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Modal particle

Modal particles (Modalpartikel in German) are always uninflected words similar to grammatical particles in English which are also uninflected. However, English grammatical particles in fact include function words such as sentence connectors, sentence substitutes, conjunctions, interjections and even adverbs, which German particles do not do. They are entities standing out for their simpliciy in German, a language which is so much more inflected than English.

Modal particles are much purer in that their only function is that of reflecting the mood or attitude of the speaker or narrator. They do not refer back to what has been said previously but only what the speaker's attitude is to what has been said earlier. They do not stand in for whole sentences, and they do not exclaim when the speaker is in pain, for example, as interjections in English do.

Modal particles need to be learned in daily usage as there is practically no literal translation for each in itself other than that it helps form the phrase which on the whole conveys the way the speaker intends to sound, either to tone down opinions on the one hand or emphasize something on the other, to be conciliatory here or to give sharpness of expression there.

The way modal particles are used and when they are used, is very complex indeed, and it might be said that they form a kind of criterion of the speaker's grasp of the German colloquial. If he uses the modal particles correctly he may be said to be in command of conversational German.

There are thirty or so modal particles in German, and a list is included of the most commonly-used words in alphabetical order. Each example shows an explanation of the intention behind its use, a short German phrase demonstrating it if possible and the nearest English equivalent - never a precise one as that would be probably impossible. It must also be born in mind that the full citation of each word could not be incorporated in anything less than a full-scale essay, and an encyclopedia entry cannot really do justice to such a task.

etwa - in questions implies that something objectionable is touched on and the answer ought to be "nein" - "don't tell me", "you don't mean to say".
Expressing a possibility - "should it", "if it were to".
Followed by (a) number(s) possibly an estimate - "about", "approximately".

  • freilich - (never "freely") implies a concession, that something might be the case after all - "admittedly", "all the same".
    Affirmative after a question - "of course", "naturally", "certainly".

  • gar - Intensifying, specially with "nichts", "kein/e" - "nothing at all", "anything at all".

  • gleich - in w-type questions tactfully asking for a repeat of the answer - "again".
    Was war (doch) gleich der Name ihrer Geburtsstadt - What was the name again of the place where you were born?

  • halt - used in south German areas similar to north German "eben".

  • immerhin - if something has not quite come up to a standard expected, but may still be acceptable - "at any rate", "anyhow" or "even so".

  • ja - above all it is used as the affirmative particle as the English "yes".
    In another usage, if speakers agree on a point that something goes without saying - often used with the English "do" or "did" word. "We did do, you know". "Of course, we did".
    Something which has just been noticed and is surprising. - "Why","Oh", "Oh, here she is." "Why, she has got her husband with her".
    A command being made to sound more intensive - "Lauf ja nicht über die Straße". - "Don't you dare run across the street".
    Emphasizing a statement and repeating it - "Indeed", "even" - "Es war schön, ja es war großartig" - "It was lovely, indeed, it was splendid".

  • jedenfalls - the reason something should be so or the way it is and not as bad as it might appear - "at any rate" or "at least".
    If something ought to be done or remembered (asking someone to) - "anyhow", "whatever happens" or "why don't you" - "When es morgen schön ist gehn wir an den See. Bring jedenfalls deinen Badeanzug mit". "We'll go to the lake tomorrow if it is nice". Anyhow, bring your swimsuit".

  • lediglich - similar to "nur", slightly more formal.

  • mal - most often used in requests and questions, makes it all sound less blunt and more placatory - best translated with "just" or paraphrased with "why don't you".

  • noch - if something is taking longer than expected - "still" or "as yet".
    Something is/was continuing or taking place when the speaker comes/came across it - "that very (day/evening)", "only (that day)".
    If additional things or items are to follow - "apart from", "else", "(some) more", "another", etc.

  • sowieso - with a meaning that something exists/is happening regardless of other facts - "anyway", "in any case", "that goes without saying"

  • überhaupt - something is expressed in general - "on the whole", "generally", "in any case", "at all",
    in questions involving doubts or assumptions - "on earth".
    Was war gestern überhaupt los? - what on earth happenened yesterday?
    Intensifying in negative sentences - "at all".
    Ich weiß überhaupt nichts davon - I don't know anything about this (at all)

  • übrigens - used casually in a statement - "by the way", "incidentally"

  • vielleicht - normally the adverb "perhaps",
    but also when intensifying a statement or an exclamation - "really", "isn't half/wasn't half", etc.
    Das hat vielleicht geregnet - it didn't half rain.
    In questions when the speaker expects a negative answer - "don't tell me" or "do you mean to tell me?"

  • wohl - apart from the adverb "wohl" - "well",
    in cases where something is very likely or probable - "I suppose/expect", "probably", or with tag-questions at the end of the sentence,
    where "ja wohl" is used - "no doubt", "pretty certainly".
    Er weiß das doch wohl selber - no doubt he knows that himself,
    in a case of confirming something with a certain reservation - "possibly", "that may be so, but",
    plus one or two more usages
  • zwar - making a concessive statement, something said with certain reservations - "it may be but..", "although",
    making more precise, summarizing or counting up items - "namely", "to be precise...".

    External link: Teaching German Modal Particles