Meta-German 🤯 - Modal Particles

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. :happyllama: :two_hearts: :pretzel:

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. :cold_sweat:

No worries though - in the first post of this series we start from scratch and then we’ll take it from there. :bear_meh::bear_smile::bear_happy:


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:

Listen here: :bearded_person:t2: :oncoming_bus: :bearded_person:t3:

  • “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!”

Say whaaat?!?!? :flushed:

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! :thinking: 🥸 :de:


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!?? :icecream::smiling_face_with_three_hearts:

  • 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? :dog2: :heart:


See, that wasn’t so bad, was it? :v:

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:

vielleicht

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. :muscle:

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Oh yes! I have been in a situation where people use these funny-sounding “sound effects” in the middle of sentences and I have no idea what they are saying! I think this will be a very helpful series for me to follow!
Thank you @Toby !

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Thank you, @Toby :blush:!

I think rule No.4 is crucial to not have an embarrassing or confusing moment in the future :see_no_evil:. I usually don’t use an MP until I completely get what it means and how to use it :sweat_smile:.

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Great topic @Toby super well explained. This will be so helpful for so many of my students and also for me because it helps me explain it to them!! Thank you

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Toby, thanks for your interesting teaching on modal particles in German!
At one point, you discussed the notion that English lacks modal particles.
Certainly, English has modal adverbs (e.g., ‘certainly’).
Now, I’m not sure English lacks modal particles (‘now’ may be one?). Ya, German has more expression-types that are clearly modal particles (like, ‘ja’ ). But there might be some overlooked modal particles in English, like colloquial ones used in parts of the U.K., Canada, and Michigan, etc., eh?
.

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Hi @JimDur, thanks loads for the feedback!

No worries at all - it’s a nerdy topic, but having at least some clarification when it comes to statements like “Du kannst ruhig laut sein, mein Zoom Call beginnt erst in zwei Stunden.” (ruhig = MP).

When it comes to modal particles in other languages I’m not an expert, but I’m certainly interested to learn something about it! (e.g. Dutch, Japanese, Indonesian, or Greek uses MPs)

Particular English dialects might use modal particles, that’s absolutely possible, though I haven’t found a paper on this yet. There seems to be a common understanding in linguistic circles that BE and AE are usually using emphasis to add intention, emotion, or knowledge about the utterance.

In other words, of course you can give the statement additional (meta-)information (putting the utterance in context), but (at least standard) English is using a different “technique”. Intonation is very important in English-speaking countries, as far as I know.

But let’s give it a try, you as a native speaker have much better insight when it comes to English!

Okay, let’s have a look at the definition of German modal particles (at least one of them) again to have a baseline:

  • “Modal particles are inflexible words that indicate the speaker’s attitude toward the listener’s expected situational attitude, prior knowledge, and reaction. They therefore always refer to a whole utterance and never to a single word and give the utterance additional meaning. MPs never appear at the beginning of a sentence and express the speaker’s attitudes, feelings, assumptions, evaluations and expectations” (Resende 1995; Schoonjans 2013; Duden Bd 4 2016).

  • MPs usually have one or more homonyms (words with multiple meanings), such as MPs “doch” and “ja”, which also appear as response particles.

  • Word stress and context changes the meaning entirely (see example above → ruhig).

Can you find a word that is used in the English language that fits the profile? “Now” is a great example btw, but I’m not sure if it ticks all the boxes. :thinking:

I did find two examples of peculiar wording in English that comes close to the usage of German modal particles, but when we dissect these sentences, they are not quite the same:

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) (super interesting in itself): “She steady talking” which means “She persists in talking.”
Here the word steady gives the sentence more context, and the meaning of “steady” changes slightly, but it doesn’t provide the meta-level of the speaker’s attitude to the listener’s expected situational attitude, prior knowledge, and reaction as a German MP would do. Also, the meanings of “steady” and persistent" are quite similar. They share the same attributes, like some sort of stability and permanence. It’s not that you have to put stress on the word, so your interlocuter won’t misunderstand.

old/poetic English: “But you’re a pretty girl!” which means “My god/Wow, you’re a pretty girl.” (from Game of Thrones)
Here, “but” is used to introduce an exclamation of surprise, which sounds pretty much like a modal particle! So we have that meta thing going on - on the other hand “but” is defined as a contradiction, and the contradiction of the utterance is “I wasn’t expecting that this girl is pretty, but she is, in fact, very pretty”. So the meaning of the two “buts” is still quite similar, not totally different like in German MPs.
But still, the usage here is very close to a modal particle, even if linguists say they are something else
because they derive from different origins. Maybe a good analogy for this is convergent evolution. But then, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. :man_shrugging:t2:

Also, English is a Germanic language and “Old English” shared much more structures and grammar with German, so maybe English had (much more) modal particles in the past and they just got lost on the way.

To be frank, I don’t know anybody who talks like that. In Dutch, Japanese, or German, MPs are used in every other sentence when it comes to everyday language.

*(The Canadian “eh” is not a modal particle (love it though!) because it isn’t a homonym. It has lots of different contextual meanings, yes, but there isn’t a particle called “eh”.)

Wow, that got quickly out of hand! :sweat_smile: I hope my rambling post made sense, at least in parts!

Thanks for the input, it’s always fun to dig a little deeper when it comes to linguistics!

PS: I also found this! It’s messy but very interesting with lots of pros and cons about potential English modal particles (e.g. just, well, now)!

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Thanks for your interesting explications and considerations Toby.
I will work on your questions.
The expression ‘eh’ is used in Scotland and the U.S., as well as Canada. It is used like ‘yes,’ ‘ya/h,’ ‘aye,’ and to indicate a question, and to express an attitude toward the expression it modifies.
E.g., from The Three Stooges (Brooklyn, N.Y), indicating a rhetorical question.

Ah, tough guy, eh?

To express an attitude toward an expression and the interlocater, like inclusion.

It’s a cold one tonight, eh?

It is used like using higher voice at the end of a declarative sentence, to make it sound, partly, like a question.

It’s getting late, eh?

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Thank you Toby, this is such a good post. I have saved the link and will send my students to this page for further learning, contemplating and understanding of this important and interesting insight into the german language. :clap: :smiley:

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…greetings @Toby …I just wanted to forward your great post to @Rliyo :smiley:

Cheers,
Melanie

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