Welcome, language enthusiasts, to the linguistic parallel universe of German modal particles (MPs)!
In this series, we will go through all of the German “Modalpartikeln”, what they mean, and how we use them. I’ll give plenty of examples to make it easy to digest.
If we use MPs correctly, a simple word like schon, ruhig, or nur can lose its literal meaning and express approval, rejection, amazement, interest, intensity, or restriction. A modal particle tells you something about the mood, knowledge, or intention of the speaker.
The comprehension and correct use of German modal particles can be quite intimidating for non-native speakers because their meaning is complex and highly dependent on situational context.
No worries though - in the first post of this series we start from scratch and then we’ll take it from there. → →
What are you talking about? I need an example!
Okay, imagine you are sitting on the bus and you overhear a conversation. Two German tourists try to decide where to go for dinner and it goes like this:
- “Also ich bin ja allergisch gegen Erdnüsse, deshalb lieber kein Thailändisch heute, ok?”
- “Hör bloß auf! Ich hab’ dir doch gesagt: du musst halt einen Allergietest machen!”
- “Den mach ich schon irgendwann, aber ich kann mir ja wohl ruhig noch etwas Zeit damit lassen!”
- “Ganz ruhig! Ich hab’s doch nur gut gemeint… Du bist vielleicht anstrengend!”
That’s right, you just witnessed MPs in action! If the two Germans wouldn’t use them, the truth of the utterance would be the same, but they would lose a lot of subtext. I guess Germans are not so direct after all! 🥸
Before we go into each MP, its meaning, and how to use it, let's start with some ground rules!
Rule No. 1
modal particles are dispensable!
You can leave them out, without changing the meaning of a sentence. But we often use a modal particle to give our statement a certain “flavor”. Yes, MPs are the ice cream flavors of the German language! We could survive without it, but what kind of life would that be!??
Rule No. 2
modal particles put a sentence into context
A correctly placed MP helps to add another layer of information to the utterance. We use them to emphasize a particular aspect of a message and convey the speaker’s mood or attitude towards this message.
Rule No. 3
modal particles are usually used in informal settings only
It’s quite rare to see them written in a newspaper, scientific papers, or spoken by a news anchor on TV. They are used in spoken language, or when texting with friends.
Rule No. 4
just use the ones you know quite well
It takes time and practice to get the elusive meaning of modal particles. There are multiple meanings for each one in different contexts. With MPs I’d say it’s not so much about what you say, but how the hearer will interpret the subtext you‘ve sent with your message.
Rule No. 5
modal particles usually follow a verb
E.g. Komm mal her! / Das ist vielleicht schön!
Rule No. 6
modal particles are hard to translate
Other languages are making use of MPs, too. For example Dutch, Japanese, Greek, or Indonesian. English isn’t one of those, unfortunately, that’s why MPs are often missing in English translations. Think of modal particles as a special kind of intonation and emphasis. (there might be some MPs in English after all! Check out the discussion down below!)
Rule No. 7
words that are used as modal particles can be used literally as well
E.g. the word “ja” of course means “yes”. As a modal particle, though, it can be used as an intensifier for an imperative, to express that the interlocutor probably knows about the information in the uttered statement, or to express surprise.
Rule No. 8
modal particles don’t get stressed or emphasized in a sentence
This rule helps to identify an MP! When I say: “Der Hund ist VIELLEICHT(<- no MP) lieb!” it means “The dog is maybe nice.” “DER Hund ist vielleicht (<- MP) lieb!” means " The dog is really nice - and I’m quite astonished by this!" Pretty big difference, huh?
See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?
Now that we established what a German modal particle is and why we use them, we can go into the different meanings of each MP:
For the time being, let’s leave it at that. But make sure to come back soon because in this thread I will link all future posts about each modal particle. Every once in a while we will look at a new one - including helpful examples, informative links, and even some sound files to hear them in action.