I recently saw the German phrase

Na, na, warum so böse Worte?

The English translation would be

Now, now, why such harsh words?

The Russian equivalent is also very close and is Nu, nu in Latin form:

Ну, ну [Nu, Nu], ...

Clearly, these variants have a common origin. Since the English language uses now similar to time, could there be a connection to time? In German, the word nun is somewhat similar, but is not the same as na.

Polish and Ukrainian have the word no (pronounced "nu") which means "yes" or "there!" or "indeed!" which might have a connection to this as well. Maybe the English now comes from the same common source. The time aspect in English is just a coincidence.

2 Answers 2


In German, the interjection »na« is used to express eagerness (»Na los, komm schon!«), surprise (»Na, so was!«), doubt (»Na, ich weiß nicht.«), denial and indignation (»Na, was erlauben Sie sich!«) and the emotion of the imagination of someones reaction (»Na, da wird sie aber Augen machen!«).

Another usage is as preamble of a phrase:

  • hesitating agreement: »Na schön, von mir aus darfst du bis 9 bei Sabine bleiben.«
  • conciliation: »Na, so schlimm ist das nun auch wieder nicht.«
  • threat: »Na warte, Bürschchen, dir werd' ich's zeigen!«
  • provocation: »Na und? Was willst du dagegen machen?«
  • confirmation: »Na, und ob ich dort war! Frag Erich, der war auch dabei!«
  • prompt: »Na, dann los!«
  • renunciation: »Na, dann eben nicht.«
  • intimate salutation: »Na, du?«
  • question : »Na, was hast du auf dem Herzen?«
  • answer: »Na, dass ich doch nicht bei Paul sondern bei Anna war.«
  • evidence that a prediction became true: »Na, ich hab's ja gesagt!«

There is evidence, that this interjection was used since the 16th century, but its etymology is still unclear. Some say, it has developed from the adverb »nun« (Old High German, Middle High German and Old English: "nu", modern English: "now"), but even more experts believe it has developed independently from a sound that many people make in their speech in short breaks of disconcertedness.

»Na« can always be used singularly, but in some cases also doubled:

  • Na, na, ich weiß nicht.
  • Na, na, so schlimm ist das nun auch wieder nicht.
  • Na, na, dann eben nicht.

But when ever it is doubled, it is used in some sense of denial. This is because in the doubled usage, it adds the meaning of »nein« (English "no"), which becomes »na« in colloquial speech in regions where Alemannic and Bavarian dialects are spoken (Switzerland, Austria, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria). But in northern regions, »na, na« becomes »ne, ne«:

  • Ne, ne, ich weiß nicht.
  • Ne, ne, so schlimm ist das nun auch wieder nicht.
  • Ne, ne, dann eben nicht.

But the meaning is not exactly the same. When you use the northern version »ne, ne« you only have the negating meaning, without the meaning of English »now, now«. When you use the southern variation »na, na« you have both meanings merged together: »now, now« and »no, no«.

So, south of the Speyer line people usually don't say »ne, ne«. They only say »na, na« and they mean both, »now, now« and »no, no«.

When people living north of this line say »na, na« they only mean »now, now«. If they want to express »no, no« they say »ne, ne«.

The German word »nun« and the English »now« are cognates. As already said before, both of them derive from the same root, which is »nu«. But, it is unclear if »na« is really related to these words.

Sorry, I don't know anything about the etymology of Russian words. You could ask your question about it in russian.stackexchange.com or maybe also in linguistics.stackexchange.com.

  • I conform with almost everything you say, except the meanings "na, na" == "now, now" and "na, na" == "no, no". It is close to no, no and may be used in similar cases, but not quite - it's rather a warning than an interdiction. It's not the least bit close to "now, now", however.
    – tofro
    Dec 6, 2021 at 17:07
  • "but even more experts believe ..." can this be sourced or is it a value judgement on how much (more) of an expert one is?!?
    – vectory
    Dec 7, 2021 at 9:14
  • it's not true that both of now and nun derive from the same root, asnun very obviously has an added -n that would rather match noon all things considered
    – vectory
    Dec 7, 2021 at 9:17
  • @vectory: nun: dwds.de/wb/nun#etymwb-1 na: dwds.de/wb/na#etymwb-1 now: etymonline.com/word/now But noon has a very different etymology: etymonline.com/word/noon The fact that two words sound the same does not mean they must have the same root. Even two homonyms within the same language often have different roots: acht: dwds.de/wb/acht#etymwb-1 Acht: dwds.de/wb/Acht#etymwb-1 Dec 7, 2021 at 10:39
  • Thanks for your concern. I meant that they are not strictly cognate. The -n appears just so in Middle High German and is not explained. The proper cognate is nu. Nu hab dich doch nicht so / jetzt hab dich doch nicht so. In your link there are other comparisons and he suggests what with double negation and what would require further research. OTOH I didn't think much about the word noon. The sound shape seems compatible, is all. I am not buing the hyper romanophil idea that it was "a Germanic borrowing of classical Latin nōna", you wot m8?
    – vectory
    Dec 7, 2021 at 11:07

Na na is chiefly collocated in expression of negative sentiment, quite the opposite to English now now, in my experience. The intonation is extremely important to distinguish several of the variants that may be invariably rendered as"na" in writing. In addition, there are idioms like nanu which may express surprise or introduce a rhethoric question, which would work just as well in your example.

Tone contour in turn can influence the perceived notion of vowel quality inasmuch as vowel's are chiefly defined by tone (other than glide, length, coarticulation etc.)

Hence, German nu nu needs to be considered all the same. Intonation is of course no less subject to change, but not specially indicated in writing, so ancient literature is of limited use (the Silesian dialect of Polish for example uses descending tone to mark questions, I'm told).

A there is a well known topic marker or interogative particle *ne known in Indo-European linguistics, which is mostly interpreted as the negative polarity item (> no, un-, Gothic nu etc.) it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish its reflexes from *new (> now, new, Germpan nun or nu' and neu, Gr. a-, an-, neo, etc.).

The alluded to negating intention can be read with as sarcasm in "warum so böse Worte" with a negative tone as well. In German words I would describe this as ermahnend. But: can does not mean must. Now now on the other hand is mostly comforting, ie. 'it' s not all so bad', similar to there, there, *pat-pat*. These are in my opinion nothing alike. Although a further comarison to nah "near" would be imaginal in a sense 'come on', from *Hnek "to reach, acquire", yet I do not see how it would square with either the Russian or English verbiage. The similarity to ja and je which are historically difficult to distinguish in either case as discourse particle is remarkable in this regard for je is an adverb of time as well as is now, cp. ever, never (see eg. "Das kostet ja ein Vermögen" or "Ja ja heißt leck mich am Arsch").

In sum, a definite answer to your question is exceedingly unlikely.

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