German modal particles – Was soll denn das?

Today we have a guest post from Ed Langley.

Languages contain many nuances which can be misunderstood or overlooked by the non-native language student. Without the ability to comprehend these nuances, it can be very difficult to know how to tackle them. So you’ve looked in a dictionary and found a direct translation for every word in the sentence, you’ve applied your reasonable grasp of German grammar, but you still can’t make sense of that one word in the sentence and your native speaking friends or German tutor tell you your translation doesn’t sound quite right. The chances are that you are dealing with a modal particle – a word which gives a certain nuance to the German sentence – words such as doch, ja, eben, halt. These words may appear in your dictionary with English translations, but a dictionary is unlikely to tell you how these words work. Modal particles can either stress the focus of a sentence or express the attitude or mood of the speaker and are essential to German language – there may be more words in the English language which might appear to make English a more expressive language, but German more than makes up for it through the varied deployment of these tricky modal particles.

Mastery of German modal particles is essential for everyday communication in German speaking countries. Although their use tends to be more colloquial, the huge number of levels of expression possible through their use makes them very important. If you listen carefully to a native speaker, you will often hear them say the word ‘mal’ (regularly shortened to ‘ma’) and other similar words (which may not make any sense to you). This is evidence that in order to sound authentically German, you need to try to chuck in some of these words, but it’s not just as simple as learning a word which has an equivalent English translation – you need to understand how these things are used!

So how do they work? To get some idea of what we’re dealing with, here’s a table of the most common modal particles:

aber ja
auch mal
bloß nur
denn ruhig
doch schon
eben überhaupt
eigentlich vielleicht
etwa wohl

Let’s look at the first one in the table, ‘aber’, which of course means ‘but’ or ‘however’ – well, not in all cases. Look at the sentence below:

“es war aber sehr ermüdend”

In this example, the word ‘indeed’ could actually be used to translate the word ‘aber’ (i.e. “it was very tiring indeed”). However, when the word ‘aber’ is used as a modal particle, its grammatical function is to stress the focus of the sentence. Modal particles used in this way generally appear in spoken and more colloquial contexts. As such, this stress is usually expressed in written English through the use of italics. The example sentence is therefore more likely to be translated as [it was very tiring].

But what about the other functions of modal particles? The word ‘doch’ is probably one of most useful words in German and you’ll hear it all the time. It can be used to counter a false statement or a negative question and should be interpreted as something along the lines of “on the contrary”. For example, the negative question “Besitzt du kein Auto?” [Don’t you own a car?] is best answered with either with ‘nein’ [no] or ‘doch’. If you answer the question with ‘ja’, when you do in fact have a car, a speaker of German may think you are saying “no, I don’t own a car”. If you don’t own a car, the answer is nein, but if you do, the answer should be doch. It all seems very confusing, but the word doch as an answer to this question would be translated as yeah [I do have a car] (with stress placed on the contradictory ‘yeah’ when spoken). As is the case with ‘aber’, ‘doch’ is used more in spoken than written German.

Sticking to the word ‘doch’, modal particles can actually be combined as in:

“Versuchen Sie es doch mal!”

The sentence means “Just try it!” In the English translation, the exclamation mark is enough to convey the idea expressed in the German. The ‘doch mal’ is there to emphasise the idea that the speaker thinks the addressee really should try it. This example shows that the subtle nuances conveyed by modal particles are sometimes impossible to translate fully into English. This poses a huge challenge in the field of language translation, as there is often no single correct translation. As long as you can understand the ideas and emotions being expressed in the German and express it satisfactorily in English, you can’t go far wrong.

If you want your German to sound more authentic, it is important to learn how to use all of these modal particles. Many grammar books clearly explain their proper use, but it can be difficult to understand them fully without listening to how native speakers use them. If you work on your accent and perfect your grammar, all you need do is incorporate some modal particles and you might pass as a German!

This is a guest post written by Ed Langley on behalf of Codex Global language translation.

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