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There are three words in German that are frequently used as filler words in speech. That is to say, they are inserted in a sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence but only the tone of voice, so to speak. These words are: “mal”, “ja”, and “doch”.
You can hear very often that Germans insert the word “mal” in their utterances, like:
Gib mir mal den Stift. – Give me the pen.
Geh mal zur Seite. – Step aside.
Steh mal auf. – Stand up.
In the examples above, “mal” is the colloquial form of “einmal” (once). Germans insert this word, for example, to make a command sound more polite. Such constructions are more time-saving and less complex than politer forms like “Würdest du mir den Stift geben?” (Would you hand me the pen?), “Könntest du mir den Stift geben?” (Could you hand me the pen?), and “Kannst du mir den Stift geben.” (Can you hand me the pen.). Additionally, the word “mal” does also modify the speech flow and the intonation of the utterance, which causes to make it sound friendlier and not too harsh and commanding.
The German word “ja” means, first of all, “yes” in English and it is also frequently used as a filler word in German random speech.
a) Das ist ja mein Buch. – This is my book.
b) Da hast du ja Glück gehabt. – You were in luck.
c) Das kannst du ja nicht wissen. – You cannot know that.
Here, the meaning of “ja” can be compared to the meaning of “indeed”. By inserting “ja” you emphasize your own personal conviction that something is true, so to say. This is especially applicable to sentences b) and c). In sentence a) the word “ja” expresses rather surprise. For example, let’s say, I am missing one of my books. One day I am at my friend’s place and I spot it there, then I would say “Das ist ja mein Buch!” (Hey, this is my book!).
The word “doch” has many translations in English. It can mean “however”, “yet”, “still”, “nevertheless”, “but”, “after all”, and “on the contrary”. But when it is inserted in a sentence like from the above types, then it has the function of contradicting a negative question, statement or behavior.
Gib mir doch den Stift. (You haven’t given me the pen yet. So, do it now!)
Geh doch zur Seite. (You haven’t stepped aside yet. So, do it now!)
Steh doch auf. (You haven’t stood up yet. So, do it now!)
Das ist doch meine Buch. (This is not your book because it is mine!)
Da hast du doch Glück gehabt. (You didn’t have bad luck! You were lucky!)
Das kannst du doch nicht wissen. (You know a lot but this time you cannot know it!)
Last but not least, so when you will ever come across similar utterances, don’t be falsely alarmed that you have discovered new aspect of grammar. None of these three words will ever modify the meaning of a sentence in a way that it is impossible for you understand it not at all.
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