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Er ist nur fünf Jahre alt geworden.

Can it mean

(a) He only just became five years old.

(b) He lived only to five years old (and died).

or both?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

Definitely (b) and (b) only. To express (a) in German, you'd use something like

Er ist gerade erst fünf geworden. (He only just turned five.)

Er is gerade mal fünf Jahre alt. (He's only five years old).

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Maybe as a little add to the existing answer, it would be helpful to pinpoint where does this confusion arise.

In English you use the adverb only, just, ... (or it's synonims) to narrow a quantity, a situation, etc. When these turn out to be of temporal character, one no longer uses nur but erst, or gerade erst, as in teylyn's answer.

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careful there... "Ich kann morgen nur um 8"... temporal use of "nur". "Ich habe erst 3 Euro." ... non-temporal use of "erst". So the distinction between "nur" and "erst" has nothing to do with time. As a matter of fact "erst" tells us something about the speakers opinion, while "nur" simply measures... I have discussed "erst" in detail on my blig: – Emanuel Sep 16 '13 at 18:05

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