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Some irrelevant uses of German ja:

  • Emphatic particle in imperatives:

Geht ja nicht in den Wald!

Mach ja deine Hausaufgaben!

  • In exclamative sentences:

Das ist ja interessant!

My questions are:

  1. Am I allowed to use "ja" whenever I want to emphasize my sentence? For example, when I want to say "the world is really unjust", "Die Welt is ja ungerecht" has exactly the same meaning?

  2. Is it rude to use "ja" in imperative form? does it have negative connotation?

  • IMHO, "ja" is used as a Modalpartikel (der) in the cases you describe. – FUZxxl Jun 25 '11 at 13:44
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    @FUZxxl: Do you mean to say it is "der Modalpartikel"? As I learnt on this site, it's "die Partikel". – Hendrik Vogt Jun 25 '11 at 14:24
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    @FUZxxl (please use @Hendrik to notify me): And some say das Partikel :-) – Hendrik Vogt Jun 25 '11 at 17:09
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    @FUZxxl, @Hendrik (I know I can't address both in one comment): The gender of Partikel was brought up in another comment discussion somewhere. Seems like a physical particle is das or die while a linguistic particle always is die Partikel. No idea what der Partikel means :) – Tim Jun 25 '11 at 21:50
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    @Tim IMHO der Partikel is the physical meaning of a particle. – FUZxxl Jun 25 '11 at 22:11
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  1. The role of "ja" is less of emphasis than of surprise: "Wusstest du, dass Tom in seiner Jugend einer der besten Schachspieler Deutschlands war?" "Das ist ja interessant!".

    It is also often used to express irony, for example if someone shares some gossip that you really don't care about, you could say (in a slightly bored manner) "Das ist ja interessant!"

    In your example it would probably be better to say "Die Welt ist wirklich ungerecht!" (or more colloquially "Die Welt ist echt ungerecht!").

  2. This form often comes across as rude and patronizing. Even when used by adults towards children it makes the adult come across as fairly upset. It's probably better to avoid it altogether, except in fictional writing. More polite alternatives would be:

    Geht bitte nicht in den Wald.

    Mach bitte deine Hausaufgaben.

  • "Leg den Schlagstock jetzt bitte weg, ja?" ;-) – Jürgen A. Erhard Jun 26 '11 at 1:38
  • Well, I guess there's a point where politeness may not be the goal ;) – puzzle Jun 26 '11 at 9:32
  • "Sven-Oliver, hör jetzt bitte auf den fremden Mann zu treten" (with apologies to anyone here actually named S-O ;D) – Jürgen A. Erhard Jun 26 '11 at 12:39
  • Die Überraschung liegt im interessant, nicht im ja. Das Ja unterstreicht lediglich. Ebenso unterstreicht es die Ironie, es stellt sie nicht selbst her. Und es unterstreicht auch nur einen Befehl oder eine Anweisung, die auch ohne Ja grob und unhöflich sein können. – user unknown Sep 28 '16 at 23:26
5

The discourse particle ja is normally used to signal that the other person already knows what you say, that is, it's part of the common ground. As such, it is, in it's 'basic' use, roughly equivalent to as you know. As such, it can't be used in the following sentence

DONT: Ich muss dir unbedingt was sagen: Ich liebe dich ja! (lit. I have to tell you something: As you know, I love you!)

However, it can be used to backround information that you believe is known to the person you're talking to:

DO: Ich muss dir unbedingt was sagen: Ich liebe dich ja, und deswegen will ich dich als Erben eintragen. (lit. I have to tell you something: As you know, I love you, and so I decided to make you my heir)

Even in 'surprise contexts' it is necessary for the other person to already know the information, so, you can only express that you yourself are surprised by some information, but ja cannot express that it should be surprising to the other person that something is surprising. Again a nice example

DONT: [As a gynecologist you inspect a person and say] Sie sind ja schwanger! (You are pregnant, and that is something you already know but I find it surprising!)

DO: [As a person finding the positive pregnancy test of the person s_he is living with] Du bist ja schwanger! (You are pregnant, and I didnt know that before!)

Note that ja does not bear any positive or negative connotations. It's a very useful German word for structuring discourse, I'd definitely recommend using it. It let's you tell somebody something without sounding overly patronizing in case the person already knows this information.

This answer is based on the following thesis:

Bárány, A. (2009). Form and interpretation of the German discourse particles ja, doch and wohl. Diploma thesis. Available from: http://othes.univie.ac.at/7532.

  • Das Gynäkologenbeispiel verstehe ich nicht. Wieso soll er nicht sagen "Sie sind ja schwanger!", wenn er es bemerkt und annimmt, dass die Frau es schon weiß? – user unknown Sep 28 '16 at 23:31
  • Regarding the gynecologist: You see, you have to coerce quite a lot to come up with a context that fits the use of ja. I simply had another context in mind, where the pregnant person does not know of his_her pregnancy and visited the doctor to know what's up with her_him. The gist is, that it does not make sense, which is why ja cannot be used in this situation. That is what the big DONT in front of the sentence is supposed to point out :3 – aslakr Sep 29 '16 at 8:31
  • I can't follow. You wrote: "You are pregnant, and that is something you already know but I find it surprising!". Speak the sentence with the Ja, and then repeat it in the same intonation, just without the Ja, and tell me, whether the meaning changes meanwhile. – user unknown Sep 29 '16 at 11:17
  • The truth conditions don't change if that's what you're after. Sorry, I don't really get where you're getting from either :) – aslakr Sep 29 '16 at 12:28
  • In your citation box, you write DON'T, then give an example, then explain, that the context should be, that the doctor is surprised but the pregnant woman is not. In the second comment you write, the pregnant woman does not know of her (his?) pregnancy. That doesn't match. It's unclear what you try to tell. – user unknown Sep 29 '16 at 14:31
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I think it depends on whether you are on du or on Sie.

I would only use it in context of Sie, if I want to be offensive

Kommen Sie mir ja nicht blöd.

But I find noting wrong in forbidding a child to go alone into the wood

Geh ja nicht in den Wald!

or to caution my coworkers

Mach ja eine Sicherung von deinen Daten.

  • Das konnte ich ja nicht wissen. Das hat ja nicht die Welt gekostet. Es ist ja noch Zeit. - Nur mit Du? – user unknown Sep 28 '16 at 23:34
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Some irrelevant uses of German ja:

Emphatic particle in imperatives: Geht ja nicht in den Wald! Mach ja deine Hausaufgaben!

In exclamative sentences: Das ist ja interessant!

In my opinion those usages are not irrelevant.

The "Emphatic particle" in those two examples turns the nature of the sentence into a threat rather than a pure instruction / command:

Mach ja deine Hausaufgaben [sonst setzt es was]!

The part in brackets is left out when spoken, but it's always implied (the actual implication will be based on the context, this is just an example).

Basically the ja shows that there will be consequences if the instruction is not followed in those cases.

In "exclamative sentences" or rather in your specific example the ja implies irony and turns the meaning of the sentence into "Das ist total langweilig". This is a common response to "fun" (irony!) factoids and the like.

So to your questions:

Are you allowed to use "ja" whenever you want to emphasize your sentence? No! Apart from the two cases above there are many more where "ja" changes the meaning of a sentence or implies something. You should only use it if you are aware of what it implies.

Is it rude to use "ja" in imperative form? Yes! In most cases it is, because it changes your statement into a threat.

  • "Mach deine Hausaufgaben [sonst setzt es was]!" funktioniert auch ohne ja. Deine Ergänzung ist reine Willkür. Dass der Satz ohne Ja keine Drohung ist, ist Ansichtssache, ebenso, dass er durch das Ja zu einer wird. Ebenso bestreite ich, dass das Ja in der 3. Zeile den Satz ins ironische ändert. Der Satz kann ironisch sein, muss aber nicht, und kann auch ohne Ja ironisch gemeint sein und verstanden werden. – user unknown Sep 28 '16 at 23:18

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