Word of the Week: ja

Aug 30, 2013

Every Friday, Germany.info and The Week in Germany highlight a different "Word of the Week" in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.


© dpa Enlarge image (© dpa) The word of the week is “ja?” Seriously?

You think that it is – besides “nein” and “Guten Tag” – among the most commonly known German words in the world? Well, did you ever look it up in the dictionary? The Duden, the most popular dictionary in Germany, dedicates 7 sub items to this supposedly easy vocable.

Of course, “ja” can – as an answer to a questions – simply be translated to “yes” in English.

Howevr, as soon as this seemingly unimpressive syllable is found incorporated into the structure of a sentence, it ecoems a lot more complicated to explain its meaning. One example is “Ich komme ja schon,” a possible answer to someone calling for you and asking you to hurry up. If you simply replied “ich komme schon” without the additional “ja,” the phrase would have a neutral meaning (literally translated “I’m coming already”), but wouldn’t really be an adequate answer to somebody who has already been impatiently waiting for you much longer than orginally planned. Adding the little “ja” is like adding a whole lot of spice to the phrase.

Fascinatingly, “ja” has even more connotations than this one. For example, it can be an expression of astonishment (“Es regnet ja schon wieder!” – “It’s raining again!”). It can also have a restrictive meaning (“Ich würde ja gerne, aber ich kann einfach nicht!” – “I would really like to do it, but I simply can’t!”). Or it can be a means with which to emphasize the importance of a statement or a command and/or request as in “Lass das ja sein,” (“Don’t you dare!” or “Zieh dich ja warm an!” (“Dress warmly!”)

Often “ja” is used in questions at the end of the sentence, particulary when a positive reply is anticipated, similar to a tag question in English, “du bleibst doch noch ein bisschen, ja?” (“You’re staying a little while longer, aren’t you?”)

There are also some established idioms using the word “ja” like the enthusastically affirmative “aber ja doch,” (“Yes, indeed!”) or the somewhat hesitant expression “na ja” (“Oh, well…”).

Even if this article might have caused even more confusion among you, at least you now know that if you see this particular little work in the middle of a sentence, it does not necessarily mean that it is an affirmative answer to a question. At any rate, the same thing does nto apply to “nein.” This one really is only used when responding in the negative.

© Germany.info

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