Magical words in German

door Regina Coeli

Examples of modal particles in Dutch are ‘toch’, ‘even’, ‘eens’, ‘wel’ and ‘maar’ (in English the rough translations would be: ‘actually/yet’, ‘just’, ‘well/rather’, ‘but’ depending on the context of the sentence). Without these words, our colloquial spoken language would be at best colourless, impersonal and businesslike; at worst, we would come across bluntly and directly or clumsily and hesitantly without meaning to. Reason enough to look at these words more closely and to practise them.

Function of modal particles

Modal particles do not have concrete meanings in the same way as ‘house’, ‘car’ or ‘milk’ have, but they do give extra effect to the message:

  • They make spoken language sound more fluent, eloquent and natural;
  • They reflect the personal attitude of the speaker;
  • They can soften the message or turn it into a forceful statement;
  • They help, almost unnoticed, to express opinion, judgement, estimation or attitude.

Using these little words can have a magical effect on a sentence.

Many variations in meaning by using modal particles in the German language

Take, for example, a simple, straightforward sentence and see how the message changes when you add a modal particle:

Sie können den Vertrag unterschreiben. You can sign the Agreement.

Sie können den Vertrag ja unterschreiben! Surely you can sign the Agreement!
Meaning: I’m warning you to get on with it. It’s not my responsibility. I’m not signing!

Sie können den Vertrag ruhig unterschreiben. It’s alright to sign the Agreement.
Meaning: As your lawyer, I have no hesitation in advising you to do so.

Sie können den Vertrag doch unterschreiben. Just sign the Agreement.
Meaning: I don’t understand what is stopping you. I’m slowly losing my patience.

Michelin star language skills

A dictionary won’t help you to define modal particles. The translations of such magical little words are long, complex and subjective. The context alone determines what they mean. But they are the Michelin stars of language skills! You have to come to grips with them, develop an ear for them, as well as a feeling, use them and slowly incorporate them into your active vocabulary.

Why not go ahead and experiment with aber, ja, auch, eben, eigentlich, doch, bloß, nur, denn, schon, mal, wohl, vielleicht…



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