These lines are from a Die Chefin episode:

Gustav: Macht nicht viel Sinn, Maik Grasser zu entführen. Der kann keine Million Lösegeld zahlen.

Greta: Kay Weber schon.

What does schon mean in this context? Is this the same as the following?

Greta: Das könnte doch Kay Weber tun.

Is schon another way of saying, jemand könnte etwas tun, implicitly?

Greta and Gustav are two police investigators trying to determine a motive for a kidnapping. The person kidnapped, Maik Grasser, does not have much money, but he works for Kay Weber who does.

  • "schon" in this sense is a positibe polarity item contrasting with "nicht". The Wörterbuch knows more. A bilingual dictionary trying to give a word for word translations will have a difficult time though. What did you find? – vectory Dec 31 '20 at 2:45
  • I looked carefully through Duden's explanations of how the word is used as an adverb but found nothing that seemed to fit in this particular context. – user44591 Dec 31 '20 at 3:22
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    "Kay Weber schon" == "But Kay Weber can." Welcome to the wonderful world of Modalpartikeln! – Kilian Foth Dec 31 '20 at 11:54

In this particular instance, the modal particle schon introduces a contrast to the preceding clause or statement, i.e. the meaning is adversative. I agree that the explanations given by Duden are somewhat lacking. However, the example under 6. can be rewritten to resemble the piece of dialogue you quoted:

A: Von der Tätigkeit her ist die Stelle nicht sehr interessant.
B: Von der Bezahlung her schon!

A: As far as the work itself is concerned, the job isn't very interesting.
B: Yet/though/however/but as far as pay is concerned, it is!

Rewriting the example given in the question:

Grasser kann kein Lösegeld zahlen, Weber schon.
Grasser can't pay ransom, yet/though/however/but Weber can.

The contrast is between Grasser's and Weber's ability to pay ransom.

Of course, schon is originally a temporal adverb. I feel there is a plausible path from the temporal to the adversative meaning. Imagine someone asking a child:

Kannst du schon schreiben, schwimmen, radfahren … ?
Do you already know how to write, swim, ride a bike … ?

Here the meaning is clearly temporal, with schon indicating that an ability that is supposed to develop has been developed already, sooner than expected. The opposite would be noch nicht:

Ich kann schon schreiben, meine Schwester noch nicht.
I already know how to write, my sister doesn't yet.

And here, for me, lies a bridge to the adversative meaning:

A: Könnt ihr zwei schon schreiben?
B: Meine Schwester nicht, ich schon!

A: Do you two already know how to write?
B: My sister doesn't, yet I do.

(I used yet as a translation because it also has this kind of ambiguity between a temporal and an adversative meaning.)

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    For me, in order to fully understand how the language has been used in this case, in depth, the information in both Hubert Schölnast's and David Vogt's posts had to be combined. Together it constitutes an amazing body of insight into how this fascinating language works. Thank you. – user44591 Dec 31 '20 at 14:45
  • NB: yet belongs to Ger. je, jetzt, jedoch, etc., also aye, OE. ae, and in the later sense perhaps with ever (uncertain) which I reason is in fact comparable to aber, LowG. aver, especially in whatever ~ wie aber auch immer, also intensive abertausende, aberwitzig, possibly contimnated by OHG avic, aver "bad". The "correct" form would be ?Ich-a'schon, I reckon, now completely elided. Cp. hab ich ja schon, possibly contaminated with gar, LowG. ja(r). Cp. already, as if ae-, aiw- ~ ye-. Cp. soon, Du. zaan, contaminant. etc. etc. – vectory Jan 1 at 2:22
  • [cont.] Ergo, your final example explains "Kay Weber a'er", cognate with yet "but" (distinct from yet "already", ja-bereits) which must have become univerbed with aber schon somewhere along the dialect interface, and finally become schon on its own. (This is just a sketch trying to explain why schon, aber, aber schon are interchangeable here; alas, the final steps are haphazard, make no mistake, I have no idea). Explaining this from thoroughbread High German is less usefull. (cp. further, *-sk stativ present; they show; irregular schulden, sollen ~ should). – vectory Jan 1 at 2:38
  • [cont.] Ergo 2: Alice won't be able pay ransom, Bob should, arrrgh. Stick an n in there somewhere, ?shoul'n', ..., that's that. – vectory Jan 1 at 2:43

Sentences in spoken language are very often ellipses. An ellipsis is a sentence where you omit a part of speech that easily can be reproduced from the context.

For example, the first sentence spoken by Gustav doesn't contain a subject:

Macht nicht viel Sinn, Maik Grasser zu entführen.
Doesn't make much sense to kidnap Maik Grasser.

But every German sentence needs a subject (with some rare exceptions like »Mich friert.« but this sentence isn't one of these exceptions). In this case the grammatical subject just is an expletive »es« ("it" in English) which even doesn't transport any meaning, so it is omitted in many spoken sentences. Here is the full version:

Es macht nicht viel Sinn, Maik Grasser zu entführen.
It doesn't make much sense to kidnap Maik Grasser.

But this sentence provides the context for the following dialog. The characters are talking about kidnapping, and Gustav just said it doesn't make sense to kidnap Maik Grasser. But Greta has her sights set on a different victim. She wants to kidnap Kay Weber instead. In a whole sentence she could say:

Es macht aber schon Sinn, Kay Weber zu entführen.
However, it does make sense to kidnap Kay Weber.

Or, in a different word order but the same meaning:

Kay Weber zu entführen macht aber schon Sinn.
But kidnapping Kay Weber does make sense.

Note, when you use this word order, you don't need the expletive »es« or »it« in both languages because now the whole phrase »Kay Weber zu entführen« = "kidnapping Kay Weber" is the subject.

But this sentence has two problems:

  1. It repeats a lot of Gustav's sentence, which is not really necessary. To solve this problem, you can omit all parts of speech that are already available in the context.
    Then you get this:

    1. Kay Weber aber schon.

    You also can omit parts of speech that don't carry any meaning although they are not in the context like the word »aber« (but).

    1. Kay Weber schon.
  2. The second problem is not a problem for German speakers, but for those who want to translate the sentence into English: The word »schon«, that here is so important, that it can't be omitted even in a very short ellipsis, is a modal particle. There is a wikipedia article about German modal particles and here on German stack exchange there are tons of questions and answers about this topic, so I'm not going to talk about it in detail here.
    Here is the short version:

    • Modal particles contribute nothing to the proposition of a sentence. The proposition is what makes a sentence true or false. So, adding or omitting modal particles doesn't modify the meaning.
    • Modal particles just modify the mood and emotion that is transported together with the meaning.
    • Modal particles are very important in German language. You can hear them in almost every spoken sentence, and also in written German they are used very frequently (but they appear in a significantly higher frequency in spoken German).
    • Modal particles are rare in other languages. English is one of the languages that doesn't have modal particles (or just in a rudimentary amount.)

    And this all together makes it hard to translate them from German into English. The best practice of handle them when you translate German sentences into English is to omit them. So, when you translate

    Kay Weber zu entführen macht aber schon Sinn.

    into English, you get this:

    But kidnapping Kay Weber does (*) make sense.

    I used the symbol (*) to indicate, that there should be a word that modifies the mood of the sentence without changing it's meaning, but English doesn't have such a word. The best way to translate the sentence is to omit this word.

    But this mood is so important in the German sentence, that it survives the process of creating an ellipsis:

    Kay Weber schon.

    In English:

    Kay Weber (*).

    And now it no longer makes sense to omit the modal particle, because here it is essential. All you can do in English is to use another word instead, but this is not exactly the same as in German:

    But Kay Weber.

    This is not the same, because it is the translation of this German ellipsis:

    Aber Kay Weber schon.

  • I'd argue that Mich friert is an ellipses of Es friert mich, so there is a subject but it's been left out. Logically, since the finite verb is conjugated according to a subject, any sentence with a finite verb must have a subject, even if it's omitted. But there is a type of sentence with no finite verb or subject, as I'm sure you would know better than I, in the form of general commands: Bestecke bitte neben den Teller legen. (from here.) – RDBury Dec 31 '20 at 12:17
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    Fantastic explanation! Wonderfully informative. Just to be clear the full version would probably be more like, "Es macht aber schon Sinn, weil seine Chefin, Kay Weber, zahlen kann," because these are investigating police officers talking. – user44591 Dec 31 '20 at 14:37
  • @RDBury: Nach einem Subjekt kann man immer mit »wer?« order »was?« fragen, das geht aber nicht bei einem expletiven Subjekt. Wenn du beim Satz »Es friert mich« fragst »Wer friert mich?« ist »Es« nicht die richtige Antwort. Das expletive »Es« nimmt zwar den Platz vor dem Verb ein, aber nur um aus grammatischen Gründen eine Lücke zu füllen (In Aussagesätzen muss immer irgend etwas vor dem finiten Verb stehen). Das »Es« steht da nicht, weil es der Durchführer der Handlung ist, was die eigentliche Rolle eines Subjekts in einem Aktiv-Satz ist. – Hubert Schölnast Dec 31 '20 at 14:40
  • Yes, the es is not a true subject because it's simply a placeholder needed because grammar requires something to determine the verb ending, "It" does nearly the same job in English with the main difference being that es can be dropped much more easily. I would call it a "grammatical subject" since it plays the role of a subject without being the semantic subject (the "doer"). So I think it's a matter of terminology and point of view. In English the subject of "It's raining" is "it", but what is raining, "it"? The question is the same in English as it is in German. – RDBury Jan 1 at 1:35

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