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LEARNING GERMAN

Das ist ja mal wichtig: The complete guide to German particles

German modal particles are one of the trickiest linguistic components for learners of the language to master. Learn the German of everyday speech, which most classes don't teach.

Das ist ja mal wichtig: The complete guide to German particles
Photo: depositphotos/Siphotography

What makes them problematic is that there is not normally a direct translation for a specific particle, so they can be conceptually difficult to grasp.

Modal particles are words which convey the attitudes and opinions of the speaker. Although they do not change the essential meaning of the sentence, they strengthen the speaker’s message; modal particles are dispensable and serve to contextualize a statement. They are largely used in colloquial spoken language, so you’re unlikely to come across them in formal, written texts.

Doch

Doch is often used to intensify statements, both affirmatively and negatively. It roughly translates as ‘but’ or ‘after all’, as it conveys the notion of opposition, contradiction, surprise, and emphasis.

One of the ways in which it is most frequently used is to counter a negative statement, although the negative statement does not necessarily need to be expressed.

  • Ich habe doch morgen Zeit.

I have time tomorrow (although I initially thought that I wouldn’t).

  • Hast du den Kuchen nicht mitgebracht? Er ist doch in meinem Rucksack.

Did you not bring the treasure? Yes, I did, it’s in my rucksack (although you thought I didn’t).

  • Sie kommt doch nicht zur Party.

She’s not coming to the party after all (although I thought she would).

Doch can also be used as a means of seeking affirmation, as if you’re waiting for a positive response, or want the other person to share your view.

  • Wir können doch Mittwoch ins Kino gehen.

We can go to the cinema on Wednesday (we can do that, can’t we?).

  • Fuβball ist doch so langweilig.

Football is so boring (isn’t it?)

  • Es wäre doch schade, wenn kein Platz mehr wäre.

It really would be a shame if there was no more space (wouldn’t it?).

Halt

When employed as a modal particle, halt implies a sense of resignation or indifference, often to something which is generally known or accepted. It is often used to indicate that something is the way it is, and not a lot can be done about it.

  • Warum hast du denn meine Flasche Wasser getrunken? Ich hatte halt Durst.

Why did you drink my bottle of water? I was thirsty (what can I say?).

  • Es gibt halt so viele Menschen, die ohne Liebe leben.

There are just so many people who live without love (but what can be done?).

A video from the YouTube Channel ‘Easy German’ breaks down a few favourite German particles.

Ja

Ja also serves to emphasize a statement and seeks to elicit agreement. In contrast to doch, in which the speaker tries to convince the listener of their point of view, ja implies that the speaker and listener share an opinion.

In some cases, it emphasizes an idea which is very clear to the speaker, and which the speaker thinks should be obvious to the other person. In this instance, it can be translated similarly to ‘obviously’ or ‘as you know’.

  • Ich habe ja morgen Zeit.

Of course, I have time tomorrow.

  • Heute bleiben wir ja zu Hause.

Today we are staying at home (it’s raining outside, you’ve broken your leg, your partner is ill, and there is no reason to leave the house).

  • Es gibt ja viele Einwanderer in Deutschland.

There are lots of immigrants in Germany (as you know).

But ja can also be used to express surprise or amazement.

  • Sie sind ja begabte Tennisspieler!

They’re talented tennis players (I didn’t know that).

  • Dein Sohn ist ja so groβ geworden!

Your son has grown so big! (I haven’t seen him in ages and didn’t realize how much he’d grown up).

Mal

Mal serves to soften statements by making the speaker seem friendlier and more interested. It can make commands and requests sound more casual and politer, a little like English words such as ‘quickly’ or ‘just’.

  • Kannst du mir mal das Buch geben.

Can you pass me the book (just real quick)?

  • Probiere mal das Essen von deinem Vater. Daran wirst du nicht sterben.

Just try your dad’s cooking, it won’t kill you.

  • Lesen wir mal den faszinierenden Artikel über Modalpartikel!

Let’s read the fascinating article about modal particles!

Wohl

Wohl can be roughly translated as ‘probably’ or ‘possibly’ and suggests probability or certainty from the speaker’s perspective.

  • Der Vater ist wohl abwesend, weil ich ihn nie gesehen habe.

The father is probably absent because I’ve never seen him.

  • Der Moment der Wahrheit wird wohl eher in der zweiten Hälfte der Geschichte kommen.

The moment of truth will probably come in the second half of the story.

Wohl can be used in a similar way to the English construction ‘must + infinitive), which helps to convey a sense of assumption or certainty on behalf of the speaker.

  • Sie sind wohl schon Apotheker geworden.

They must have already become pharmacists.

  • Der Hund hat wohl keinen Besitzer.

The dog must not have an owner.

A dog and its owner in Lower Saxony in September. Photo: DPA

Wohl can help to contradict a previous point, similar to doch. In this instance, it can be translated as ‘of course’, or a stressed ‘do’.

  • Ich kenne wohl den Mann, mit dem du sprichst.

I do know the man you are speaking to.

  • Hattet ihr die Sicherheitsmaβnahmen überprüft? Wir haben vier Dokumente verloren.

  • Ja, wir hatten sie wohl durchaus überprüft. Sie wurden wohl gestohlen.

Did you check the security measures? We lost four documents.

Yes, we did check them thoroughly. They must have been stolen.

Denn

Denn is employed in questions to make them appear more casual or convey subtle interest, surprise or reservation.

  • Isst du denn gerne italienisches Essen?

Do you like Italian food? (I’d love to take you out somewhere and I’m thinking about where to take you).

  • Was ist denn das Problem?

What’s the problem then?

  • Wie groβ ist sie denn?

So how big is she?

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LEARNING GERMAN

Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

The German word 'Wanderlust' means "the desire to travel" and is used even in other languages. Here are some of the other words commonly used in Germany to describe the nation's love affair with travelling.

Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

Germans are very connected to nature and a lot of the activities they routinely do, even in winter, involve staying outdoors. So it’s no wonder the language also reflects that passion for walking, travelling, and spending time in nature.

Some of the German words that are most famous to speakers of other languages reference this passion. Perhaps most notably, the term “Wanderlust” which has made its way to other dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster, with the definition “a strong longing for or impulse toward wandering”.

The word is composed of “wandern“, which means to hike or roam about and “lust“, meaning “pleasure or delight”.

READ ALSO: Holiday like a local: Five of the best camping regions in Germany

This is not the only unique expression the German language has related to travelling. Another of the hard to translate ones is “Fernweh“. It comes from “fern“, meaning “far”, and “Weh“, meaning “pain”. It is used to describe the longing for far-off places – in contrast to “Heimweh”, a feeling many immigrants might be very attuned to and could be translated to homesickness.

The German language also has several interesting and even funny expressions for walkers and travellers alike. The Local talked with German teacher and travel enthusiast Lutz Michaelis to collect a few of the best expressions.

“So weit dich deine/mich meine Füße tragen”

It literally means “as far as my feet will take me” (or alternatively, “as far as your feet will take you”). It is often said as an answer to the question, “where are you going?”.

READ ALSO: Waldeinsamkeit: Five of the best forest walks around Berlin

“Die Sieben-Meilen-Stiefel anhaben”

“To wear the seven-league boots”. This means being able to walk long distances fast. Lutz explains that it was actually based on a trope in French mythology, in which magical boots could help the wearer cover long distances in a short amount of time. Having been used in The Little Thumb by Charles Perrault, the term was brought into the German language by writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“Wer rastet, der rostet”

The translation would be “he who rests, rusts”. It is used in the German language to say that being in motion is a good thing, not only with travelling but also to incentivise people to keep learning new things.

“Das Reisen kost’t Geld, Doch sieht man die Welt.”

It’s a very common rhyme used to show the downsides and benefits of travelling: “travelling costs money, but one sees the world”.

“Reisende soll man nicht aufhalten.”

It literally means that “travellers shouldn’t be stopped”. However, Lutz explains that the expression is not only used to refer to travellers but also to anyone that might be going through a transitional situation – such as someone wanting to change their jobs, for example.

Rhododendren park Bremen

Rhododendrons bloom in the Rhododendron Park in Bremen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

“der Weg ist das Ziel.”

One of the most beautiful ones, and many languages have their own version of it. It translates to “the road is the destination”.

Of course, coming back home, especially for those suffering from Heimweh, can also be something beautiful. One common saying is “Wiedersehen macht Freude“, which means that to meet again brings happiness, used among those looking forward to seeing someone again after a long trip.

READ ALSO: How to explore Germany by train with the €9 ticket

And one more…

In Germany, there is a common joke about finding German people abroad. The rhyme goes “Hüte dich vor Sturm und Wind, und Deutschen, die im Ausland sind“, which could be translated as “Be on your guard for storm and wind, and Germans in a foreign land”.

“It refers both to the bad behaviour of Germans on holidays or travels and a dark joke and a funny nod to the fact that German troops have invaded other countries”, Lutz, who is a German himself, explains.

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