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Review of  Modalpartikeln

Reviewer: Pierre-Yves Modicom
Book Title: Modalpartikeln
Book Author: Sonja Müller
Publisher: ISD, Distributor of Scholarly Books
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Subject Language(s): German
Issue Number: 26.3201

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Review's Editors: Malgorzata Cavar and Sara Couture
Book's Publisher: Universitätsverlag Winter
Book’s North American Distributor: ISD, Distributor of Scholarly Books


This book is intended as a textbook to present the complex issues raised by German modal particles, for an audience composed either of students of German(ic) linguistics or of people already familiar with German grammar but who want to further explore this special topic. For the sake of clarity, I will give a short presentation of this phenomenon before turning to the book itself. German modal particles are deaccented, mostly monosyllabic items occurring in a variety of sentence types to convey non-propositional meaning. They are generally analyzed either as indices of the speaker's propositional attitude towards the content of her utterance (e.g. Weydt 1969) or as markers of mindreading (Theory of Mind) (see e.g. Thurmair 1989, Doherty 1984, Abraham 2010). At least since Doherty (1984), it has been argued that the attitudes in question are mostly epistemic in nature. For instance, the sentence “Das Wetter is schön” (“The weather is nice”) can be expanded with different particles, e.g. “Das Wetter ist ja schön”, “Das Wetter ist doch schön”, “Das Wetter ist wohl schön”, etc. The first example (with the particle “ja”, grammaticalized from the answer particle equivalent to “yes”) is felicitous in cases where the speaker thinks that it is obvious and/or consensual that the weather is nice, so that the hearer has no other choice but to agree with the speaker. In the second example (with “doch”, grammaticalized from a concessive connective), the speaker implicates that the hearer should have agreed with her on that, but that she suspects a disagreement. Thus, “doch” is signalling the existence of contradictions in the Common Ground, due to the hearer's inconsistent beliefs. In the third example (with “wohl”, “well”), the speaker presents the proposition of the weather being nice as a reasonable assumption to her, without strongly committing herself to it.

I have taken examples from assertions, but it is important to notice that at least some particles are also licit in questions, wishes or orders (in which case their modal meaning is arguably not necessarily epistemic).


The introduction (chapter1, “Einleitung”, pages 1-8) addresses the difficult issue of the exact inventory of modal particles in German. First, there is a small set of prototypical, well-studied particles (ja, doch, schon, halt, denn), which also provide most examples in this book. However, there are many other items which can be included - or not - in the paradigm of German modal particles, depending, among others, on the exact definition of what constitutes a modal particle. Here, the author follows the classical inventory as it can be found, among others, in Zifonun et al. (1997). Müller then turns to the question of “how modal” modal particles are. She first distinguishes between the three broad types of modal meaning: the concern with what is possible and what is necessary; propositional attitudes; and other attitudes of the speaker to the content of her utterance. Modal particles are exponents of the third type. She also weighs the pros and cons of the concurring label (“Abtönungspartikeln”) and finally rejects it. The author’s final considerations in this part are devoted to the cross-linguistic distribution of modal particles and their rendering in languages such as English, French or Italian, which are not supposed to exhibit any similar items.

Chapter 2 (“Kanonische Eigenschaften von MPn”, ‘canonical properties of modal particles’, pages 9-20) presents and discusses the canonical properties of modal particles in German, namely they cannot be declined, most of them cannot be stressed, and they do not qualify as phrases. Müller shows that among the various constituency tests at hand, the impossibility for modal particles to occur in the pre-verbal position of V2 sentences in German is the most concluding. Furthermore, modal particles, unlike epistemic adverbials, can be combined; they are supposed to occur only in the “middle field” of German clauses (most typically, in a V2 declarative sentence, after the finite verb but before the non-finite part of it, if there is any). They make no contribution to the truth-conditional content of the utterance, a feature which Müller calls synsemanticity, following Lehmann (1995). Finally, modal particles take wide scope.

Chapter 3 (“MP oder keine MP?”, ‘Modal particle or not?’, pages 21-29) is devoted to a more intriguing property of modal particles, in that they have twin lexemes belonging to another lexical category (“heterosemes”). For instance, the interrogative modal particle “denn” is also a coordinating conjunction meaning “for, because” and a temporal connective (cf. Engl. “then”), and “ja”, “doch” and “wohl” (see introduction of this review) are also the words meaning “yes”, “though” and “well”. Thus, we have to resort to the tests listed in section 2 to determine when the item is a modal particle, and when it is its cognate or “heteroseme.”

In chapter 4 (“Die Bedeutung von MPn”, ‘The meaning of modal particles’, pages 30-41), Müller presents three general approaches to the meaning of modal particles: they can be approached as illocutionary type modifiers (Jacobs 1991), as exponents of the speaker's propositional attitude (Doherty 1984), or as signals of meta-pragmatic instructions in the sense of Relevance Theory (König 1991). The main example throughout the chapter is “ja”.

The following two sections are devoted to the syntax of Modal Particles in the generative framework. In chapter 5 (“Die interne Syntax von MPn”, ‘The internal syntax of modal particles’, pages 42-52), the author first lists five criteria to identify functional items in an X-bar grammar. Modal particles match four of them. Then, Müller examines the hypotheses of modal particles being clitics, affixes or heads and rules them out systematically, and leads her to conclude that modal particles should be regarded as phrasal adjuncts to VP.

In chapter 6 (“Die externe Syntax von MPn”,‘The external syntax of modal particles’, pages 53-60), Müller explains that the base position of modal particles is the left part of the middle field, though much variation is possible. She subsequently turns to Cinque's (1997) hierarchy of functional and adverbial heads. In this framework, the base position of modal particles could be located between habitual and iterative aspect. Yet, this would plausibly mean that modal particles are not adjuncts to VP but part of the IP cascade.

The next part (Chapter 7, “MPn in der Informationsstruktur”, ‘Modal particles in information structure’, pages 61-73) is centered on two dichotomies, the focus-background opposition and the theme-rheme distinction, where “thematic” and “rhematic” are taken as broadly equivalent to “old information” and “new information” (page 63). In a further step, she assumes that the default case in a German assertive sentence is when both distinctions run in parallel, with the rheme carrying the information focus and the theme being left in the background. It seems that when a modal particle is adjacent to the part of the clause identified as the focus domain, the particle generally precedes the focus. This and other facts lead the author to the assertion that modal particles normally precede the focus and block the focus projection to the left.

As regards the theme-rheme distinction, Müller shows that thematic material is still licit after a modal particle, whereas rhematic elements cannot occur before it. On one hand, thematic elements can be focalized, though this is usually not the case. On the other hand, rhematic elements normally carry some sort of focus. For this reason, Müller suggests that the theme-rheme issue might boil down to the aforementioned fact that modal particles block the focus domain to the left.

Chapter 8 (“MPn und Satz-/Illokutionstypen”, ‘Modal particles and sentence types / illocutionary types’, pages 74-83) addresses the fact that not all modal particles are licit in all kinds of sentences. Müller quickly rules out the idea that these distributional issues are a matter of illocutionary type and concentrates on formal sentence types, which are defined in German, among others, by the place of the verb, the verbal mood, the presence or absence of a conjunction, and prosody. While some types allow for many modal particles without needing any (such as the standard V2 declarative sentence), other types demand such a particle, but then only one or two of them might be eligible. For instance, V1 counterfactual optative sentences demand “doch”, “nur” oder “bloss”.

(1) Wäre ich doch / nur / bloss reich !
be.IRR 1sg PART rich
“If only I were rich!” (Müller 2014:79)

The final chapter (apter “MP-Kombinationen”, ‘Combining modal particles’, pages 84-93) is devoted to the fact that combinations of modal particles are not completely free; many modal particles are incompatible with at least some other particles, and they cannot be combined in any order that the speaker wants. Following a proposal by Thurmair (1991), Müller notices that both particles have to be separately licit in the current syntactic context to be eligible to combination. Further, their semantics has to be compatible, because the combination of contradictory pairs is not licit. As regards the order of particles in combinations, things are not so clear. Whereas the formal order rules are well described, there are still various hypotheses, both formal and functional, to account for them. Finally, regarding the semantics of these combinations, the author agrees with Rinas (2006) and makes the case for scope relations, in which the first particle takes scope over the complex formed by the second particle and the other constituents to its right.


Though the opinions of the author are quite explicit on some debated issues, she always presents a variety of approaches and viewpoints if there is no consensus on some point. For instance, she fairly examines three differing lines of thought on the semantics of modal particles (chapter 4), and at least two incompatible syntactic accounts (chapters 5 and 6). Of course, the profusion of theories and models dealing with modal particles is presently so huge that not all of them could be mentioned, and even readers who are already familiar with this topic will undoubtedly miss several interesting views. Nevertheless, the overall impression is that the most important approaches are not only represented, but explained and discussed with fairness and clarity. In the same fashion, the (generative) discussion of the syntax of modal particles is made accessible to everybody, and in my eyes, Müller manages to make it relevant for non-generativists, as well.

In this respect, there is only one point that would need some improvement: most of the work made by Weydt (1969) and his successors from a pragmatic or conversational perspective is not really addressed in this study. Though I personally share the author's skepticism towards Weydt's terminology (chapter 1) and consider “semantic minimalism” (König 1991, here: chapter 4) to be a preferable stance, it might have been beneficial to give an example of a “semantically maximalist” context-oriented analysis. This point is characteristic of the book's slight bias in favor of formal approaches, whereas conversational analysis or phenomena from oral language and/or dialogue are not necessarily addressed as they could have been.

Further, grammaticalization and/or pragmaticalization are left out of consideration in this book, which is certainly the biggest surprise for any reader acquainted with this issue (see also Schoonjans 2012 for “particulization”). The facts presented in chapters 2 and 3 show that modal particles are very plausible candidates for both processes, and much work has been done on this question. Müller briefly mentions some diachronic data discussed in Diewald (1997), one of the major works on grammaticalization in German, but the very word of “grammaticalization” does not even appear in the text. Further editions should definitely include at least one page explicitly addressing this issue, as well as a few additional bibliographical references (e.g. Abraham 1991).

Finally, there are two sections that might deserve some (slight) improvement in future editions. First, I am not entirely convinced by the short section of chapter 1 concerned with the translation of modal particles and their cross-linguistic equivalents. Since the book is a part of a series on German linguistics, I even wonder to what extent it would have been better to reduce this section to a few bibliographical indications at the end of the chapter. Here, the author mainly comments on examples from real translations of German texts into languages (French, English, Italian) that allegedly do not have such categories. First, the claim that Romance languages do not have modal particles is highly questionable; it is still a highly debated issue for French (Schoonjans 2014), and in Italian, there are several works suggesting that at least some dialects do exhibit modal particles (see e.g. Cardinaletti 2011). Further, the examples are not studied thoroughly enough, especially as regards the translation of the German text into French, where the German particle “eben” is rendered with a cleft structure including a discourse particle: this particle,“bien” is neither glossed nor commented upon, though “bien” is one of the more likely candidates when it comes to French modal particles (Waltereit and Detges 2007). If the author really wants to address this issue, which after all is not absolutely necessary in a book strictly concerned with German, she should devote a whole chapter to it and mention more papers or dictionaries concerned with this question, such as Métrich and Faucher (2010).

As regards the chapter on information structure, the author’s argumentation is very clear and convincing. I would only recommend to include more bibliographical information/references. Most of the relevant literature on information structure in German (Musan 2010, Krifka 2006, Molnár 1993) is ignored. For instance, it would be useful to mention Musan's (2010) volume on information structure in the same series.

In conclusion, in spite of the last few remarks I made, I believe that this book is a very robust and interesting companion for students of Germanic linguistics willing to discover German modal particles. This is an important, difficult topic for anyone working on German grammar, both with native speakers and with foreign language learners. Yet, it took much time before they found their way into German grammars or textbooks, and to my knowledge, this is the first comprehensive introduction totally devoted to the topic from a linguistic point of view (up to now, comprehensive results of research in this area were mostly published in the form of dictionaries). For this reason, Müller's work should definitely find its place on the bookshelves of those teaching German linguistics, and probably of many students of German, as well. The field has been so extensively studied in the last years that there was indeed a need for such a valuable introduction.


Abraham, Werner. 1991. The grammaticalization of the German modal particles. In: Traugott, Elizabeth C. and Bernd Heine (eds.). Grammaticalization, vol. 2. Amsterdam: John Benjamins publishing. 331-380.

Abraham, Werner. 2010. Diskurspartikel zwischen Modalität, Modus und Fremdbewusstseinsabgleich. In: Harden, Theo and Elke Hentschel (eds.). 40 Jahre Partikelforschung. Tübingen: Staffenburg. 33-78.

Cardinaletti, Anna. 2011. German and Italian Modal Particles and Clause Structure. In: Linguistic Review, vol. 28. 493-531.

Cinque, Guglielmo. 1997. Adverbs and Functional Heads. A Cross-Linguistic perspective, University of Venice Working Papers in Linguistics.

Diewald, Gabriele. 1997. Grammatikalisierung. Eine Einführung in Sein und Werden grammatischer Formen. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Doherty, Monika. 1984. Epistemische Bedeutung. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. (Studia Grammatica 23)

Jacobs, Joachim. 1991. On the semantics of modal particles. In : Abraham, Werner (ed.), Discourse Particles: Descriptive and theoretical investigations on the logical, syntactic and pragmatic properties of discourse particles in German. Amsterdam : John Benjamins Publishing. 141-162.

König, Ekkehard. 1991. The meaning of focus particles. London: Routledge.

Krifka, Manfred. 2006. Basic notions of information structure. Potsdam: ISIS working papers.
Lehmann, Christian. 1995. Synsemantika. In: Jacobs, Joachim, Achim von Stechow, Wolfgang Sternefeld and Theo Vennemann (eds.): Syntax. An international handbook of contemporary research. 1251-1265.

Métrich, René and Eugène Faucher (In collab. with Albrecht, Jörn). 2010. Wörterbuch deutscher Partikeln - Unter Berücksichtigung ihrer französischen Äquivalente. Berlin etc. : De Gruyter.

Molnár, Valéria. 1993. Zur Pragmatik und Grammatik des TOPIK-Begriffes, in Reis, Marga (ed.): Wortstellung und Informationsstruktur. Tübingen: Niemeyer. 155-202.

Musan, Renate. 2010. Informationsstrukur. Heidelberg: Winter (=KEGLI 9).

Rinas, Karsten. 2006. Die Abtönungspartikeln doch und ja. Semantik, Idiomatisierung, Kombinationen, tschechische Äquivalente. Frankfurt/M. etc.: Peter Lang.

Schoonjans, Steven. 2012. The particulization of German complement-taking mental predicates. In: Journal of Pragmatics, 44 (6/7). 776-797.

Schoonjans, Steven. 2014. Oui, il y a des particules de démodulation en français. In: CogniTextes, 11.1-36.

Thurmair, Maria. 1989. Modalpartikeln und ihre Kombinationen. Tübinger: Max Niemeyer (=Linguistische Arbeiten 223).

Thurmair, Maria.1991. Kombinieren Sie doch nur ruhig auch mal Partikeln ! Combinatorial regularities for modal particles and their use as an instrument of analysis. In : Multilingua 10. 19-42.

Waltereit, Richard and Ulrich Detges. 2007. Different functions, different histories. Modal particles and discourse markers from a diachronic point of view, In: Catalan Journal of Linguistics 6, 61-80.

Weydt, Harald. 1969. Abtönungspartikeln. Die deutschen Modalwörter und ihre französischen Entsprechungen. Bad Homburg v.d.H. : Gehlen.

Zifonun, Gisela, Ludger Hoffmann, Bruno Strecker et al. 1997. Grammatik der deutschen Sprache. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Pierre-Yves Modicom is currently a PhD candidate in German linguistics at U. Paris-Sorbonne. He works on connectives and particles in contemporary German.

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