häupten des Kranken, so kannst du keck sprechen, du wolltest ihn wieder gesund machen, und gibst du ihm dann von jenem Kraut ein, so wird er genesen; steh ich aber zu Füssen des Kranken, so ist er mein, und du musst sagen, alle Hilfe sei umsonst und kein Arzt in der Welt könne ihn retten. (Der Gevatter Tod.)

C: Der Tod stellte sich, als ob er seinen Wunsch erfüllen wollte, langte ein frisches, grosses Licht herbei, aber weil er sich rächen wollte, versah er’s beim Umstecken absichtlich, und das Stöckchen fiel um und verlosch. (Ibid.)

In the following I try to explain what the question is by making it concrete.

The question, as applied to the passages, would give us:

  • For A, is the prince declaring his, her or their volition, intention, etc. that a certain event (i.e. their going to his kingdom) should occur tomorrow, or is he simply making a prediction* that it will?

  • For B, is Death instructing the doctor to declare his intention to heal the sick or simply to make a prediction that a certain event (the doctor's healing the sick) will occur?

  • For C, does Death pretend as if he intended to fulfill his godson's wish or simply as if he were going to?**

(*Please don't read too much into this word prediction. I only mean what may be involved in answering, "Will she be here tomorrow?" with "Yes she will," to mean that that was the itinerary. **If this distinction is not clear, consider pretending as if the door were going to open, e.g. by standing next to it and not any other door.)

If your answer is that wollen signals volition of some sort in these passages, could you then explain the strangeness as follows?

  • In A, the prince comes out saying that he and the princess want or intend to go to his kingdom. How does he know her mind so well? Shouldn't he just speak for himself? It'd be far more natural for him to address simply what they were going to do the next day. (What I mean is that that would be the more natural characterization the narrator can give to the prince.)

  • In B, Death comes out instructing the doctor to say that he wants or intends to cure the patient. Now, isn't that what the doctor wants or intends every time? Does any doctor ever need to say that? Again it'd be more natural for the doctor to say (or Death to instruct him to say) simply what he was going to do this time.

  • In C, it comes out Death pretends as if he wanted to do something. But if you read the whole story, Death was angry with his godson and the most he would pretend would be going to let him off though he does not want to.

In all these passages, reading wollen as a mark of volition seems to do violence to the narrative.


Please see this and this related question on wollen.

I asked a similar question on sollen and indeed got answers to the effect that sollen in certain contexts signals a possibility rather than expectation. Thanks.

  • @A: It's a fairy tale where the prince can assume that every girl wants to come with him to his kingdom.^^
    – Chris
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 15:09
  • Additionally, at second thought, it has something to do with reported speech. I can imagine person X calling person Y and saying "Ich komme gleich zu euch." Some time later person Z asks Y "Warum ist denn X noch nicht hier?" and Y answers "Keine Ahnung, er wollte eigentlich gleich kommen."
    – Chris
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 15:17
  • @Chris Just so I understand properly, you mean that Y in your example could not be understood to mean what X wanted to do at any time, but only what X was going to do and that therefore there must be a use of wollen having nothing to do with volition?
    – Catomic
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 16:00
  • Well, for me "going to" contains volition. What I wanted to express: Even if there isn't "wollen" in direct speech, if it is transformed to indirect speech "wollen" can be there. - Y, who transforms X's direct speech to indirect speech, makes an assumption about X's volition; although X didn't use "wollen" in his direct speech.
    – Chris
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 16:26
  • 1
    As much as I do believe that all your edits are helpful in clarifying your question I somehow feel that the text body became a bit long to read, Any chance to make all this a bit shorter so that future visitors could see more quickly what your question was about?
    – Takkat
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 7:09

3 Answers 3


Short answer: No, not in contemporary German.

Slightly longer answer:

"wollen" implies an intention, not a prediction. It literally translates to "want" in English - and works the same in every way I can think of right now.

The translation for "will" (referring to the future) is "werden".

That being said, the sentences you quote are written in outdated German, and today no one would use those constructions any longer - but this might actually be where engl. "will" and germ. "wollen" have a common root (pure speculation though).

  • In A, I would still interpret it as a contemporary "wollen", although I agree that there are undertones of "werden" in it.

  • In B, one would replace "wollten" with "würden" in today's language.

  • In C the situation seems quite clear to me that it means "wollen" in a contemporary sense.

Sorry, if this makes the answer slighly confusing...

  • 2
    There is one way it doesn't work like English want: Die Frau will ein UFO gesehen haben = The woman claims to have seen UFO. But well this is probably a higher level of German language.
    – Liglo App
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 15:54
  • @Barth Zalewski By "higher level" do you mean that a "deep grammar" analysis of wollen in your example would go e.g. the woman wanting it known, accepted etc. that she has seen UFO, where wollen is at a higher grammatical node than is suggested by surface grammar?
    – Catomic
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 16:03
  • 1
    I mean that this way of usage of modal verbs is taught at higher levels of German. It means that is her opinion that she saw Ufo and nobody actually believes her but she claims so. Each modal verb in German can be use in an extended way. For example Sie dürften schon weit weg sein means They are probably very far away already.
    – Liglo App
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 16:07

To answer the question: wollen can never serve as an exact replacement for werden; werden is the neutral form of something happening in the future. However, wollen almost always refers to an event in the future, when used in Indikativ Präsens; also, it can serve to express wishes or intentions:

  1. Ich will einen Keks essen. (wish, and if I could do it, I'll eat it in the future)
  2. Ich will eine Runde laufen gehen. (intention, and this will happen in the future)

Especially (2) is a strong indicator for a future event and I suppose it is the reason why wollen became the future auxiliary of choice in many germanic languages. But it will never be as neutral as "werden", as volition/intention will always be retained, which can be demonstrated easily:

  1. Morgen werde ich in den Krieg ziehen.
  2. Morgen will ich in den Krieg ziehen.

The first sentence is a neutral statement about a future event, wich does not allow to discern whether the speaker wants to take part in war or not; but in (4), it can safely assumed that he does not object. Someone who does not want to partake in a war, would stick to werden or use müssen/sollen instead.

This is why it is usually impossible to use it when there is no subject that is able to have wishes/intentions:

  1. *Das Schiff will sinken.
  2. *Laut Wettervorhersage will es morgen regnen.

It has never been different for German, as far as I know. But let's replace wollen with werden in (2):

  1. Ich will noch eine Runde laufen gehen.
  2. Ich werde noch eine Runde laufen gehen.

Concerning the question whether the event will take place or not, it will basically the same in many everyday situations. Therefore wollen can indeed serve to express a temporal category, with an additional connotation of intention.

Another Edit:
Middle High German did not yet have a grammaticalized future tense. The future events therefore had to be expressed by other means, which, AFAIK, where:

Ich werde arbeitend ("I become working", inchoative aspect)
Ich muss arbeiten (I have to work ("must"))
Ich will arbeiten (I want to work ("will"))
Ich soll arbeiten (I am supposed to work ("shall"))

To develop into a grammaticalized, syntactical structure, it is necessary to erase the lexical meaning of words. This happened to english will, which does no longer carry the lexical meaning of "want". Most likely, the inchoative aspect was fully grammaticalized, in a way the similar Passiv is grammaticalized today (werden + Partizip Präsens = Inchoativ, werden + Partizip Perfekt = Vorgangspassiv). It was just that the -d of the Partizip Präsens was dropped. With a fully grammaticalized future tense in place, the process, that would most likely have led to the erasure of the lexical meanings of either wollen, müssen, sollen, stopped. Therefore, wollen/sollen and certainly not müssen can never be used exactly as werden is used, simply for the fact that they do not ever come without their lexical meaning.

Sollen is somewhat of an exception: it is often used when the Vorgangspassiv is put into the future, as otherwise one either had to drop future tense or use werden two times. Example:

Die Straße soll wegen Bauarbeiten für sechs Wochen gesperrt werden.

It is quite clear that "sollen" has little modal meaning left here. But I'm not decided whether it is viable to assume a separate grammaticalized future tense with sollen or not.

  • I disagree with "never", see my answer for examples
    – Emanuel
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 22:21
  • That is why I wrote "can never serve as an exact replacement". Wollen always "taints" the temporal category with a modal one.
    – Veredomon
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 23:09
  • @Emanuel: enhanced my answer.
    – Veredomon
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 23:18
  • Still, take my last example and explain how this sentence is any different with "wollen". When it comes to translating it to English you CLEARLY get "will" and not "want to" so from a students perspective "wollen" does mean "will" there. I think the words are synonymous there and synonyms can have differences in nuances... otherwise we would have very few synonyms of anything.
    – Emanuel
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 23:24
  • 1
    Grimm is also interesting in this context: "die eigenbedeutung [i.e. "to want"] von wollen kann weiter zu einem auxiliar verblassen, das in verbindung mit einem inf. temporale oder modale funktion übernimmt, eine entwicklung, die nicht auf das deutsche beschränkt ist, sondern auch an. und besonders ags./engl. für die verbalflexion wichtig wird. ein rest der eigenbedeutung bleibt dem verbum wollen aber in der deutschen sprache immer, auch wo es hilfsverb ist." [emphasis mine] [woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB/…
    – Mac
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 8:21

As I have said in the comments, the examples you give do not illustrate the question. "will" is a present form. It has a subjunctive/conditional form (would) but no past form. And it wouldn't make sense. Either something will happen in the future (from now) or not. You cannot form a past tense of a future tense (I think that is impossible in any language but I don't know).

The other answers say that "wollen" can never be used as future-"will". I have to slightly disagree with that.

Ich will das mal überhören.
Ich will das mal so stehen lassen.
Vereinfachend will ich das im Folgenden nur noch als „Bereich der Gesamtinotropie“ bezeichnen.

To me, this is more a statement about what you will do than it is about what you want. The idea of "wollen" is in there, too, of course and the overlap is natural since statements about intentions for the future are inherently both... a statement about the future and a statement about volition. That's how English "will" became what it is. It was volition at first, too. But as for my examples I'd say they're about 70% future focused. You can replace the "will" in the examples with "werde" and have essentially the same sentence.

Especially the last one, since it contains a future marker "im Folgenden". If it were strictly volition the statement would express that you are going to want to call it that from now on... never mind whether you actually will or not.

  • As you are referring to me: I said that "wollen" can never serve as an exact replacement, however, it can serve as a proper replacement to signal a future event. But different from werden, wollen is not neutral, as it puts emphasis on the speakers intentions.
    – Veredomon
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 23:12
  • @Veredomon... if I say "Ich werde das ab jetzt so machen." then I am stating my intentions. Whether they'll become a reality is not known yet because it's future. "werden" is often used to talk about intentions that way.
    – Emanuel
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 23:16
  • Yes, but you stay neutral about your feelings. Werden is about a future event, wollen is about modality that implies/will lead to a future event. That's a difference.
    – Veredomon
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 23:23
  • @Veredomon... in the last example, you don't actually know that. Maybe the author doesn't like that simple term but he uses it anyway for simplicities sake. I know this sounds super nit-picky, and it is, but you wrote "never" and that's always a slippery word when it comes to language.
    – Emanuel
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 23:25
  • 1
    I did statistical studies on the use of wollen recently, so I ran into that question before. When I say "Ich will am WE meine Steuer machen", it is safe to assume that I don't like to do my taxes. However, I came to the conclusion that intention and wish, may it even be remote, cannot be separated: although I don't like to do taxes, it is still my wish to do them this WE and not, say, next one. Next problem is that you can only assume, but not discern for sure what the speaker meant. So when he used wollen instead of neutral werden, it is prudent to assume he had a reason.
    – Veredomon
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 23:38

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