German modal particles
In the German language, a modal particle (German: Modalpartikel or German: Abtönungspartikel) is an uninflected word used mainly in spontaneous spoken language in colloquial registers. It has a dual function: reflecting the mood or attitude of the speaker or narrator, and highlighting the sentence focus.
A modal particle's effect is often vague and dependent on the overall context. Speakers often use them somewhat excessively, and sometimes combine several particles, as in doch mal, ja nun, or ja doch nun mal. They are a feature typical of the spoken language.
Most German words can be translated to English without problem, but modal particles are a challenge to translate because the English language has no real equivalent to them.
List of modal particles
Halt, eben, einmal* (in this context, always unshortened) and nun einmal (shortened: nun mal) imply that the (often unpleasant) fact expressed in a sentence cannot be changed and must be accepted. Halt and nun mal are more colloquial than eben. In English, they could be rendered to "as a matter of fact" or by a "happen to" construction.
- Gute Kleider sind eben teuer. ("Good clothes are expensive, it can't be helped."/"Good clothes happen to be expensive.")
- Er hat mich provoziert, da habe ich ihn halt geschlagen. ("He provoked me, so I hit him – what did you expect?")
- Es ist nun einmal so. ("That's just how it is.")
Ja (engl. "you know"/"everyone knows"/"I already told you") indicates that the speaker thinks a certain fact should already be known to the listener and intends his statement to be more of a reminder or conclusion.
- Ich habe ihm ein Buch geschenkt, er liest ja sehr gerne. ("I gave him a book; as you know he likes to read.")
- Ich verleihe kein Geld, das zerstört ja nur Freundschaften. ("I never lend money. Everyone knows that only destroys friendships.")
Einmal, shortened mal (literally: once, translation roughly: "for once") also indicates a certain immediacy to the action or even implies a command. On the other hand, it can give a kind of casualness to a sentence and so making it sound less blunt.
- "Hör mal zu!" (Listen!" or "Listen to me"!)
- "Beeile dich mal!" ("Do hurry up!")
- Sing mal etwas Schönes! ("Why don't you sing something pretty?")
- Schauen wir mal. (lit.: "Let's take one look." meaning: "Let's just relax and then we'll see what we'll be doing.")
Doch can have several meanings. (See also Yes and no § Three-form systems.) For one, it can be used affirmatively, or it can convey emphasis, urgency or impatience, or it can serve as a reply to a real or imagined, or pre-emptively answered, disagreement, hesitation, or wrong assumption on the part of the listener, or other people. In other situations this can have different effects.
- Gehst Du nicht nach Hause? Doch, ich gehe gleich. ("Are you not going home?" "Oh, yes, I am going in a moment".) (Affirmation of a negative question; obligatory.)
- Komm doch her! ("Do come here!") (Emphatically)
- Komm doch endlich her! ("Do come on! Get a move on!") (More emphatically and impatiently)
- Ich habe dir doch gesagt, dass es nicht so ist. ("I did tell you that it's not like that.")
- Ich kenne mich in Berlin aus. Ich war doch letztes Jahr dort. ("I know my way around Berlin. I was here last year, after all/as a matter of fact.")
In this way, doch can be similar to stressed schon ("indeed"), but schon implies an actual qualification of the statement, often made explicit in a phrase with aber ("but"):
- Ich war schon auf der Party, aber Spaß hatte ich nicht. ("I was indeed at the party, but I did not enjoy myself.")
This is not to be confused with the adverbial meaning of, unstressed, schon: already. However, at least in writing schon "already" must either be made unmistakable by the context, e. g. by additional adverbs, or replaced by its equivalent bereits.
- Ich war schon (/bereits) auf der Party, aber Spaß hatte ich (noch) nicht. ("I was already at the party, but I had not (yet) been enjoying myself.")
In other contexts, doch indicates that the action described in the sentence was, in fact, unlikely to occur:
- Du bist also doch gekommen! ("You came after all.")
- Ich sehe nicht viel fern, aber wenn etwas Gutes kommt, schalte ich doch ein. ("I don't watch much TV, but I do tune in if something good comes on.")
Aber, when not used as a conjunction, is very similar to doch. It conveys a meaning of disagreement to a previously-stated assertion.
- Du sprichst aber schon gut Deutsch! ("But you do already speak good German!")
Sowieso, ohnehin or eh, meaning "anyway(s)", implies an emphasized assertion. Especially in the South, eh is colloquially most common. All these can be enforced by a preceding doch.
- Ich hab ihm eh gesagt, dass er sich wärmer anziehen soll. ("I told him to put on warmer clothes in the first place.")
- Das ist eh nicht wahr. ("That's not true anyway.")
Vielleicht, as a modal particle, is used for emphasis and should not be confused with the adverb vielleicht (meaning "perhaps"):
- Das ist vielleicht ein großer Hund! (with an emphasis on "Das", "That's quite a large dog!")
- Vielleicht ist das ein großer Hund. Es ist schwer zu erkennen. ("Maybe that's a large dog. It's difficult to tell.")
Fei (which is no longer recognised as the adverb fein, finely) is a particle peculiar to Upper German dialects. It denotes that the speaker states something important that might be a surprise for the listener. To give an adequate translation even into Standard German is difficult; probably, the best substitute would be to use understatements with strong affirmative meaning. In English, translations to "I should think" or "just to mention" seem possible, varying from context.
- Des kôsch fei net macha! (Swabian) = Das kannst du (eigentlich wirklich) nicht machen. (You can't do that! / If you do look at it, you really can't do that. / You can't, I should think, do that.)
- I bin fei ned aus Preissen! (Bavarian) = Ich bin, das wollte ich nur einmal anmerken, nicht aus Preußen. (Just to mention, I'm not from Prussia.)
Wohl is often used instead of epistemic adverbs, such as vermutlich or wahrscheinlich. It is also used to emphasize a strong disagreement. Literal translation with "probably" or at least with "seemingly" is possible.
- Es wird wohl Regen geben. ("It looks like rain. / It's probably going to rain.")
- Du bist wohl verrückt!. ("You must be out of your mind.")
*Note on mal: The colloquial shortening of einmal to mal is uncommon in the south and is considered a northern import; it is not considered standard (while modal particles, as such, are).
- Bross, Fabian (2012). "German modal particles and the common ground" (PDF). Helikon. A Multidisciplinary Online Journal: 182–209.
- Durrell, Martin; Arnold, Edward. Hammer's German Grammar and Usage. Hodder and Sloughton. ISBN 0-340-50128-6.
- Collier, Gordon; Shields, Brian. Guided German-English translation: ein Handbuch für Studenten. ISBN 3-494-00896-5.
- Sérvulo Monteiro Resende, Die Wiedergabe der Abtönungspartikeln doch, ja, eben und halt im Englischen auf der Grundlage literarischer Übersetzungen, Dissertation (1995)