The word maybe is pretty much a direct translation of "may be" in all languages I know, with or without concatenation. Examples: kanske (Swedish), måske (Danish), peut-être (French), может быть (Russian)

However, in German the word is vielleicht. What is the etymology behind this?

(I believe there is a construction "kann sein", which fits the above pattern, but I think it's much less common and might have a slightly different use than vielleicht).

  • 1
    Also in Italian the etymology varies and is not a union of "may/can + be".
    – Alenanno
    Commented Aug 6, 2013 at 11:51
  • Ok! For some reason (I have no idea why) I thought potessere was the Italian word for maybe.
    – Daniel R
    Commented Aug 6, 2013 at 11:57
  • 1
    Ahah sorry for giggling, that was funny but no, there is no such word. :D The Italian word is Forse, coming from Latin fŏrsit, union of fŏrs ‘destiny/fate’ e sĭt ‘be’, as in "so be it", it's conjugated. :).
    – Alenanno
    Commented Aug 6, 2013 at 12:49
  • Haha, no problems, thanks for the info! (Though admit it's a great word!)
    – Daniel R
    Commented Aug 6, 2013 at 13:02

2 Answers 2


The etymology appears to be 'without difficulty, easily'. The second part of the word, leicht, continues to be used on its own in the sense of 'easy/easily' - as in mit Leichtigkeit, English with ease, easily.

The dictionary by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm provides the following etymology:

concatenation of vil and Middle High German lîhte. In Middle High German and early Modern High German, the latter still has [by itself] the meaning of Modern High German vielleicht [...]; Middle High German vil lîhte was not only used in the sense of 'easily, without difficulty', but also in the looser sense [of 'perhaps']

zusammengeschoben aus vil und mhd. lîhte. letzteres allein hat im mhd. und noch dem älteren nhd. die bedeutung des nhd. adv. vielleicht, s. oben bd. 6, sp. 637 (leicht 17) ; mhd. vil lîhte wird nicht nur im sinne von ' sehr leicht, ganz ohne schwierigkeit ', sondern schon in freierer bedeutung angewandt

Kann sein is indeed sometimes used in the sense of vielleicht, but more colloquial.

  • Indeed. Of course, the interpretation involves a certain ellipsis: "very easily (possible)", as @JoopEggen puts it, or "very easily (true)" or "very easily (could be the case)". Commented Jun 16, 2017 at 5:12

The English perhaps: can happen, and the Dutch misschien (geschieden): might happen have similar roots.

The German vielleicht seems to deviate on first sight, but there is the Dutch wel-licht with the same meaning: "yes easily (possible)" - wel = indeed, yes, yeah (compare the English well). Both vielleicht and wellicht stem from the same spoken form evidently.

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