Is it an adjective? Or something else? What does willen mean? I know the translation of the whole expression, but I want to make sure that understand what all of its parts mean.

I’ve noticed too that people sometimes capitalize Willen. Why is that?

  • Good question. Have you consulted a dictionary?
    – boaten
    Aug 26, 2015 at 16:20
  • Yes, of course. I can see that this "um ... willen" is usually translated as "for ... sake", but I'm more interested in its etymology than translation.
    – user17073
    Aug 26, 2015 at 16:23
  • The answer to whether willen is an adjective and what it means can be found, for example, here.
    – boaten
    Aug 26, 2015 at 16:31

3 Answers 3


Technically, um … willen is a circumposition. A circumposition is, in essence, the same thing as a preposition; but a preposition comes before its so-called complement whereas a circumposition surrounds it. Finally, there are postpositions, following after their complement. Because postpositions and circumpositions are quite rare in German (and in English), preposition is sometimes used as an umbrella term for all three kinds.

Regarding the etymology, um is the well-known preposition and willen is originally the noun Wille in accusative. Both words used to have a much wider scope than today, so um jemandes Willen could mean ‘in someone’s interest’, ‘because of someone’ etc. When the scope of the individual words narrowed, um … Willen was already a collocation that retained its original meaning and, by a process known as grammaticalization, turned into a circumposition. The original meaning of Willen, which only a person or perhaps an animal could have, has bleakened, making um … willen also applicable to things.

Regarding the spelling, the two parts of the construction are still recognizable today, even though they no longer make sense when interpreted separately (‘around someone’s will’?). Therefore, a writer may feel that Willen continues to be a noun and capitalize it.


The Duden states it's a preposition. It's used with a genitive. And it derived from Wille (will) as its accusative singular.
I don't know how to translate erstarrt (solidified) correctly. But I would apprechiate its correct translation very much!

Wortart: Präposition
Häufigkeit: ▮▮▮▯▯
Herkunft: eigentlich erstarrter Akkusativ Singular von Wille
Grammatik: Präposition mit Genitiv

  • 1
    I don't know how to translate erstarrt (solidified) correctly. – It’s fossilised.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 26, 2015 at 17:03
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    Does it mean that in the past endings were added to words in Akkusativ as well?
    – user17073
    Aug 26, 2015 at 17:35
  • 1
    Can you be a bit more specific with this question? I think that this derived from accusative as in Ich habe den Willen dir zu antworten. (I have the will to answer you.) Aug 26, 2015 at 18:28
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    @user17073: Not only in the past. Some words such as Mensch and, particularly relevant here, Wille still are declined that way; it is called weak declension. (Dieser Mensch soll seinen Willen bekommen. Der freie Wille ist kennzeichnend für den Menschen.)
    – chirlu
    Aug 26, 2015 at 18:39
  • Ist "eigentlich erstarrt" nicht doppelt gemoppelt?
    – Carsten S
    Aug 26, 2015 at 20:11

um Himmels Willen -> um des Himmels Willen -> um den Willen des Himmels

um den Willen -> prepositional complement
des Himmels -> posessive complement to the prepositional complement

Remains of a complete sentence that sometime in the past must have been something like (and I am making up this part)

e.g. Ich bitte dich -> [um den Willen des Himmels] -> ( das nicht zu tun! )

Ich -> Subject
bitte dich -> predicate
bitte -> verb
dich -> direct object

das nicht zu tun! - infinitive-construction (as alternative to a sub-clause)

Ich bitte dich -> [um den Willen des Himmels] -> dass du das nicht tust!

Or it could originally have been a final-sub-clause like this infinitive construction:

-> Um den Willen des Himmels zu erfüllen bitte ich dich, dass nicht zu tun!

Um -> final conjunction
zu erfüllen -> infinit verb
um zu erfüllen -> final infinitive construction
den Willen -> direct object to the infinitive
des Himmels -> possesive complement to the direct object

German grammarian tend to make prepositions and conjunctions out of former clauses and are covering up their original former structure. Multi-word prepositions and conjunctions are a relatively new phenomena in the history of language in general.

And the Duden editors do actually have a strong tendency to interpret a lot of structures as prepositions - even preposition that govern a Nominative ;-)

And 'erstarrt' would rather be 'archaic' when talking about language phenomena.

  • This could be correct, if »willen« would be written with an uppercase W. But it is not. »Um Himmels Willen« is wrong. Correct is »um Himmels willen«. But to write it wrong is very common. There is even a German TV-Show with this title, where it is written wrong. The word »willen« in this phrase is not a noun. It is part of the circumposition »um ... willen«. Aug 27, 2015 at 5:50
  • @HubertSchölnast: Thanks for your feedback - that's why I explicitly pointed out in the last two paragraphs how grammarians - even if they are not officially authorized to do so - have a huge impact on standards - for however this term may get interpreted. So just by mingling and squeezing a beautiful expression into the corset of a grammatical structure does't change the fact that 'Willen' can't IMHO be perceived as anything else than a Noun. I prefer to make my students aware of this and where things are actually derived from to understand the integral structure and meaning of expressions.
    – mramosch
    Aug 27, 2015 at 11:49
  • @HubertSchölnast: Just as you wouldn't/don't change an Object-Noun only because being part of a structure called 'predicate' - I hope I got the point across? Altough from the point of view of a straight grammarian this is plainly wrong.Thanks!
    – mramosch
    Aug 27, 2015 at 11:51
  • @HubertSchölnast: Chirlu explained that beautifully in his answer and really brought the point across. But one might add that the prevalent entity of having 'Willen' besides animals and man is God. And all these expressions like - um Himmels willen / um Gottes Willen / Vagölts Gott ;-) - arose out of a spiritual attitude of certain centuries. So perhaps history, customs and origin should definitely be taken under consideration more carefully when committing 'grammaticalization'. Hiding a very clear intend behind a blurry 'correct' grammatical structure is not very helpful to anyone...
    – mramosch
    Aug 27, 2015 at 12:08

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