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The context is from the Christmas carol, "O Tannenbaum."

Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit, Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.

This translates into something like:

You are green Not only in summertime, But also in winter, When it snows.

"Nein" is usually a negation. Here, however, a more appropriate translation could be "but." Is that in fact the case? And per a comment below, "nein" is apparently closer to "sondern" than to "aber," even though they both mean "but." Why is that, or put another way, what is the (fine) difference in meaning between the two?

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I never understood this "nein" as "but". I rather interpret it as "You do not only turn green in summertime, no, not at all, also in winter, when it snows" – Em1 Apr 17 '14 at 15:07
Upon further reflection... When reading "but" I was thinking of "aber". Another valid translation for "but", however, is "sondern", and that word is indeed a good match here. – Em1 Apr 17 '14 at 15:17
The example sentence could be expanded into: "Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit." - "Wirklich nicht?" - "Nein, auch im Winter, wenn es schneit." The "Nein" would dodge any thought against the statement in the first sequence (as full statement in my extended version), that could appear in the mind of someone listening to or reading that dialog. So the "Nein" further strengthens the trueness of the statement's content or the opinion of the speaker about it. – Sam Apr 20 '14 at 13:33
As a side note: you would be amazed how many sentences are stated with "nein" (or "nee") in colloquial conversation. This is like saying "yes, but". – Martin Drautzburg May 15 '14 at 20:24
up vote 3 down vote accepted

This "nein" is elliptical for: No, sommer alone is not true, sommer and winter is true. But , of course, you are right , the whole "nicht nur ... Nein! Auch..." has the sense of "not only... but also".

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maybe you could mention, that there is simply a comma (or exclamation mark) missing after "nein" – Emanuel Apr 18 '14 at 8:48
Such old poems are printed with various punctuation. But you are right, one could make a comma. On the other hand, when speaking that line "nein" and "auch " are spoken almost together rapidly. – rogermue Apr 18 '14 at 10:02
Es ist nicht einfach das fehlende Komma. Eigentlich müsste dort "sondern " stehen. Aber das Versmaß lässt das nicht zu. Das "nein" füllt den Vers ähnlich wie das "eija", wss auch nur ein Füller ist. – harper Apr 30 '14 at 17:10

First part

I don't see that nein there could be really substantial. As for me, it just reinforces the negation begun by nicht nur before the comma:

Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,
Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.

I'd say the nein is there in order to keep both lines eight-syllabic. If you put sondern there, instead of nein, you get a syllable too much. And since in poetry you have lot of freedom, you can join both lines with an interjection-like nein. I cannot find more instances where nein could be relpaced by sondern.

Second part

The translation of aber coincides in some languages with the translation of sondern. But they're different words, even in those languages.

Examples. French mais is both sondern and aber. The same happens with the Russian words но and a; both are sometimes aber, sometimes sondern. So is but, in English. On the other hand Spanish has different words for that: aber is pero and sondern is sino. (And if you mix them, as many Spanish learners do, natives of languages where aber and sondern are translated to the same word, you'd be wrong.)

But in German it would sound strange to say (at least, outside poetry)

nicht nur zur Sommerzeit, aber auch im Winter [...]

After a nicht nur one expects sonder auch.

The rest of the answer is about English, actually, because one cannot explain here that but is not a word in English, but lots of words. Depending of it's role, you get a translation in German. But the key is that but in the meaning of although is aber; on the other hand, but, meaning rather, is sondern. A detailed answer would require rather expertise in English (not my case), not in German.

But the next examples should clarify.

Wrong use of aber instead of sondern:

  • Nicht meine Mutter, aber mein Vater braucht hilfe. (incorrect)
  • Nicht meine Mutter, sonder mein Vater braucht hilfe. (correct)

Wrong use of sondern instead of aber:

  • Ok, wir fahren dahin mit dem Wagen. Sondern du musst fahren. (incorrect)
  • Ok, wir fahren dahin mit dem Wagen. Aber du musst fahren. (correct)
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Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit, Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.

You are not greening in the summer time only, no (you are) also (greening) in winter, when it's snowing.(you do green).

  1. Tree, you are not just green in summer, no, you have the audacity to also be green in winter. (when it snows)

  2. You are not just useless, you are very useless.

  3. You are not just useless in summer, you are even more useless in winter.

  4. You are not just at your most green in summer, no you are not, you even are more greenerish in winter.

  5. You are not just greening in during summer time, no to top it of you are also greening in winter, when it snows.

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