In Der Gevatter Tod, Death instructs his godson, the doctor, to say certain things when making a call, as follows.

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.

Suppose what Death wanted the doctor to say was, "I'll be twenty-one tomorrow," or "I am going to throw up," or "I'm going to have an epileptic fit." (Obviously not in the same circumstances as set out in the original story.)

Can that be rendered as follows:

  • ... so kannst du sprechen, du wolltest morgen 21 Jahre alt sein...

  • ... so kannst du sprechen, du wolltest erbrechen...

  • ... so kannst du sprechen, du wolltest einen epileptischen Anfall haben...

The question of grammar involved in these examples is whether wolltest signifies, in some context, simply what was going to happen without a reference to anyone's volition.

Becoming twenty-one, vomiting, and having an epileptic fit are intended as examples of events beyond anyone's control (and therefore volition). The doctor then, speaking as imagined above, would not be saying that he wanted or intended to do any of those things, but only that they were going to happen.

If so and if wolltest can be used in such context, we seem to have proven (demonstrated) that at least in some context and in some German (Grimms') the modal verb wollen can be exactly like werden insofar as it is 100% future and 0% volition.

This question arose from another, which was more general in scope than this. Thanks.

  • Don't try to imitate the style of texts that are about 200 years old in today's language, nobody talks like that. It is one thing to understand older language and another to know what is normal language today.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 17:01
  • There are perfectly reasonable reasons why one would want to imitate a 200 year old style: writing fiction, LARPing/Cosplaying and many more.
    – Jan
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 14:42

2 Answers 2


No, this is not possible. It has to be noted that Konjunktiv II just serves as a marker for indirekt speech here, it could be "wollest" as well or even "dass Du einen Anfall haben willst". Wollen therefore does not gain a special meaning here.
Wollen cannot be used here as the events can neither be wished for nor can they happen by intention of the subject, but wollen has exactly that meaning.

It is possible for wollen to be used for events which just happen, such as "Es will Abend werden"; however, I'd say that this is still different from Es wird Abend werden. It is even possible with an Akkusativ too:

Die Mauer will nicht aus den Köpfen der Menschen verschwinden.

We had that example a while back. This is definitely separate from werden:

Die Mauer wird nicht aus den Köpfen der Menschen verschwinden.

Wollen means here that it is a long process, that the wall seems to resist, but werden means that it will never happen. Therefore, there is a clear difference between wollen and werden.

But why is this possible in the first place? Well, wollen is used as a metaphor here; the wall is an alias for the people which have not yet fully mastered to overcome the estrangement between East and West Germany.

  • 1
    "Es will Abend werden" - never heard that. "Will nicht verschwinden" - in this idiom, the "Mauer" is personified to be something that actively refuses to disappear. I see volition only.
    – wolfgang
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 11:00
  • @Catomic: I enhanced my answer.
    – Veredomon
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 13:13
  • Thank you again. How is "Es will Abend werden" different from "Es wird Abend werden"? Unlike the persisting wall, "Es will..." does not seem to have a metaphorical reading available to it.
    – Catomic
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 13:54
  • @wolfgang: "Es will Abend werden" is archaic use: some people know it from fairy tales or, especially, Luke 24:29 - which is also the title of Bach's cantata BWV 6. See also Adelung's dictionary from 1801 - the 8th definition of "wollen" [zeno.org/Adelung-1793/A/Wollen]
    – Mac
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 13:59
  • @Catomic: It's a matter of nuance. "Wird" is a neutral statement of fact. "Will" is a) poetic, because it sounds archaic; b) to me, it seems to emphasise the gradual approach of evening; c) this process has probably already started, whereas with "wird" all of the described process is in the future.
    – Mac
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 14:04

"wollen" is and remains 100% volition [EDIT: including intention] and 0% future [EDIT: not including the future meaning implied by intention]. I have yet to see a single bit of evidence to the contrary.

Now, disregarding the outdated usage of the word "sprechen" (today we'd use "sagen"):

  • ... so kannst du sprechen, du wolltest morgen 21 Jahre alt sein...

No. Unless you're a teenager who says "I want to grow up more quickly".

  • ... so kannst du sprechen, du wolltest einen epileptischen Anfall haben...

Again, no.

  • ... so kannst du sprechen, du wolltest erbrechen...

This is in fact possible, but only of the sense of "I want to throw up", meaning that you feel disgusted and would welcome the the cathartic feeling of getting it all out. It is not a prediction about the future.

  • This is not correct, as we have proven in the other question. Wollen nearly always has a connotation of future, since the uttered wish/intention will is supposed to be fulfilled in the future. There is a reason why most germanic languages use wollen/sollen as auxiliary verb for the future tense.
    – Veredomon
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 10:54
  • @Veredomon I don't see "proof" of anything that contradicts my statement in the other question. I don't see how "volition" can be fulfilled in any time but the future, though. Do you disagree on the meaning of any of the example sentences?
    – wolfgang
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 10:58
  • @Veredomon Hmmm... would it be fair to say that we're actually dealing with "desire" vs. "intention" rather than "volition" vs. "future"? Because "wollen" definitely has more "intention" than "to want". And "intention" commonly leads to future actions, but I'd still rather group it under "volition" than under "future".
    – wolfgang
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 11:39
  • @wolfgang: Well, wollen as volition will almost always imply future, but not necessarily ("lass mich in Ruhe, ich will ungestört arbeiten", you're working right now). Wollen as intention always implies future, as if I'm intent on doing something, I'm not doing it right now. But yes, it is more volition vs. intention and future is just an implication.
    – Veredomon
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 13:25

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