"Modalpartikeln", or “modal particles” are filler words that add a nuance, or “color” to a German sentence. By using a modal particle, the speaker can convey his or her attitude, a feeling, or a certain assumption about a specific topic to what is being said. They are typically used within an informal context, and would not be found in official letters or documents, newspaper articles or a scientific article or book. Because they only add a nuance to a sentence, and do not change the meaning or the context, they can always be omitted, especially when one is still not quite sure how to use them.
A confusing aspect of German modal particles is that many of them can be used as adverbs or other words, depending on context. They have a literal/direct translation, but this translation can no longer be used, when using the word as a modal particle. The word “ja” for example, can be used as a modal particle, but it cannot be translated with “yes” when used as one. It is often said that there are no modal particles in the English language, and while there may be words that serve a similar purpose, it is best to try not to translate them, but instead, try to understand the mood or quality they each convey. Below is a list of some of the most common modal particles. Compare the translation of the sentence without the modal particle, and the sentence with, and observe how they are different.
When trying to insert the literal translation of each word into the translated sentence, it becomes clear that it cannot be used when using the it as a modal particle. We cannot say “Today is yes Tuesday!”, or “Get times up!”.
Here are examples of the same words used in sentences that do not use them as a modal particle. The words here are not used to convey a certain feeling or attitude. Hence, the direct translations can be used:
- Sie kommt heute nicht mit, denn sie hat kein Geld.
She will not come along today, because she has no money.
- Ich habe den Arzt drei mal angerufen.
I called the doctor three times.
- Das letzte Spiel haben sie verloren, doch Meister wurden sie trotzdem.
They lost the last game, but they won the Championship anyway.
- Ja, ich habe Geld, aber Zeit habe ich nicht.
Yes, I have money, but time I do not have.
- Halt! Bleiben Sie stehen!
Stop! Don’t move!
- Der Fussboden ist eben.
The floor is even.
- Wir haben eigentlich drei Abteilungen!
We actually have three departments!