[Lesson] Dutch modal particles: eens, even, maar, misschien, hoor, nou, toch, wel, gewoon, soms
MODAL PARTICLES: WHAT ARE THESE?
Modal particles are little words (normally adverbs) heavily used by the Dutch to convey extra information about the speaker's attitude or the tone of a sentence. Think of them as "flavors" added to a sentence in order to give it a different connotation.
There's no clear grammatical distinction from regular adverbs, but on an intuitive level we can say that modal particles tend to affect the meaning of the entire sentence, whereas adverbs mainly focus on changing the meaning of single words. I want to stress that the limits between the two categories are fuzzy, and it's not a good idea to use a grammatical approach when trying to understand them, you should instead try to get a feeling of how these words are generally used by native speakers.
When looking at word order, modal particles are usually found before indefinite or indirect objects, and after a definite phrase.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
Given the difficulty of translating them without loss of meaning, they are sometimes overlooked, but don't be mistaken: they can radically change your sentences, and putting the wrong word in the wrong spot can make you look rude or confuse your interlocutor.
Let's take a look at this example straight out of iamexpat.nl :
- Doe gewoon! = Be normal! (very iconic Dutch sentence in its neuter form)
- Doe maar gewoon! = Just be normal! (polite suggestion)
- Doe maar even gewoon, hoor = Just be normal for a bit, ok? (polite and casual)
- Doe toch eens even gewoon = Just be normal for once (irritated)
- Nou nou, ze doen maar eens even gewoon, hoor! = For goodness sake, they just need to be normal for once, you know?! (it's complicated)
Another example, this time from eudu.eu :
As you can see, modal particles can be easily combined and mixed together by Dutch speakers in order to mess up with us non-natives :) so you better know at least some of them to have a grasp of what's going on inside their minds. Today I decided to deepen my knowledge on the matter and I ended up creating a quick list of the most frequent modal particles (disclaimer: the info presented here is a collection of definitions and examples I found googling around, plus some made-up examples. Use them at your own risk!). Since I found basically no mention of this argument here on Duolingo, I thought it was a good idea to share my work with you all. Any corrections and/or suggestions from natives are obviously welcomed. :) Now, without further ado, let's dive into it.
COMMONLY USED MODAL PARTICLES
► EENS (lit. "once") - positive tone
- Used for polite requests, softens orders that have to be executed immediately.
Kijk eens = Just look
Drink je melk eens op = Go on, drink your milk
Geef het zout eens door = Please pass the salt
- When unstressed it means something like "ever" or "for a change":
Ben je wel eens daar geweest? = Have you ever been there?
► EVEN (lit. "just") - positive tone
- Conveys casualness. Perfect for kindly asking someone to perform a brief/easy activity for you (it often goes along with eens):
Wil je dit even lezen? = Will you take a second to read this?
Haal jij Lotte even op? = (While you're at it) can you go pick Lotte up?
Kunt u mij even helpen? = Can you help me for a moment?
► MISSCHIEN (lit. "maybe") - positive tone
- For deferential and friendly questions (even stronger effect than alstublieft):
Weet u misschien ❤❤❤ laat het is? - Please, do you know what time is it?
► MAAR (lit. "but") - usually positive tone
- Mild encouragement or permission:
Gaat u maar zitten = Please have a sit
Kom maar binnen = Please come inside
Begin maar te eten = Just go ahead and start eating
- On the other hand, it can also denote a lack of interest...
Je doet maar = Do what you want (I don't care)
Laat maar = Nevermind
- ...or a lack of choice of the speaker:
Ik heb maar gezegd dat... = I only said that... (because I had nothing else to say)
► NOU (lit. "now") - negative tone
- Used as interjection (well, wow) and as a synonym of nu, usually added to the sentence to show impatience or irritation:
Nou, ik weet het niet zo zeker = Well, I don't know it for sure
Nou, wat geweldig = Wow, that's great (oftentimes sarcastic)
Wat is er nou dan? = What is it now?
► TOCH (lit. "anyway") - negative tone
- It's the harsher version of nou, which is occasionally added for greater impact. When used in imperative sentences, it adds a shade of urgency and/or anger:
Ga toch weg! = Go away already! / Come on, go away!
Hou toch op! = Just stop it!
Zeg toch wat = Come on, say something
- Unstressed it can mean "after all" (and the like):
Dat heb ik je toch gisteren gezegd = I told you that yesterday, after all.
❤❤❤ gaat het toch met je? = Well now, how are you?
- When stressed it can mean nevertheless / anyway:
...maar ze hebben het toch gedaan = ...but they did it nevertheless
- Toch is also used as a forceful confirmation following a negation:
Dat kan niet. - Jawel, het kan toch! = That can't be done. - Oh yes, it can!
- When used in questions, toch can sometimes be translated into English by using a tag question:
Je bent toch niet ziek? = You aren't sick, are you?
We hebben vandaag een toets, toch? = Today we are having a test, aren't we?
De bussen rijden toch wel? = The buses are in service, aren't they?
► HOOR (lit. "hear") - usually neuter tone
- When unstressed it indicates reassurance or confidence:
Mag ik hier zitten? - Ja, hoor = May I sit here? Yeah, sure
We komen te laat! - Nee hoor, we hebben nog genoeg tijd = We'll be late! - Surely not, we still have enough time
- When stressed it indicates disagreement or nuisance for something depending on the tone (some translations: regardless, despite, anyway, you know?, ok?):
Ik heb veel gestudeerd! - Maar je bent nog steeds niet klaar, hoor. = I have studied a lot! - But you are still not ready, regardless.
Doe dat jezelf niet aan, hoor! = Don't do that to yourself, ok!?
► WEL (lit. "well") - neuter tone
- Unstressed: very mild reassurance (especially when followed by "but"):
Ze zal morgen wel komen = She will surely come tomorrow
Ja, dat is wel zo, maar... = Yes, it really is, but...
- Stressed: it expresses the opposite of what expected:
De appel was wel lekker = The apple really was tasty (but at first it didn't seem that good)
- It can also negate words like niet and geen:
Ik vind bier niet lekker, maar hij wel. = I don't like beer, but he does.
Zij weet mijn naam niet, maar zij weet wel dat... = She does not know my name, but she does know that...
► GEWOON (lit: "normal") - neuter tone
- To suggest the simplest and most logical option:
Waarom bestellen we niet gewoon een pizza? = Why don't we just order a pizza (instead of cooking)?
- To emphasize something:
Dit is gewoon bizar! = This is really bizarre!
► SOMS (lit. "sometimes") - neuter tone
- Strengthen a closed question: "yes" and "no" are the only two answers the speaker actually wants to hear. Do not use it for rhetorical questions!
Willen jullie soms wat drinken? - Do you want something to drink? (not implicitly asking what they want to drink)
Heb jij mijn sleutels soms gezien? - Have you seen my keys?
TO SUM UP
Here we've seen some of the most frequent Dutch modal particles and their hidden meanings, and we have learned that the same word can have a completely different connotation depending on the context, the emphasis, and its position in the sentence. Remember that this list is by no means complete and there are still many other words (al, dan, dus, ook, nu eenmaal, zeker...) that could belong here.
Mastering modal particles is a pretty hard challenge and, as far as I know, not many non-natives get to the point of using them consistently. Steady practice is, as always, the only way to succeed, so don't give up and keep an eye open for these little fellas when communicating in Dutch!
(2) This Wikibooks page
(3) Dutch Essential Grammar (9th Ed.)