This post is on uses of wollen, in which it is said of things ordinarily not credited with volition, as in the following.

(a) wie es der Zufall wollte: as luck would have it. (From Wordreference.com)

(b) Die Mauer will nicht aus den Köpfen der Menschen verschwinden. (From an answer to another post.)

(c) Die verzwickte Kunst, sich in eigener Person zu verwandeln, steht jedoch in keinem Buch; sie will erraten sein. (From Zwist unter Zauberern by Kurt Kusenberg)

I used to struggle with the idea that wollen is always about volition, but have now accepted it thanks to answers I got on this and this post.

I am now trying to characterize and understand the boundaries of this use of wollen and notice that at least the instances like the above involve personification.

For example, luck or chance may be likened to 'the gods.' The Berlin Wall alludes to a mindset. The art of form changing insists on something it as if it had a mind of its own.


Is personification a good way to understand these usages of wollen?

Is there some other, standard treatment of them?

If there are usages of wollen with inanimate objects not fitting the idea of personification, please provide some examples.

  • You got it. Personification is a very good way to understand these usage of wollen.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Jul 24, 2019 at 10:05
  • 1
    It's also present in English, compare: the car needs washing. The door doesn't want to open ( "the door won't open)
    – Dan
    Jul 24, 2019 at 13:07
  • @jonathan.scholbach "die Kunst, sich ... zu verwandeln" is the personification of a person impersonating ... themselve? I'm not even mad, that's amazing. Although, it's rather the opposite when die Mauer in den Köpfen der Leute creates distance, despite the figurative agency; Likewise for Zufall or Chaos, though chaos has historically been antropomorphised. Something like die Bedrohung is an apt personification, if it is a person who is posing the threat. Ideas can be concrete or abstract, two sides of the same coin. figurative is the ideal term, I guess.
    – vectory
    Jul 27, 2019 at 20:15
  • @vectory I think you are right, that this is figurative speech. However I fail to understand how this makes it impossible that it is also a personification. These terms are not mutually exclusive. Au contraire, personification is one sort of locutia impropria, of figurative speech. Die Kunst will erlernt sein is ascribing a will to die Kunst, and ascribing a will is a very means of personification.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Jul 27, 2019 at 20:25
  • @jonathan.scholbach I tried to note that not all cases of figurative speech are personification. Following your own argument, denying will is the opposite of personification. will nicht hovewever may be merely negating, not denying. Perhaps it is ambiguous on purpose. Additionally, I'd argue alternating on the first example that wie es zufall wollte with indefinite es is neutral, pretty impersonal, if rejecting the reading in which es is the object; Cp. wie es regnet, wie es der Fall war. The last example is literary free form. The impersonal pronoun would be es (das Verwandeln).
    – vectory
    Jul 27, 2019 at 21:00

2 Answers 2


I do not think personification can account for all uses of wollen with a subject incapable of volition.

Compare the following two sentences:

Der Wagen will nicht anspringen.

Die Mauer will nicht aus den Köpfen der Menschen verschwinden.

The first sentence could be attributed to personification: I can imagine a car having some say in whether it wants to start or not, or likening the car to a horse, which has volition. But the second cannot. How should a wall control what is going on in people's heads? Also note that, even if you substitute a subject capable of volition, the meaning is not does not want to:

Er will mir nicht aus dem Kopf gehen.
I can't stop thinking about him.

It is therefore reasonable to assume that there is a variant of wollen that does not demand its subject to be capable of volition and has the following meaning.

<subject> does not <predicate> as expected, desired (compare DWDS 5b) and 6)

Also, there are some examples where wollen occurs without a subject. There is nothing to be personified in examples like the following:

Ihr wollte einfach nicht warm werden. (source)

Jetzt will geschlafen werden. (source)

I'd group the first example with DWDS 5b) (her getting warm failing to occur as desired) and the second with 4b) (sleep being necessary now). The second meaning is the one that also occurs in your example c), where wollen expresses necessity, i.e. diese Kunst muß man erraten.

  • Can a comparison between the diverging meanings of muss nicht vs mustn't and hat nicht zu vs does not have to resolve the problem? More importantly, the obvious parallel to English will as a future tense is relevant.
    – vectory
    Jul 27, 2019 at 20:20
  • I am compressing my former, rambling comments (now deleted) to the following. This ANSWER convinces me that personification cannot accommodate every usage of the type in question. Er will mir nicht aus dem Kopf gehen. If er is a person, we cannot personify ihn. Far more plausible would be saying that a will er does not have is being attributed to ihn, i.e. a will not to leave my head. This of course does not personify anything, but uses the preexisting (actual) personhood of ihm.
    – Catomic
    Jul 28, 2019 at 9:24
  • Ihr wollte einfach nicht warm warden. We might try assimilating this one to the one above. Namely, by saying that a will sie does not have is being attributed to sie, i.e. a will to stay cold. But that would be perverse if sie is shivering and clutching at her blankets. The will in the background is (probably) someone's, e.g. a doctor's, will that sie should get warm. Thus wollte signifies, as the ANSWER says, a failure of desire on the doctor's part. It would be truly ad hoc to try and make personification fit this case.
    – Catomic
    Jul 28, 2019 at 9:24

German speakers do not hesitate to assign objects a will of their own.

Das Motorrad wollte nicht so wie ich. Deshalb lieg' ich jetzt im Krankenhaus.

Of course, it wasn't the motorbike but the general circumstances of the road not wholly understood by the driver in that specific situation. Nevertheless, blaming inanimate objects for shortcomings by assigning them a will of their own is a common picture.

It's also common to put up an inanimate proxy for your demands:

Unser Hotel wünscht sich mehr Gäste.

It's not the people working there neither the shareholders but the house. Weird.

Das Bier möchte ein paar Tage in Ruhe gelassen werden, damit es reifen kann.

Yeast is alive but does it have a will? A hive mind?

At last, consider the common saying

Gut Ding will Weile haben.

  • "Unser Hotel wünscht sich mehr Gäste." - wahrscheinlich weil es viel zu wünschen übrig lässt ;)
    – Dan
    Jul 24, 2019 at 11:42
  • +1 für Yeast is alive but does it have a will? A hive mind? Jul 25, 2019 at 9:37

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