In the sentence:

Das ist ja wohl nicht dein Ernst.

Does "ja" mean "as we all know" (i.e., expresses lack of astonishment) (Duden 3a) or expresses astonishment (Duden 3b)? Both meanings seem opposite to me and theoretically both could fit in this sentence.

Duden's definition of "ja": https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/ja

I'm already familiar with modal particles in German and I know the possible meanings of "ja", but often I see sentences where more than one meaning applies and the usual one is purely idiomatic. That seems to be the case in the sentence above. Therefore, The usage of the modal particle "ja" is not a duplicate of this question.

  • 1
    Possible duplicate of The usage of the modal particle "ja"
    – guidot
    Nov 5, 2019 at 8:00
  • 1
    I have added a paragraph explaining why this is not a duplicate. Nov 5, 2019 at 12:42
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    "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" -- "Sie scherzen ja wohl, Herr Feynman!" An affirmation, used ironically. The ironic use is very common with ja, perhaps overshadowing the straight use. Nov 6, 2019 at 14:37
  • @Peter-ReinstateMonica According to the wiki you pointed to, the sentence "Sie scherzen ja wohl, Herr Feynmann" "derives from a woman's response at Princeton University when, after she asked the newly arrived Feynman if he wanted cream or lemon in his tea, he absentmindedly requested both". Where is the irony ? Nov 6, 2019 at 17:59
  • I assumed it was ironic since it seemed obvious that he was not actually joking (no smile, twinkling etc.). "Das ist ja wohl nicht Ihr Ernst!" is typically said when it clearly is, hence ironically. It may not be quite as clear-cut here, admittedly. Nov 6, 2019 at 18:43

7 Answers 7


This word is a modal particle. Here on German Stackexchange we already have 80 questions dealing with this part of speech: modal particles on German.SE

There is an article about Modalpartikel in German Wikipedia and you also find modal particle in English Wikipedia. In English Wikipedia there is even an article specially about German modal particles.

Here are the most important facts about modal particles:

  • German language makes extensive use of this part of speech, mainly in spoken German. You also find them in written German, but less frequent than in spoken German. There are kinds of texts (like scientific papers, laws etc.) where you will find no modal particles, while in other kinds of texts (tales, narrations etc.) you will find more, but the highest frequency is still in spoken German.
  • Almost all other languages make little or even no use of this part of speech. Among those languages is English. There are examples for modal particles in english, but they are very rare.
  • Modal particles do not have any propositional meaning. The proposition of a text is what makes it true or false, and the proposition is something you can ask for. But adding or omitting modal particles never will change the factual meaning of a sentence. And it is not possible to ask a question who's answer is the modal particle. They just add a vague emotion. In other languages this emotion must be carried by the context.
  • Every German modal particle has a homonym in an other part of speech. Take your example: »ja«.

    • This word is well known as answer particle which means "yes" in English:

      Bist du wach? - Ja.
      Are you awake? - Yes.

    • You also might know it as interjection which might also be translated as "yes":

      Ja! Endlich! Wir haben gewonnen!
      Yes! At last! We won!

    • But in German »ja« also comes along as a modal particle:

      Quecksilber ist ja flüssig, daher kann man aus diesem Metall keine Werkzeuge herstellen.
      Mercury is liquid, so you can not make tools from this metal.

    You will notice, that the English translation doesn't contain any counterpart for the German "ja". This is the most common way to translate modal particles: You ignore them. This is, because the word "yes" doesn't add anything to the propositional meaning. This sentence means exactly the same:

    Quecksilber ist flüssig, daher kann man aus diesem Metall keine Werkzeuge herstellen.

    But the word »ja« adds some emotion. Here in this example it means "like anybody knows", but not in an explicit way. Here is what I mean:

  1. Gabi ist ja Lehmanns Liebling, daher bekommt sie die besten Noten.
  2. Gabi ist, wie jeder weiß, Lehmanns Liebling, daher bekommt sie die besten Noten.

in English:

  1. Gabi is Lehmann's darling, so she gets the best grades.
  2. Gabi is, as everyone knows, Lehmann's darling, so she gets the best grades.

In German the first sentence suggests, that everybody knows that Gabi is Lehmanns Darling without claiming it as a fact. In the second sentence it is explicitly said that everybody knows it, so in version 2 you add something to the sentence that might be proven wrong (if there are people who didn't know it), while in version 1 this suggestion only exists as a vague emotion, that comes along with the sentence, but can't be proven true or false.

Other usages of the modal particle »ja«:

Mach mir ja keine Schande!
Do not shame me!

Here this particle adds some urgency to the sentence. It expresses, that for the speaker it is very important not to be shamed. The version without the particle (*»Mach mir keine Schande!«) has a way less intense meaning.

Er erschien betrunken, ja regelrecht besoffen, zur Arbeit.
He appeared drunk, not to say besotted, at work.

In this example the modal particle "ja" highlights the extraordinary amount of drunkenness.

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    Thanks for the answer, but I am already familiar with the concept of modal particles, their purpose and that often they are not translated to English. Could you please answer my question: what is the meaning of "ja" in the specific idiomatic expression in my question? Nov 5, 2019 at 12:05
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    Ja as a modal particle also exists in some dialects of Dutch nee ik heb ja niks te klagen and is similar to Swedish ju.
    – gerrit
    Nov 5, 2019 at 22:32
  • @AlanEvangelista It has the same meaning as in the example "Mach mir ja keine Schande!", so in this specific expression it adds some urgency. The expression "Das ist wohl nicht dein Ernst" carries less emotion compared to the sentence with "ja", where the "ja" adds a high amount of anger or outrage. If you read the two sentences aloud as a native speaker, you automatically read the version with "ja" louder and more outraged.
    – elzell
    Nov 6, 2019 at 8:46
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    @AlanEvangelista I think you're close with "as we all know", but as a German I'm getting more of a vibe along the lines of "as you should know". So I would translate your sentence as "You can't POSSIBLY be serious!" and without the "ja wohl" it'd be "You can't be serious!"
    – Alex
    Nov 6, 2019 at 8:52
  • AFAIK, "Mach mir ja keine Schande!" could be translated about as "Don't you shame on me!", preserving about the same intensiveness.
    – glglgl
    Nov 6, 2019 at 12:30

The Duden page that you linked also offers synonyms for the two meanings, which are:

  • 3a) doch, bekanntlich
  • 3b) wirklich; tatsächlich

As a native speaker of German, I was not aware of that many different meanings of 'ja'. But I can tell you that you can rephrase the sentence to

Das ist doch wohl nicht dein Ernst.

This would hint at meaning 3a.


The sentence expresses incredulity, presumably at the outrageous wrongness of the interlocutor's position. Therefore it's 3 b), astonishment.

  • That would be rather astonishing given the context. Das ist wohl nicht dein Ernst would express that the speaker expects the addressee not to be serious while leaving open the possibility that she is. But we would all understand Das ist ja wohl nicht dein Ernst to mean something much stronger, ie that the speaker most definitely does not expect the addressee to be serious: You cannot be serious! If ja merely expressed incredulity, there would thus be a semantic void since the "outrageous wrongness" would not be present without the ja.
    – johnl
    Nov 5, 2019 at 7:52
  • @johnl: No, this answer is exactly right. It expresses incredulity to the point of almost feeling offended by the "obvious wrongness". It's much more like standing with your hands on your hips, saying: "WTF, you got to be kidding me!!!" (with some extra exclamation marks if you like), rather than simply be astonished.
    – Damon
    Nov 5, 2019 at 16:17
  • @Damon, on a semantic level, that doesn't add up. There is no encoding of "obvious wrongness" outside of ja. It's the ja that introduces the obvious wrongness to begin with. Unsurprisingly, one of the functions of ja is characterised by Métrich/Faucher (2009) as follows: "stellt das Gesagte je nach Kontext als bekannte, nahe liegende oder feststehende und nicht anzuzweifelnde Gegebenheit hin" (which corresponds roughly to meaning 3a on duden.de). Ja suggests the assumption expressed in the sentence is glaringly obvious, almost undeniable. This is where you get the obviousness from.
    – johnl
    Nov 5, 2019 at 16:50

The usage is close to the Duden definition 3. b.) drückt im Aussage-, Ausrufesatz Erstaunen über etwas oder Ironie aus; wirklich; tatsächlich

However, in this case it's less about (faked) disbelief, but mostly about the expression of someone's indignation:

Du willst mir erzählen, dass deine Hausaufgaben schon wieder vom Hund gefressen wurden. Das ist ja wohl nicht dein Ernst.
(You want to tell me that your homework has again been eaten by the dog. Are you kidding me?)


I'd translate this sentence with

Are you fucking kidding me?

You can omit the f-word, the meaning of the sentence stays the same. Same goes for your example, the


simply emphasizes how surprised/annoyed you are.


"Das ist ja wohl nicht dein Ernst" is pretty much exactly the same as "Das ist sicherlich nicht dein Ernst" corresponding to "Surely, you can't be serious."

In one example given above, the suggestion is just to ignore it: Quecksilber ist ja flüssig, daher kann man aus diesem Metall keine Werkzeuge herstellen. Mercury is liquid, so you can not make tools from this metal.

However, you're fine in this case if you want to translate it as "actually" or even "as you know", depending on the context: Mercury is actually (a) liquid, so you can not make tools from this metal.


It roughly means really, very, but can also be found substituted with "doch" in this fixed phrase, which expresses doubt more strongly than without. In general this is thought of as of the grammatic category emphatic. The reasoning is pretty similar to why the emp

that's very well not your concern

cp jawohl

is a mostly colloquially common affirmative colocation, often "jawoll" according to the falling tone of the stand-alone affirmation, in contrast to the raising tone in questions. Very well, sir!

However, the usage of ja ~ je or rather *je as a concessive comes, apparently, from different words in different dialects, though how is not quite clear. Anyhow, compare English any-, or -ever which is somehow linked to Old English a, and concessive for a long time now. Moreover, Je, ... can stem from a contraction of Jesus in a Stoßgebet, "Ja, ist es denn ...?"

I claim repeatedly that a) gar (apparently "full, completely") is used similarly, which in palatalizing dialects may sound as ja; cp "gar nicht", "Er meint es gar ernst"; and that b) ever somehow sounds like Ger aber, aber wohl, especially in wie aber auch immer "however", perhaps cross-polinated by "very"; c) Also compare überall ~ everywhere, and thus überhaupt, "ist das überhaupt dein Ernst"; d)Also compare even, Ger eben in the sence "now, immediately", thus

Das ist jetzt nicht dein Ernst!?!

Es war jetzt wohl eben doch sein Ernst.

The whole thing can become contracted and reduced to a vowel, in which case it is hardly even noticable: Das is'o'wohl nich' dein Ernst (ist-doch), Das kann'a'nicht wahr sein (kann-ja)

Note that -jana is reconstructed as having been part of Proto-Germanic inflection in j-stems. Conceivably, around the time the morphology had become reduced, those perhaps isolated peakers who retained it longer would have confused other speakers upon contact significantly, ya. Maybe this also played a role; in that case is ja would be a secondary, or at least reinforced development. *bidjana is such a stem, thus compare for example, which can however be explained without the aforesaid as well

Mach das mal bitte, ja?

Ich darf doch wohl sehr bitten, Ja!?

Ich bitte euch/Sie ~ I bid you [ye] (farewell)

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