German modal particle

In the German language, a modal particle (German: Modalpartikel or Abtönungspartikel) is an uninflected word used mainly in spontaneous spoken language in colloquial registers. These words have a dual function: reflecting the mood or attitude of the speaker or narrator, and highlighting the sentence focus.

The effect that a flavoring particle has 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 even ja doch nun mal. They are a feature typical of the spoken language.

List of modal particles

Halt, eben and 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.

Gute Kleider sind eben teuer. ("Good clothes are expensive, it can't be helped.")
Er hat mich provoziert, da habe ich ihn halt geschlagen. ("He provoked me, so I hit him – what do you expect?")
Es ist nun mal so. ("That's just how it is.")

Ja 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.")

Mal, a contraction of "einmal", 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?")
Warst du schon mal in Österreich? ("Have you ever been to Austria?")

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".) (Affirmatively)
Komm doch her! ("Oh, 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 schon dort. ("I know my way around Berlin. Did you forget, I was here last year?")

In this way, doch can be similar to schon, but schon implies an actual qualification of the statement, often made explicit in a phrase withaber ("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 literal meaning of schon (already), indicated by the unstressed schon:

Ich war schon auf der Party, aber Spaß hatte ich nicht. ("I was already at the party, but I did not enjoy 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! ("On the contrary, you speak very good German!")

Eh, meaning "in any case", which tends to replace standard German sowieso, implies an emphasized assertion in colloquial German, especially in the south:

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! ("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 is a particle peculiar to Upper German dialects. It denotes that the speaker states something important that might be a surprise for the listener. Although it is very common in Southern Germany, it has disappeared from standard German and cannot be translated:

Des kôsch fei net macha! (Swabian) = Das kannst Du nicht machen! ([Watch out!] You can't do that!)

Wohl is often used instead of epistemic adverbs, such as vermutlich or wahrscheinlich. It also used to emphasize a strong disagreement.

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.")


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