and welcome to our… hey wait a second, I think you just missed a joke. I said everyone with wann inste…. what? Oh, you did see it? So, if you did see it then why didn’t you la…what? … not funny? Come on, that joke is brilliant… It’s not? … It’s what?… Laim?… I actually don’t know what this „laim“ means but I’ll most certainly look it up in my Oxford Dictionary.
Anyway, the reason for making this joke is that today I wann-t to… ok ok sorry… I want to talk to you about the meaning of:
wann (pron.: vunn)
As you know the English words if and when have 5 possible translations in German wenn, falls, ob, als and wann. From the perspective of a German native speaker they all are very clearly distinct from one another, and mixing them up can REALLY confuse people or alter meaning. It is pretty messy, I have to admit.
So over the past months we have done this wenn-falls-ob-als-wann-Miniseries here where we have taken a detailed look at each word and what the difference is to words it could possibly get confused with (here are the links: wenn, falls, ob, als) The grand finale will be a post that has every word in a nutshell. For those of you who can’t wait, I have prepared this beautiful mind map (pun anyone?)…. so helpful.
Anyways’s… today we’ll have lots of fun cause it is time for wann
As the spelling already suggests, wann is a possible translation for when. It has nothing to do with if and so the main question is this:
- What is the difference between wann and wenn?
So let’s find out.
Wann is a question word asking for a point in time. Actually it is THE question word for time.
- Wann kommt der Bus?
- What time does the bus come?
- Seit wann lernst du Deutsch?
- Since when have you been learning German?
- Bis wann musst du arbeiten?
- Till what time do you have to work?
- Wann warst du in Berlin?
- When have you been to Berlin?
- Von wann bis wann geht der Kurs?
- From when till when is the course?
This is pretty clear I think.
Now, just like other question words, in German as well as in English, wann is not only used for direct questions but it can also be used for indiscreet questions… like
- Hey Chef, wann hatten Sie das letzte Mal ein „Gespräch“ mit der Sekretärin ?
- Hey boss, when was the last time you had a „meeting“ with the secretary?
but that doesn’t really matter here. What matters is that wann is also used for indirect questions. An indirect question is a question that has been rephrased as a statement using an introduction.
- Ich habe gefragt, wann der Bus kommt.
- I asked at what time the bus was going to come.
- Thomas fragt Maria, wann genau sie nach Hause kommt.
- Thomas asks Maria when exactly she is going to come home.
- Ich werde meinen Chef fragen, bis wann er morgen im Büro ist.
- I will ask my boss, till when he is going to be in the office tomorrow.
So … wann is used for direct and indirect question, that ask for time. Now what about this:
- I know exactly when the bus comes.
- Ich weiß genau, wann der Bus kommt.
This is not a direct question. It isn’t an indirect question neither. Heck, there is not the slightest notion of question in there. I already knew everything.
So why exactly do we have to use wann here and not wenn?
Well we could say that it fits in nicely with this pattern:
- I knew exactly who he was.
- There was no doubt where this panda had come from.
- Thomas had figured out why his hair sucked so bad that day.
where we have all question words and such and then we could go on to aks why exactly we use question words there anyway, which in jargon by the way are called interrogative pronouns, and then we could come with something like this:
- I know who this is.
- I don’t know who this is.
- I wonder who this is.
- I ask who this is.
which would lead us to the conclusion that “knowing something is just an inverted not knowing something” and not knowing something can always be transformed into a question hence we use wann.
I know this sounds a little convoluted; and I think it isn’t really of much help when you have to choose between wenn and wann and there is a different explanation that is probably a little more clear.
You see… a wann-clause as part of longer sentence is always kind of the object of the verb. For those of you who have read the post on the box-model: a wann-sentence is the what-box. So… when I want to ask for a wann-sentence I would ask what?, and when I want to ask for a wenn-sentence I would ask when - or wann in German. Whaaaaaaat? Exactly. I ‘m confused too :)
- Ich sage dir, wann zu dir komme.
- I tell you, when I am planning to come over to your place
- Ich sage dir meinen Name.
- I tell you my name.
You can see that my name and when I am planning to come over to your place have the same function…they are the thing I am saying.
- Thomas knows when to leave Maria alone.
- Thomas weiß, wann man Maria in Ruhe lassen sollte.
- Thomas weiß viel über Deutsch.
- Thomas knows a lot about German.
And you know what is really cool? This rule actually also applies for direct questions. Imagine a very noisy street…
- “Excuse me, when does the bus go?”
“When does the bus go?”
- “Entschuldigung, wann fährt der Bus?”
Even here we used the question what to ask for the wann-sentence :).
And what does a wenn-sentence answer to? It answers to when or in box-speak… it is a when-box.
- I’ll write you when I have finished my work.
- Ich schreibe dir wenn ich meine Arbeit fertig hab’.
- I’ll write you tonight.
- Ich schreibe dir heut’ abend.
Just like before you can see that the wenn-sentence has the very same function as the simple word tonight.
And now a combination:
- When I have finished work, I call you and tell you when I will be at home.
- Wenn ich mit der Arbeit fertig bin, rufe ich dich an und sage dir, wann ich zuhause bin.
I know, the English sentence sounds a little odd. When can have 2 distinct functions and so it is not clear which one is which… at least not immediately. So that might be the reason why synonyms like as soon as or at what time are more common in English while German has a tendency to just use wenn. Another nice example with both words in one sentence is this German Idiom:
- Wann, wenn nicht jetzt?
- When, if not now?
or the slightly different version:
- Wenn nicht jetzt, wann dann?
- If not now, then when?
You can use these whenever someone is hesitant about doing something while you think now is just as good as any other time.
There are 2 other phrasing with wann that are worth mentioning. The first one is dann und wann, which translated to every now and then or other similar expressions.
- Dann und wann esse ich Sushi.
- Every now and then I eat Sushi.
There are other ways to say this in German. For example ab und zu or hin und wieder those are more common than dann und wann.
And then there is wann anders.
- Heute schaffen wir das nicht mehr aber kein Problem, wir machen das einfach wann anders.
- We won’t be able to do it today, but no problem; we’ll just do it some other time.
- Das muss ich dir mal wann anders erklären.
- I will have to explain that to you some other time.
I am not sure as to whether this is a regional thing of northern Germany but I say it quite a lot. The “official” word would be ein andermal but wann anders just has more of a punchline character so I think that’s why people use it.
And finally there is the irgendwann which means at some point.
- Ich hab’ irgendwann letzte Woche deine Schwester gesehen.
- I have seen your sister some time last week.
- Irgendwann will ich mal nach Neuseeland.
- I want to go to New Zealand at some point.
- Hast du morgen irgendwann (mal) Zeit?
- Will you have time tomorrow at some point.
Oh … and to be super-turbo-comprehensive, wann is also often used as whenever.
- Ruf an, wann du willst!
- Call, whenever you want!
Alright. So to wrap this up here is the rule. Wenn answers a when-question, wann asks one. And because that sounds confusing, here is a different rule.
If you want to translate a when-sentence, then :
- use wann, if you would use what? to ask for your when-sentence using what
- use wenn, falls oder als otherwise (read up on wenn for more details)
So… that doesn’t seem too complicated. But all good things are 3 so here is one last way to tackle the issue. Try to replace when with at what time . If this works, use wann in German.
And this is it. We’re already done for today. I know it sounds crazy but there is nothing more to say. If you think of anything… like… say…. questions or … hmmm… uhm…. suggestions, just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.