German and Japanese are more similar than you thought (modal particles) The german "correspondents" of ちょっと、の、だろう、のだ and more

This post is about modal particles in German and Japanese. Modal particles are used to indicate how the speaker thinks that the content of the sentence relates to the participants’ common knowledge or add mood to the meaning of the sentence.
For example: „ja" is used to indicate that a sentence contains information that is obvious or already known to both the speaker and the hearer.
Like in „Der Hund ist klein“ (the dog is small) „Der Hund ist ja klein“ (as we are both aware the dog is small). Unless we see the dog for the first time in this case „ja“ would indicate a surprise about that.

Both Japanese and German are modal particle heavy languages. Unlike for example English that rarely uses them.

I’ve found out that people tried to match German and Japanese modal particles. Of course a 100% match doesn’t exist and there are always exceptions but I thought the idea that there are similar particles interesting. Most Japanese language resource I use are in English and they can’t transfer that sort of understanding. As a German speaker I found that reading these examples helped me to understand these modal particles on a more instinctively level from a german perspective.

mal and ちょっと can correspond
Both mal, chotto can either be an adverb meaning “to a small/low degree” an both can be used as a modal particle to weaken the strength of a request.

Mach mal das Fenster auf
≈ Open the window

の and denn can be similar
Saying a question with denn or with corresponding no, the speaker asks whether the assumed or presupposed proposition is true or not. That is, denn- and no-questions indicate that the speaker assumes that the positive question alternative holds, and utters the question to confirm this with the addressee.

A: I’m going to buy a car!
B: 金はあるのか
B: Hast du denn Geld dazu?
≈Do you have money [for that]?

Another property shared by の and denn is that they disambiguate negative polar questions:
Gehst du denn nicht ins Kino?
≈“Are you not going to the movies?”

etwa (also occurring in questions) include both の and some additional element でも. の marks a presupposed fact in the denn-corresponding case, but an assumption in the etwa-corresponding case.

A: I’m going to buy a car!
B: 金はあるのか
B: Hast du denn Geld dazu?
≈“Do you have money [for that]?”
A: Yes!
B: 宝くじでも当たったのか
B: Hast du etwa im Lotto gewonnen?
≈“Is it that you perhaps won the lottery?”

の and denn indicate that the sepaker has evidence (namely the preceding utterance) that something is true, and wants to confirm this with the addressee. On the other hand, etwa indicates that while the speaker again has evidence for something, it presupposes “one of several propositions which seem unlikely”, and the relative unlikeliness of something has to be expressed overtly with でも.

Wohl and だろう can be similar
Intuitively, wohl in assertions indicates that the speaker is not entirely sure whether its proposition holds or not.
Was ist wohl die Wurzel aus 9?
≈“What is the square root of 9?”
In this case the teacher who needs to be considered an expert wants to indicate that the student might not know the answer, thus uncertainty on their part must be assumed.

wohl is compatible with だろう in that both express a certain degree of uncertainty:
Da es wohl regnet, nimmt John einen Regenschirm mit.
≈ Because he thinks it will/might rain, John took an umbrella.

You can also use (Wohl+)werden to correspond だろう
Mary wird gestern (wohl) viel Wein getrunken haben.
≈ Mary will (probably) have drunk a lot of wine yesterday.

Morgen wird es wohl regnen.
≈“It will (presumably) rain tomorrow.”

だろう-interrogatives correspond to wohl-interrogatives with fronted ob, which are also expressions of doubt.

Ob mich dieser Inspektor nicht wohl verdächtigt.
≈“Is this detective perhaps suspecting me”
There is probably still a small difference in this example but I think it is close enough.

A fundamental difference between wohl and だろう lies in the evidential meaning component of だろう, indicating that the speaker has no direct evidence for the truth of the proposition of the respective clause.

だろう and doch
the reminding use of だろう and doch can both be used to remind the addressee of a state of affairs, as it is usually followed by an utterance the comprehension of which depends on this state of affairs

Du hast doch mit diesem Mädchen getanzt. Das war Mary.
≈ “You have danced with that girl. That was Mary.”

Du hast doch die Hausaufgaben gemacht, ne?
≈“You have done your homework, haven’t you?

The hybrid status of だろう in that it can correspond to both wohl- and doch-utterances
can thus explained by differences in usage conventions. Reminding だろう is a conventionalized use. Such a use has not developed for wohl. Probably because the speech-act level contrast encoded in doch makes it an obvious candidate for reminding uses

のだ can occur in correspondents for doch, and ja
In a fight:
Aber es ist doch wirklich so!
≈ But it’s the truth, you know!

Du bist doch kein Kind, also mach noch etwas ernsthaft weiter.
≈ You are not a child, so keep trying some more.

Both surprise-ja and its Japanese correspondent ‘surprise-のだ ’ establish, rather than reconfirm, a proposition

(Stepping outside)
あっ! あめがふっているんだ
Oh! Es regnet es ja!
≈“Oh! It’s raining!”

ね and ne also have a similar usage in many cases (nicht would be the more polite form of ne; the Bavarian gell can also be used @JuiceS)
Both can be used to seek agreement or confirmation.

Es ist kalt, ne?
≈ it’s cold, right?

@MerryChippus fei ( erzgebirgisch, fränkisch, süddeutsch, oberdeutsch, umgangssprachlich) and よ
Both fei and よ can be used to implie to the listener that what you’re saying is new information or a fresh perspective

The examples are from:
„Function and Meaning of German Modal Particles by their Japanese Correspondents“ by Lukas Rieser


This is eye-opening, thank you. Especially the denn for explanatory の makes so much sense. I always wondered whether learning Japanese through English might be restricting in some ways. Certain languages have similar ways of expressing things, while with others, you need to explain certain concepts in a very roundabout way that doesn’t really aid instinctive understanding. I don’t generally think that German and Japanese are alike, but it’s nice to find specific similarities, especially for harder-to-explain constructs.

Doesn’t the English then sometimes work a little like the German denn, by the way? In your first example, for instance,

couldn’t we translate it as “Do you have (the) money then?”


Never thought about the things mentioned in the opening post, but I’d like to add, that the sentence ender “ne” can be used basically 1:1 in German. Ziemlich cool, ne.



Oh and other one, it comes up in your examples:

そうです, “so ist es”. :slight_smile:

If you want to stretch it you might say that the sentence ending よ can be understood easily as well :smiley:


Woooah, this is super interesting! Cuz of learning Japanese from english, I’d never thought about this before.
Definitely going to make my spoken Japanese more natural, thank you!!

Also, did the sentence here get cut off?

I’m glad I’m not the only one that was fascinated by that.

Whoops yes that is definitely cut off. I wanted to write too much too fast :sweat_smile:
I’ll edit that. Thanks for saying that.

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Hmmmmm, I feel like this is a bit unnatural in English. Rather, I think this is probably commonly said by Germans speaking English, but less common for a native English speaker. Maybe I’m mistaken though :man_shrugging:

I’m glad this could help someone else.

I’m not a linguist or anything. I’ve just wondered about that for a while and tried to look up sources that could help me understand this topic better. My comment doesn’t really have input that I didn’t copy from somewhere so I can only answer that based on my feelings :sweat_smile: Sorry about that.

I feel that “then” in that sentence would indicate that the speaker assumes that what A said is not true. B assumes that A doesn’t have the money and therefore is a bit surprised that A has the money. So I guess for me it feels more similar to “etwa” in that case. :thinking: It doesn’t feel as polite and natural to use “then” in that context .
But that is just a personal feeling :sweat_smile: . I don’t know how an English speaking native would see that.

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Hmm, that’s a good point. They’re not the same thing by any means, I was just looking for parallels. Still, in my mind it will work as a good enough shortcut. Then seems like it’s looking for an explanation for how come you can buy a car, and の also seeks or gives explanation.

I want to add to this because I’ve come across this while talking about “よ”.
It’s not common in all parts of Germany but I am a heavy user of “fei” and even though it’s not a 1 to 1 match, I feel like it gets close to it more often than one might think.
“Fei” feels so often like “this is (new) information that you should really consider now” like “Ich gehe jetzt fei Heim” or “Das hat er fei nicht so gesagt”.

I don’t know, what do you guys think?


I’m from northern Germany so I haven’t heard that one before but at least according to the wiktionary page it seems like there is an overlap. I think I’ll add that. Thank you :slight_smile:


You are right! I never thought about that. Das ist ja voll krass.

Thanks, @Ducklingscap, I never thought about many of the things you highlighted in your post. That might explain why I always felt their use in Japanese felt so natural to me.

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I think you’re from Bavaria and have no idea what this is supposed to mean. Japanese is easier :grin:

I found this discussion in Leo, talking about the word “fei”.

I still don’t really understand the word ^^>

Oh, thank you so much for this. There are a ton of constructs I use every day but I couldn’t express during my japanese lessons!

The only thing I found out on my own from your list is " ね" and “ne?” and when I did I had to laugh so hard. When I was a young teenager, it was so… trendy to end basically every sentence in “ne?” where I live. It drove my parents (one of whom is a German Teacher) absolutely nuts. It took quite a lot of concious effort to stop using it back then - and now, it all comes back in Japanese :smiley:

I’m from norther Germany, too, so “fei” is foreign to me - but at the school I’m currently attending as a teacher-to-be, so many students end or start their sentences with “yo”: “Ey, yo, hast du schon gehört?” “Boah, voll krass, yo!”.


Thank you so much for this post! I’ve been quite confused by these interjections for some while now and mostly assumed it was grammar I hadn’t learned yet. When translating to english in our bookclub I often just ignored them. :sweat_smile: But this is such a helpful insight.

Another one I know from my relatives in Bavaria: “gell?”. I think it got the same meaning as “ne?” or ね at the end of a sentence, though I’m from mid-west GE so I’m not so sure.

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Yeah, it’s basically the equivalent of “Right?”, or as you said “ね” in japanese.

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It’s unfortunate, really, that there aren’t any good resources for learning Japanese directly, without the detour over English.
German and Japanese are both very expressive languages and English not at all, so you have to puzzle together things like this afterwards that are obvious in direct comparison.

German and Japanese are both very expressive languages and English not at all

How so? I feel like anything I could express in german, I could also express in english.

OP’s post shows it quite well - English learning resources have to awkwardly describe in long articles what nuances these particles add to sentences, while in German you have equivalents.

The “not at all” was a total exaggeration. It’s just less.

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