1. The WordReference Forums have moved to new forum software. (Details)

What defines a modal particle?

Discussion in 'Deutsch (German)' started by Johnnyjohn, Jan 6, 2014.

  1. Johnnyjohn Junior Member

    I discern between regular adverbs and modal particles, but there is some fuzzy areas for me to figure out.
    I would like a native speaker's feel for it said here.
    My definition is grammaticalization and frequent usage of these words compared to optional usage. English has the variability of using particle like words, but it is limited and not mandatory.

    In English one can say "He has BUT left" ("He has done anything but leave, all those other things, yes, but not that."), you can argue this modifies the meaning of the verb, but that too is fuzzy as adverbs in German are completely uninflected, so is it the transition of a non-adverb word into a different usage and a stronger meaning part of the equation? I see conjunctions and certain prepositions as modal particles, but aren't there words with multiple usages as in English (well as an adjective vs adverb)

    This is from wikipedia for "aber" the rough translation of "but"
    Du sprichst aber schon gut Deutsch! ("On the contrary, you speak very good German!")
    The above is not directly translatable but:
    Ich war schon auf der Party, aber Spaß hatte ich nicht! ("I was indeed at the party, but fun I had not!.")

    This is confusing for me.
  2. estoy_lerniendo Senior Member

    English - U.S. (Midwest)
    Taken from the Wikipedia article about German modal particles:

    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.

    German speakers often use words like "mal," "halt," "doch, "schon," "ja" etc. in ways that make conversation more fluent and add a personal emotion behind the message. They're single words that convey feelings like "what did you expect?", "come on!", "very much so! / indeed!", etc.

    I'm not sure exactly what you're seeking, though. I think, for the most part, one has to develop a Sprachgefühl (feeling for the language) to use these properly in spontaneous language. Hopefully natives can help out more.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2014
  3. estoy_lerniendo Senior Member

    English - U.S. (Midwest)
    It does seem like there are some fuzzy areas. I'd like natives to correct me if they disagree but I think the idea behind distinguishing adverbs from modal particles is:

    Regular adverbs are deemed to explicitly modify the other elements in the sentence (a verb phrase or an adjectival phrase or an adjective in a noun phrase, etc.), whereas modal particles are not deemed to modify any of the syntactic elements in the sentence, but rather they are deemed to, in a sense, point out the feelings of the speaker in a "syntactically independent way" (that is, they are a type of "aside" that shapes the overall meaning of the sentence rather than modifiers of specific, explicit elements within the sentence).
  4. Liam Lew's Senior Member

    I agree with you estoy_lerniendo.

    Johnnyjohn, would you like to specify what bothers you with "Ich war schon auf der Party, aber Spaß hatte ich nicht."
  5. Johnnyjohn Junior Member

    Because the English translation uses an adverb that functions very similarly. There are many translation that would fit perfectly with an adverb right in the same spot and adverbs are particles in German. And I know what purpose the particle serves, but it could be still affecting the verb before it even if it doesn't have the same feeling.
  6. estoy_lerniendo Senior Member

    English - U.S. (Midwest)
    Yeah, I see what you're saying also. Looking at what defines a "grammatical particle," it says that it is a function word that imparts meaning on a phrase but does not have its own lexical definition (at least not its own lexical definition in the area of what it means for one of these idiomatic sentences). This makes me think of an analogy to, say, a language with notable grammatical case usage (let's use German). For example, within some sentence, "dem Mann" might translate to "to the man," but "dem" in and of itself does not lexically contain something like "zu." It's only from the context of the sentence that we find the meaning of "dem Mann" beyond what its lexical components would dictate. Maybe the idea with modal particles is that the word "halt," just to use an example, by itself (as a lexically isolated unit) has nothing to do with the meaning it imparts on a certain sentence in a certain context. Perhaps it is deemed that in English, all or nearly all of these similar words already have essentially the same isolated meaning as what they impart on a given sentence. (Sorry if I'm not helping at all. I'm just giving food for thought. It's a good question you've raised.)
  7. estoy_lerniendo Senior Member

    English - U.S. (Midwest)
    This is on the Wikipedia page for German modal particles:

    Halt, eben, einmal* (in this context, always unshortened) and nun einmal (shortened: 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. In English, they could be rendered to "as a matter of fact" or by a "happen to" construction.
    Gute Kleider sind
    eben teuer. ("Good clothes are expensive, it can't be helped."/"Good clothes happen to be expensive.")

    This sentence, Gute Kleider sind eben teuer, in my opinion, can be translated into English with what would effectively be an English modal particle and carry the same feelings of the speaker as in German.

    Translation: Good clothes are just expensive.

    In this sentence, "just" does not mean "only," "simply," "fair," etc. The word "just" here can show that the speaker is resigned to the fact that good clothes are expensive (that this must be accepted as such). However, this translation was not offered originally and English is, from what I've seen, not considered to have true modal particles. At least in this example, I think that one could argue against that. This goes back to Johnnyjohn's original concern about what a modal particle is exactly (and what it is not).
  8. L'irlandais

    L'irlandais Senior Member

    Dreyeckland/Alsace region
    Ireland: English-speaking ♂
    Perhaps it (your example) is an Americian English usage, for me "He has BUT left" means the same as "He has JUST left." (ie. a moment ago)".
    For which the German adverb Gerade fits :
    Young people in Basel use the word "Quasi" to mean (an ironic) "as if?" Not sure if it fits with your context entirely.
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2014
  9. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Same in German. Schon is a modal particle and it is an adverb at the same time. I still can't see your problem.
  10. Johnnyjohn Junior Member

    I read the rest and understand my confusion. The grammaticalization of them and the usage define them in a way.

    The sentence can be rephrased to be closer.
    "Good clothes just are expensive".
    Adverb placement is key when the adjective is identical in form.
  11. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Can you explain? There is no possible syntactic analysis of the sentence Good clothes are just expensive where just is an adjective.
  12. Johnnyjohn Junior Member

    Forgive me, I may have seen it wrongly. Uninflecting words like I said are hard to classify in a sentence (it's worse in Chinese/Thai where all are uninflecting)

    The word "Just" changes meaning

    Good clothes just are expensive. (That is how they are)
    Good clothes are just expensive. (That is what they only can be)

    I see that the first one modifies the verb plainly while the second complements the adjective, hence the change in meaning.
  13. Dan2

    Dan2 Senior Member

    US English
    I'm opening this thread again because I'm uncomfortable with some of the assertions made here. But not this one:
    I think estoy captures something very important here. I'd suggest only, in order to be more precise, that "the other elements" be replaced with "some specific element". For ex., in "He spoke sadly about his loss", the adverb "sadly" modifies the specific element "spoke".

    I also wanted to point out that there's an implication of the above definition of modal particle that some may not be comfortable with. Compare the use of "sadly" above to its use in,
    Sadly, the party will have to be canceled.
    It seems to me that this "sadly" precisely meets estoy's definition above of "modal particle". (Conservative grammarians have a problem with "hopefully" as a sentence adverb, and so maybe with "sadly", etc. also, but the usage is extremely widespread, as is the corresponding use of "hoffentlich" in German. I see nothing wrong with it.) So are whole-sentence-modifying "sadly", "hopefully", "hoffentlich", etc. modal particles? (If not, are the words simply too long to qualify as "particles"?)

    I'm not familiar with this usage either.

    It is my view that English too has modal particles and I agree with estoy that this is a good example of one.
    I find the sentence better the way estoy worded it, and I agree with Bernd's reaction to the assertion above about adverb placement,
    I don't understand this claim. In, for example, "Every day my old friend John drives to work in a large car with very poor gas mileage", all the words except "drive" are uninflected, yet the words are trivially easy to classify. Perhaps I am missing the point.
    I don't agree with the claim or the definitions in parentheses. Both sentences can express estoy's "resigned", "that just the way it is", sense, but the second sounds somewhat more natural to me.
  14. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    I think I understand him now. It is the same thing as here:
    In the sentence He spoke sadly about his loss the adverb sadly attributes the verb while In the sentence Sadly, he spoke about his loss the adverb pertains to the whole sentence and in the sentence He sadly spoke about his loss both interpretations are theoretically possible but the latter is probably the more natural interpretation. I think this is the difference he was trying to capture.
  15. Dan2

    Dan2 Senior Member

    US English
    The claim that I said I didn't understand was that "uninflecting words are hard to classify". I don't understand this claim because...
    a) Uninflecting words are NOT in general hard to classify (see my example), and
    b) Yes, there can be ambiguities involving a word like "sadly", but "sadly" is inflected (as the adverbial form of "sad") and it can STILL be ambiguous as to what it modifies.

    As for the "sadly" sentences, my judgments are a little different from yours:
    Sadly he spoke about his loss
    has two very natural readings,
    a) "sadly" as sentence adverb ("It's sad (unfortunate) that he chose to speak about his loss"), and
    b) "sadly" as ordinary verb-modifying adverb ("He spoke in a sad manner about his loss").
    (This is not an unusual placement for a verb-modifying adverb; compare "Enthusiastically he told the story of his victory", where the adverb cannot be sentential.)

    I agree that "both interpretations are theoretically possible" in your
    He sadly spoke about his loss
    But I actually find the spoke-sadly interpretation the more prominent.
    Look, if the claim is that word placement can affect meaning in English, that's perfectly obvious: "My old friend has a car" is not the same as "My friend has an old car". It's the claims about the specific meanings of specific sentences that I'm disagreeing with.
  16. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    No, that's not what you said, or at least not what you respomded to. The discussion at this point was about grammatical classification of just in the sentences Good clothes just are expensive and Good clothes are just expensive. It is about different syntactic uses of adverbs: Adverbs can
    1. attribute adjectives (We had a surprisingly long meeting),
    2. attribute a verb (He spoke sadly about his loss),
    3. qualify and entire sentence (Yesterday, I went to the zoo).
    He seems to feel the need to terminologically distinguish between these usage types (similar to the conceptual distinction between attributive adjectives and predicative adjectives).
  17. Dan2

    Dan2 Senior Member

    US English
    I'm not sure what to say without becoming repetitive. You quoted my "I don't understand this claim", which clearly was a response to the claim regarding "uninflecting words".

    But I also disagreed with Johnnyjohn's charcaterization of the "clothes are expensive" sentences, in particular his "I see that the first one modifies the verb plainly while the second complements the adjective" and his parenthesized rewordings. estoy_lerniendo suggested "Clothes are just expensive" as an example of "modal particle" use in English. The most natural interpretation is, "Like it or not, there's nothing you can do about X, where X is the proposition "Clothes are expensive"" and, conversely, the most natural way of saying this is as estoy did. However, in the absence of further context, "Clothes just are expensive" has the same logical interpretation; it just sounds a little less natural.

    Yes, adverbs have the three uses you mention. That is nothing new; every American schoolchild is taught about these different uses of adverbs. But if you understand estoy's use of "just" in the "clothes are expensive" sentence, moving "just" around in the sentence is the last way you'd choose to illustrate these three uses.

    My main motivation for my original post in this thread was wanting to correct what I saw, and see, as several misstatements about the interpretation of English sentences; I don't like to see such misstatements get archived, even in the German forum. My post was long because I was careful to quote the statements I was responding to. I stand by what I wrote.
  18. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Ok, that obviously wasn't my intention. Mine was: "Never mind the example, what structure is he after?"

    I don't want to sound like a cultural pessimist, but I am absolutely convinced that this exceeds the grammar knowledge of the vast majority of people by far; on both sides of the pond.
  19. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Sometimes even even the same word as in German in the same modal meaning:
    I would argue, though, that...
    Ich würde doch behaupten, dass...
  20. L'irlandais

    L'irlandais Senior Member

    Dreyeckland/Alsace region
    Ireland: English-speaking ♂
    Hear, hear!

    Though my use of French is far better than my German, neither is anywhere near my native use of English. Yet, unfortunately, both my French and German are far better than many so called "native" speakers around these parts. :( Indeed, most of those present (week in, week out) on football terraces in the UK, would probaly fail O-Level exams in their homeland. Doubely sad, given how Nationalistic most of them appear to be. Most immigrants have more than 3000 words of English, not all that convinced that your average football hooligan has the capacity for that many words, not all at one time anyway.
    Last edited: Jan 15, 2014

Share This Page