Small words with a big impact: a bluffer’s guide to Dutch modal particles
UvA Talen, the independent language centre of the University of Amsterdam, writes about languages and cultures, helping you to expand your knowledge of Dutch grammar and vocabulary.
Most people who learn a foreign language do it the hard way: by going out and using what they’ve learned, getting confused, making mistakes, and having to repeat the whole process again the next day.
One of the toughest aspects of learning Dutch is getting the hang of some tricky little words - modal particles, to give them their proper name - that can make a huge difference to the meaning of what you’re saying.
What is a modal particle?
You might have come across them already: maar, toch, wel, hoor, eens, even and nou, to name a few common ones.
Modal particles may look innocent enough - they are short and easy to pronounce, after all, which certainly can’t be said of all Dutch words - but the trouble starts when you try to understand them, or worse still, to use them.
How not to use toch
To give an example: when I first came to the Netherlands, I learned that one little word, toch, could transform a polite, friendly exchange into an edgy, unfriendly one.
Then, one time at the supermarket, while I was packing up my shopping, the cashier was already putting the next customer’s goods through the till, which meant that we had to avoid muddling our purchases.
Keen to practise my beginner’s Dutch, I picked up a loaf of bread and said to the other customer, "Dit is toch van mij?"
Far from replying with a smile, she gave me a rather unfriendly look and confirmed that it was. She gave me the impression that I’d behaved strangely, if not rudely.
What had gone wrong? Looking back, I realised that the problem had been caused by that innocent-sounding toch. Instead of checking that the bread was mine, not hers, I’d implied that she’d been trying to take my bread and I was defending my ownership of it. Even though I’d been smiling, I’d come over as rude.
The impact of modal particles
That’s the problem with modal particles: they are small words, but they can have a big impact. In grammatical terms, they’re defined as an uninflected part of speech that emphasises a particular part of a message and how a person feels about it.
Modal particles can soften what you’re saying, for example, or harden it; they can help you to break the ice, or create a secretive atmosphere.
Soften a sentence with maar, hoor, eens, even
Take a straightforward command such as, "Doe het raam dicht (close the window)", for example. In English or Dutch, if we phrase a command in this way, we come over as impersonal, even rude. In English, many of us would instinctively add a "please" to make ourselves sound more polite.
In Dutch, though, you can change the meaning of a command by adding modal particles. "Doe het raam maar dicht, hoor" softens things up; what you’re saying immediately takes on a more informal, friendly character.
Or by adding eens and/or even, you can imply that you only need a minute: "Doe het raam eens even dicht (just close the window for a moment)".
Choose the right modal particle
To go back to the shopping example, my mistake had been to use the wrong modal particle. If I’d used wel - "Is deze wel van mij?" - a word that can add emphasis, then it would have been clear that I was looking for confirmation rather than trying to pick a fight.
To get the hang of these tricky words, you could go through a dictionary and check out all of the examples (although be warned: many of these words are labelled as "untranslatable").
Things really get interesting when you start combining different modal particles. The Dutch have a particular talent for creating great long strings of modal particles that have subtly different meanings - which can be a real headache for learners of Dutch.
Just be normal, OK?
Take the famous Dutch expression: Doe gewoon (be normal!), for example. Insert some modal particles and watch the fun start:
› Doe maar gewoon (just be normal)
› Doe maar even gewoon, hoor (just be normal for a bit, OK?)
› Doe toch eens even gewoon! (just be normal for once!)
› and the rather wonderful, Nou nou, ze doen maar eens even gewoon, hoor! (for goodness sake, they just need to be normal for once, you know?!)
Even when you’ve lived in the Netherlands for a while, these phrases can be baffling. Seeking help on child-rearing from a paediatrician, I was once recommended a book with the intimidating title, En als we nou weer eens gewoon gingen opvoeden. Although I went as far as buying it, I never made it past the first page; the modal particles were too much for me.
Give modal particles a try!
In the end, as is so often the case with learning a language, it comes down to practice. At some point, after much effort and many misunderstandings, you’ll find the maar’s and nou’s and even’s tripping off your tongue without any effort. Knap, hoor!
What are your favourite Dutch modal particles and how do you use them? Let us know in the comments below!