Modalpartikeln – German Filler Words
In class the other day we were working on a few dialogues. Authentic sounding dialogues are important for language learners to do, because they help give the students a feel for the language’s rhythm. Often they need to be done over and over again. Though this may sound tedious and boring it is important. One needs to equate it with singing. Practicing the same song over and over again, until one can sing it without looking at the lyrics. To all you German learners out there, practice your dialogues and to all you language teachers, don’t be afraid to repeat dialogues numerous times.
One of the issues with dialogues is that they are written as the language is generally spoken. Cambridge and Oxford English books now write their dialogues full of abbreviations and “errs” and “ums”. Why? Because this is typically what you hear. The same thing happens in German. German speakers like to use filler words, but the filler words look like words that actually have other meanings, which can be very confusing. What does one do in when one is unsure if the word is a simple filler word or actually has the literal meaning? This is difficult to answer. That is why when reading any dialogue, or text really, it is very important to understand its tone. What is the situation being presented? This will help you to make sense of the words.
In German these filler words are known as “Füllwörter” (das Füllwort) or more precisely “Modalpartikeln” (die Modalpartikel). It must also be said that in comparison to many other languages, German is very rich in these words. They are used to convey the attitude of the speaker and what he or she is saying. When it comes to translation work, these Modalpartikeln can pose a problem, as they usually do not have counterparts in other languages and require thus a completely non-literal translation.
Here are the 7 Rules of Modalpartikeln:
- Modalpartikeln are not declined (no particles are)
- Modalpartikeln do not change the truth value of the sentence. (you could leave them out and the sentence would have the same meaning)
- Modalpartikeln cannot be negated
- Modalpartikeln cannot be taken from a question and used alone as an answer.
- Modalpartikeln cannot start a sentences
- Modalpartikeln have homophones in other word types
- Modalpartikeln cannot be coordinated with conjunctions like “und” or “oder”
Here is a list of the most common Modalpartikeln. What is important to remember here is simply that these words can be used as Modalpartikeln or carry their literal meaning (Rule #6).
aber, auch, bloß, denn, doch, eben, eigentlich, etwa, halt, ja, mal, nur, schon, vielleicht and wohl.
Unlocking the intent of Modalpartikeln:
- Used to add emphasis to a statement. Similar to the English use of “really”. z.B. “Der Film war aber heftig!” (The film was really intense!)
- Used to express an especially deep interest. Often used in questions. z.B. “Was ist das denn?” (What’s this now?)
- Used to suggest that the listener knows more information on the subject being discussed. z.B. “Ich bin doch vorhin schon einmal da gewesen.” (I was just here a short while ago.) Implication is that the listener should remember the speaker.
- Used to soften an imperative. z.B. “Geh doch einmal zurück!” or “Lies doch noch einmal, was ich dir geschrieben habe.” (Read what I wrote you again.)
- Often used when expressing annoying consequences. z.B. “Dann musst du eben morgen wiederkommen.” (Well then you’ll just have to come again tomorrow.)
- Often used to add emphasis in simple statements. z.B. “Das habe ich eben gerade gesagt.” (I just said that.)
- Used to add emphasis to a statement (often negative). z.B. “Er wusste gar nichts davon.” (He didn’t know anything about it.)
- Similar to the first usage of doch. z.B. “Ich bin ja vorhin schon einmal da gewesen.” (I was just here a short while ago.) Implication is that the listener should remember the speaker.
- Adds emphasis to positive as well as negative sentences: z.B. “Das ist ja super!” (That’s great!) “Das ist ja eklig!” (That’s disgusting!)
- This word is often used in place of where people used to say eben. z.B. “Ich bin halt vorhin schon einmal da gewesen.” (I was just here a short while ago.)
- It implies that something was possible earlier. z.B. “Das ist halt der Punkt.” (That’s exactly the point.) Implying: “Which is something I’ve been trying to tell you for a long time now.”
- This is the short form from einmal. It is used when the speaker wants to imply that he or she cannot do something at the moment. z.B. “Kannst du das mal machen?” (Can you do that?) Implying here that the speaker’s hands are full or that the speaker is preoccupied with something.
- Used to imply that the listener has messed something up or not yet done something they should have. z.B. “Machst du das endlich mal?” (Can you finally do that?) Implying: “I’ve been asking you to do it for a long time.”
- Used to lower the importance of something. z.B. “Was kann sie schon?” (What can she do, really?)
- Used like eben and halt. “Ich bin wohl vorhin schon einmal da gewesen.” (I was just here a short while ago.)
As you can see from the above many of the Modalpartikeln can be used in place of each other. That is exactly because they do not have a literal meaning, but rather change the tone of a sentence. The best way to learn how to use these Modalpartikeln is by listening to German on television, radio, and on the streets and of course the more you use it the more of a Sprachgefühl (feeling for the language) you’ll acquire. That’s why we encourage a great deal of speaking in our classes.