Fluent spoken German is often interspersed with lots of modal particles (e.g. "eben", "halt", "wohl") while other languages seem to lack these particles entirely, thus confusing learners and challenging translators.

Even a combination of multiple particles is quite common (especially in spoken conversations):

Aber es schaut halt doch schon auch irgendwie cool aus.


Man ist ja doch schon auch mal längere Zeit abwesend.


[Dem ZDF mit den] aber eben halt doch auch älter gewordenen Gepflogenheiten und Denkgewohnheiten stünde eine [...] mehr auf Rationalität [...] strebende Unternehmensführung ganz gut an.

(Die Zeit 1977/12)

However, it's not easily possible to convey these nuances in English with a similar brevity.

Is there a historical reason why many other languages which are otherwise close to German (e.g. English, French) have almost no modal particles in their vocabulary?

  • 2
    This is probably on-topic here, but it might also be a great question for Linguistics.
    – Jan
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 22:50
  • Many linguists wonder the same, and very few are able to get any of their answers published! That should tell you what a tar pit that question is. My personal stab in the dark is that the German modal particles are predominantly found in a particular place within the Verbklammer, so it might have something to do with the syntactical macrostructure of the language. Your stab in the dark will probably be a different one. Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 7:34
  • 3
    @c.p. The English words you mentioned are not modal particles. They're speech fillers, yes, but they are the counterparts to German "ähm", "ja", "also", "hm". Compare german.stackexchange.com/q/4469/1224. My knowledge of Spanish is too limited to speak for Spanish, much less for Russian, but from what I understand, I don't think that your Spanish examples are modal particles either. — I'd also like to see your translation of the example given. You cannot translate any of the words into English. The translation plainly is: "This is a difficult topic."
    – Em1
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 10:47
  • @Em1 Fair enough (as for English). A possible translation: this is, you know, just really a damn difficult topic would be also possible. Modal particles don't have to remain modal particles after translations. I'm unsure as whether English has modal particles, but Russian has a lot and Spanish some, which can be used to reproduce the German ones (even though, in number we have less). The example sentence is not realistic German, it's just something it not forbidden, so I'm not sure whether it can be translated at all.
    – c.p.
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 12:18
  • @c.p. Well, I'm afraid your translation isn't spot on. I won't go into details, it's just not worth discussing this in depth, but just let me tell you that you in fact introduced some meanings to the English sentence that aren't covered by the German one. Anyway. On a side note, while the example is exaggerated, it is not that extremely exaggerated as you might believe. I don't consider it unrealistic at all. Unlikely, though.
    – Em1
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 13:06

2 Answers 2


The answer lies, I am afraid, in refusing the question. In linguistics it sometimes does not make much sense to ask "why". "Why does English put the definite article in front of a word and, in the written form, separates it by a blank, and why does Bulgarian put the definite article at the end of a word and, in the written form, does not use a blank to separate it? No answer; it is just so.

Of course you may have a look on how things developed historically. And you can ask what function (effects, use) they have today.

For example, one interesting function (not intended, but it is anyway functionning) of these little words everywhere is that you can pretty well decide, based on somebody's ability to use them in the "proper" (that is: common) way whether she/he has learned this language as a first language, in a predominantly "German" environment, or if she/he comes frome elsewhere.

I cannot say if this is a useful function. It is a function. However, you definitely cannot use it as an answer to your "why" question because this feature of the German language was not created on purpose to that end.

I am sure, all the nuances that Germans use in German sentences by scattering those little words around like mad can be expressed in other languages quite similarly, perhaps by other means, such as intonation, or whatever.

  1. Aber (1) halt (2) doch (3) schon (4) auch (5)

But (1) still (4) it's looking somewhat cool, too (5), even (2) though (3).

But even though, it already (4) is looking somewhat cool, too (5). -- although, anyhow, on the other hand

I don't even really know yet what you mean though. I still have to admit, German has laxer rules about word order (than English at least). Therefore aber doch, doch schon and auch schon are easily fused to doch schon auch. Also, German is known for a tendency to form long compound words, at that, dochschonauch would be a contraction in a similar fashion. Halt is a filler word like even or like even more than the others

  1. Man ist ja doch schon auch mal längere Zeit abwesend.

still, although only sometimes, one is absent, also for a longer time even -- still, one might be absent

  1. dessen aber eben halt doch auch älter gewordene Gepflogenheiten

its still, just like, indeed older mannerisms, though -- nevertheless old

That's not a perfect translation, but the parallel should be obvious.

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