Aber doch! Some confusing German words

August 7, 2013 at 9:08 am


When you are learning a language, some words translate neatly back into your first language and others do not. If you are an English speaker learning German, the particles may prove particularly challenging. But your perseverance will pay off: understanding and using them will greatly improve your fluency. Not only will you better understand the subtleties of what people are trying to tell you but you will sound much less “foreign” when speaking.

For example, aber is one of the earlier words you learn in German. Your teacher will most likely have told you it translates as but. And that is correct. But if you listen to a normal conversation between two German speakers, you will find it littered with aber, used to mean other things. For example:

“Hannes, das war aber sehr nett von dir”

The literal translation would be “Hannes, that was but very nice of you“. A more accurate translation would be “Hannes, that was really very nice of you”. This is a very common use and will help your sentences to flow. Meanwhile, aber is also used as an intensifier. You will sometimes hear “Aber ja!” meaning “but of course!”

Mal sehen

Another word that doesn’t translate well into English is mal. As a noun, you will probably correlate it with the English word time (as in “one time at band camp” as opposed to “time waits for no man”). This is a contraction of Einmal.

Like aber, you will hear mal regularly in German conversations. Often, it actually carries very little meaning at all and is just used to make a sentence flow. For example, “Sag mal, was magst du?” means roughly “Tell me, what do you like?” Or “Kommt mal her!” meaning “come over here!”

Another very common use is “Mal sehen” which means “We’ll see”. In Austria, you might hear an alternative that sounds like “schaumamal” – this is a contraction of “schauen mir (wir) mal” (in Austrian dialects, wir is often replaced by mir).

But probably the most difficult word for English speakers to get their heads around in German is doch. When you first hear a German conversation, you might be baffled by the different meanings of doch. Sometimes it seems to intensify, sometimes to contradict, sometimes to show doubt. Mastering the uses of doch will make a big difference to your level of German and how your speaking partners perceive you.

In English, many questions give you a choice of two answers: yes and no. In German, the third alternative is doch, meaning on the contrary. But don’t worry, you won’t sound like a character from an 18th century novel if you use doch. It’s important to understand this use of doch because of the way questions are phrased in German. For example “Hast du heute keine Zeit?” (“Do you have no time today?”) cannot be accurately answered with yes or no. Would yes mean “yes I have no time” or “yes I have time”?

So, in German, if you had time, your answer would be doch. Simple! This use of doch extends to statements that you wish to contradict.

There are many others meanings of doch. If you are giving a command, for example, you can add a doch to soften it, for example “kommt doch her”, meaning “Why don’t you come over here?” You can use it to intensify or express surprise, for example “Ich konnte mich an das Wort doch erinnern” (“I could actually remember the word!”) or “Er ist doch gekommen” (“He did come after all”).

You can also use doch to express uncertainty or doubt, for example “Du hast doch den Artikel gelesen?” “You did read the article, didn’t you?”

Mastering words like aber, mal and doch will really help you to understand what people are saying to you. In turn, you will be able to express yourself much more accurately and sound less foreign. It is a step away from translating word for word and a step towards thinking in German.

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