If I say, in English, “Must we not speak German?”, I will be understood as asking whether it is true that we must speak German. It’s a strange phrase, as it means the opposite of the literal interpretation — if the reply is “Yes”, then I know that I need to be speaking German.

But if I was to say “Müssen wir nicht Deutsch sprechen?”, would a German interpret it the same way? Or would they think I was asking whether I must not speak German?

This could also be phrased “Must not we speak German?”, which is more common (albeit usually contracted to musn’t), but I’m fairly sure in German you can’t put nicht between the verb and the target (“müssen nicht wir …”), is that right? What is the correct way of saying this?

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    German and English work exactly the same way in this regard. Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 12:30
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    I would never use that English question, it's hopelessly ambiguous, and if someone asked me the question, I wouldn't give a simple yes or no answer for fear of it being misunderstood. The same is true of most negative questions: "Haven't we got any milk?" can't be answered yes or no, it needs something like "No we haven't". Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 15:18
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    "I must" = "ich muss" | "I must not" = "ich darf nicht" | "I needn't" - "ich muss nicht" || so in German, "Müssen wir nicht Deutsch sprechen?" means more like "Don't we have to speak German, do we?". And like Andreas Heese already said, a yes (or better: "Ja") to that answer actually means, that we would have to speak German. Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 17:08
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    @LeeMosher: Aren't negative questions usually rhetorical anyway? Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 16:40
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    As a side note, "must" / "must not" is the source of a very common "false friends" mistake when translating between German and English. While "you must" in English is equal to "you have to", and "you must not" means "you are not allowed to", the second form changes its meaning when translated literally: In German, "du musst nicht" means "You don't have to (but you may if you wish)". Funny misunderstandings often ensue when native english speakers say "Du musst nicht (hier über die Straße gehen)", while actually meaning "Du darfst nicht...". Ah, I love false friends :) Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 9:36

4 Answers 4


In your German version, there are subtle differences in meaning than in your English version.

Must we not speak German?

I understand the meaning as: is it not enforced or encouraged that we speak German? Maybe: we are not speaking German at the moment, but I thought we had to?

Müssen wir nicht Deutsch sprechen?

I understand this, which is by the way flawless German, roughly the same as your English version, but more "broad". The "enforcing to speak German" part is a bit lacking. So, basically, yes, your translation as as good as it gets, though I feel that a German native speaker might add other words in the sentence to make the meaning clearer:

Müssten wir nicht Deutsch sprechen?

Müssen wir nicht eigentlich Deutsch sprechen?

Müssen wir auf der Reise nicht Deutsch sprechen?

And so on …

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    I'd say that "Müssten wir nicht Deutsch sprechen?" - is giving a hint that we don't really care about the rules. "Müssen wir Deutsch sprechen?" is asking for a hard rule. Das "nicht" in "Müssen wir nicht Deutsch sprechen" makes me think of a context like in a dialog like "Es wird in der Klasse Englisch gesprochen - Müssen wir nicht Deutsch sprechen?". But in that case, I believe due to common confusal of negations a typical answer to this question should not be yes or no, but rather "Ja, wir müssen Deutsch sprechen" or "Ja, wir müssen nicht Deutsch sprechen".. Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 16:56

The sentence is understood the same way in German. And you’re right that you cannot move the nicht in the second position.

Same is true if you replace must/müssen with should/sollten.

Shouldn’t we speak German? ⇒ Sollten wir nicht Deutsch sprechen?

On a side note, be aware that “must not” usually is translated as “nicht dürfen.”

You must not enter the site. ⇒ Sie dürfen das Grundstück nicht betreten.
You must not speak German. ⇒ Sie dürfen nicht Deutsch sprechen.

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    I'd argue that nicht at the second position is just as valid, only with emphasis placed on the wir. As for example "Shouldn't we speak German, instead of them?"
    – Yoshi
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 12:24

If you ask

Müssen wir nicht Deutsch sprechen?

then it will be understood that you thought that the German is to be spoken, but for some reason you are not sure or realise that you were wrong, and you wish to clarify. Or maybe you want to remind someone politely that German should be spoken.

The answer


will be understood to indicate that it is not necessary to speak German. However, the answer to indicate that German is indeed to be spoken would generally not be “ja”, but


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    +1 for the "doch" which is critical for answering such a question in German. Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 19:46

It should be highlighted that even though the translation with must as müssen is correct, a native German speaker would never say it in this way as the German meaning of must is way more impolite than in English. It's more common in German to use würden, sollten, könnten, which imply "please". The German language uses extremely rarely the straightforward version of words because this is an impolite form of communication.

So a native German would say the following

Sollten wir nicht Englisch sprechen?

This means the same as must, because you don't expect a "No" as an answer.

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    I disagree. Germans do use "müssen" like this, or they may use it in subjunctive, to make it less strong. "Müsste der Zug nicht bald kommen?" "Müssen wir die Klausur nicht mir Kugelschreiber statt mit Bleistift schreiben?" To me, "müssen" is not impolite per se. The context may make it sound harsh or impolite, but the word by itself is fine.
    – Robert
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 0:02

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