In the following sentence:
Na gut, dann kann ich ja ab sofort auf Deutsch schreiben.
Why is ja used? What's its function?
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Unlike "normal" adverbs (
gut können), modal particles don't directly describe the verb (
ja können?), but the speaker's relation to the action. Among other things, they can describe expectations/assumptions, as
ja does here.
In this context, it modifies the verb können somewhat like this:
Alright, then it is possible for me to write in German from now on.
Alright, then it's ok for me to write in German from now on.
Edit: Although können is obviously not used in the sense of "being able to" here, there are contexts where it's not as unambiguous. So here's another comparison:
...aber du musst jetzt gehen. ...but you have to go now. (really)
...aber du musst ja jetzt gehen. ...but you can't stay any longer. / ...but have to go now, don't you?
(not because of the situation "here", but because of some reason inherent to you)
Das ist schlecht. That is bad. (factually)
Das ist ja schlecht. Well, that's bad. / That's bad, isn't it? / That's just bad.
I often use the modal 'ja' as a way to suggest to the other that there is an agreement between us on the topic I'm talking about, or on a premise to a conclusion I'm drawing. The emotional quality of the 'ja' is defined by exactly what that topic/conclusion is. It always introduces a degree of emotion or at least subjectivity into a sentence otherwise formulating a neutral statement. It is therefore often used to suggest to the other that this subjective perspective is a common one, making it a cheap, unsuspicious and popular rhetorical means if you want to persuade someone. This is also the reason why it is often considered bad style in a speech.
In addition to the other examples, two more from me:
Das ist ja ein riesiger Baum!
Das ist ein riesiger Baum!
In the first case, your point would be that you feel overwhelmed by the dimensions of that particular vegetational specimen. In the second, you are actually stating that by some reference, the precise meterage of this one categorises it as "huge", unlike the one next to it that only qualifies as "mighty big".
There is a big variety of things this 'ja' can express. It may also be a sudden idea:
Wenn kein Fisch anbeißt, können wir Pilze sammeln.
Wenn kein Fisch anbeißt, können wir ja Pilze sammeln.
The first just names an option in the current situation. However, you might also go and collect firewood. The second phrase tells your partner(s) that picking mushrooms is an enjoyable thing to do by itself, and depending on their personal likings might not only make up for the luckless fishing, but even be more enjoyable than fishing in the first place.
"ja" is normally a positive reaction to a question as "yes". But in German "ja" has a lot of other uses, not possible with English yes. Examples: Das ist ja nicht wahr!- Das ist ja gelogen! - Das ist ja falsch! Formerly such words were called Füllwörter, filling words, but that's rather a stopgap, it doesn't help a learner in any way.
Today one uses terms such as modality particle. But to say it clearer, with 'ja" a speaker can give a lot of additional information as to his attitude to the statement. It can express indignation as in: Das ist ja gelogen! It can express empathy as in: Das ist ja schlimm. Admiration: Das ist ja ein tolles Kleid! If you study these uses of "ja" in adverb position before adjectives or verb forms you will find that it can express quite a lot of emotions of the speaker or his attitude towards his statement.
duden.de has tried to analyse the uses of "ja" used as modality particle more closely and gives examples farther below. http://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/ja
In a lot of cases one could explain this special use of "ja" as the remainder of a second sentence such as "Ja, so ist es wirklich". Only the first word of this second sentence remains and is built into the first sentence. Or: Ja, das ist klar, das weiß jeder.