Word of the Day – “schon”

schonYo yo yo ladies and gentlemen,

I want you to give me an s:      “S”

Gimme a c:                                      “Atlantic”

gimme an h:                                   “H”

gimme an on:                                “ON”

What’s that spell??                      “Paaaaaaaaaaaaaartaay”

Damn right, it spells party so turn up the volume, grab a partner and bust a move…. … … yeah… … … … …

All right, enough. Time to focus on German and our word today is

schon (pron.: shohn… kind of)


Schon is one of the most frequently used words in German in both written and spoken German. I am sure, no matter in which top 100 list you look you will find schon there.
But it is not only one of the most useful but also one of the most confusing ones… just like doch(already discussed here) or eben. It seems to be everywhere but half of the time the dictionary translation doesn’t make any sense at all.
Today we’ll change that… do you hear me, schon? If you’re listening to this… you had it coming, you word you. I know you fancy yourself a tough word, but students of German are tough too. They take on cases for breakfast, man, and today it is ooon… You are sooo going doooown! By the end of this post you’ll be like “Oh no, what just happened… I… I’ve bee fully explained, oh God, I feel so exposed.” That’ll teach you to… oh… oh I… uh I’m sorry, I got a little carried away. I just had to pump up a little I guess because schon has been on my list forever and it seems like this massive unclimbable wall… just check out schon at Pons to see what I mean… so let’s start hiking, shall we?

Before we get to the meanings of schon let’s have a quick look at its origin. There is another word that looks quite similar to schon. The only difference is that it is wearing make-up (check out the brand here). Why is it wearing make up? Because it wants to be beauti… ok I think you got it :).  Schon is closely related to schön many of you probably know as beautiful. But schön is a little broade… wait, I shouldn’t say that about a lady… schön has a little more faceted than just beautiful because it often is used as nice… for instance for a vacation.
Both words, schon and schön, go back to the Indo European root *skeue which meant something like to pay attention or to perceive. And this is in fact also the root of the English word to show. And there is  even a closer relatives of schon in English: a scone (read more  here) which is a piece of bakery.
So… schon originally meant nicely or beautifully. From there it shifted more and more toward satisfyingly which is not so far away from completely and thus we have already reached the first meaning of schon.

schon – already and beyond

The main meaning of schon today is already

  • Ich habe schon gegessen.
  • I already ate.

Now what about the negative? So, what if there is a not involved? For the most part English would use not yet to phrase that but in some occasions not already might work as well. Not in German though. Nicht schon never works and will always be noch nicht.

All right….  now, thinking of schon as simply already is totally fine in the every day but actually schon is actually a little bit more broad than already. In one article here, I had an example where I had simply translated schon as already, but then someone pointed out to me in a comment that this doesn’t work in that particular situation. So here is the example…

Already has a notion of accomplishment so there needs to be something that is (being) accomplished.
Schon, just like its counterparts in French or Polish for that matter, is a little broader than already in that it doesn’t always need an accomplished action. Let’s take a short example:

Here, schon indicates that 12 is considered somewhat early either by me, the listener or the general public. So… it is really vague. Here are possible contexts for the sentence:

  • My plan was originally to come at 3 so 12 is kinda early compared to that
  • My company thinks 5 is a good time to go home so 12 is kinda early
  • There is a party tomorrow that starts at 11 so… 12 would be kind of early to leave by party attendance standards

So schon can also express wow, that is kinda early and it totally depends on the context and personal opinions when this is applicable.
And as we’re at that let’s be real nerds and generalize this idea of schon to wow, that’s kinda quite something” and see this as the core meaning of schon for a second.
Now you might be like “But why… I… I really liked the already version just fine… don’t confuse me now”… well, the reason why it is useful to be so nerdy is that it makes schon the direct opposite of erst which expresses “wow, that’s not so much (yet). Here are a few examples…

So by changing just one word I can look at the same fact from 2 different points of view and this shows that schon is a little more general than already, with its rather strong notion of accomplishment.
But I think for the daily life it is save to just think of schon as already.
Now, before we get to the other schon (the weird confusing hard to translate filler schon) there are 2 kind of fixed expressions that you really need to know. I am sure they will sound familiar. The first one is schon wieder.

The dictionary tells us that again means wieder… but in fact wieder alone just expresses the idea that something is reoccurring. The schon adds what is entirely implied by inflection and common knowledge in English… the idea that it is a “kinda earlier than expected”-repetition…. and that is exactly the “wow, that’s kinda early” meaning of schon we … uh … “schon” know.
Great. Now forget the “kinda early” meaning for a second and focus on the already part. The second fixed expression with schon is schon mal… what? Oh, oh yes I know you want mal explained. I will do it in… Malch… …. (get it? It is like with l instead of r)
So… in statements, schon mal pretty much expresses the idea of already. I think the mal makes it sound less completed, less definite… I don’t really know how to express this…

Now, when we use schon mal in a question the English translation changes. But the idea expressed is actually the same.

These questions are incredibly common in German and you should learn it.

So … what we’ve learned so far is that schon means already most of the time, it is a little more broad than already, it is the direct opposite of erst and it is part of 2 incredible handy constructions, namely schon wieder and schon mal. Cool. We have reached base-camp, if you remember my climbing metaphor.
And now let’s talk about all the other schons, the praticle schons, the filler schons or the coloring schons, however you want to call it
… let’s start the real ascend.

Schon – coloring orders

Good news for all native speakers of American English: schon in imperative sentences (orders)  is not going to be a new concept for you because just like already, schon  expresses impatience in those sentences.

  • Sag schon!
  • Say it, already!

I am not sure as to how strong adding already is in this context but schon can have different intensities and it really comes down to how you say it. You can say either example in a really nice, encouraging way or you can flat out bark it at someone. This use of schon is not the most common one but there is one expression that is used a lot…

Komm schon is mostly used in a context of encouraging someone to do something.

It doesn’t really work if you want to doubt someones statement. Just to give you an example

But anyway… so schon in orders can be anything from encouraging to really pushy.

Schon – coloring statements

The Duden, a German reference for word meaning and spelling, list up 8 possible meanings for the coloring-schon (check them out here).  8 is fine but less would be better. And after turning the word around and around in my head for weeks, I finally found a way to verbally capture the essence of what schon does to a statement with just 2 words :

  • dispersing doubt

Now let’s see what we can do with this. The first group of sentences using schon as a color are meant to encourage someone.

So, schon adds kind of the same reassuring effect as does don’t worry… it is dispersing doubt. By the way… this schon neatly ties in with its beautiful-origin.

More examples:

Here the schon tries to actively disperse the doubt of the other person. That makes it different from an intensifier like really. Really just intensifies that the speaker thinks it is correct spelling while schon has a subtext of “Let go, chill out, accept”. And yet more examples:

In fact this “geht schon” is something that is used a lot. It does not mean that things are awesome but are “okay enough”.

Here, schon disperses the doubt that the film has passed the okay-threshhold. Nothing more. It doesn’t imply greatness, just asserts “okayness” and leaves room for follow up nit pick.
Now what about examples like this

How does schon disperse doubt here? Doesn’t it rather raise some? Doesn’t it set up a but just as I guess does? Those are legit questions and when you look up other explanations for schon , including the Duden one, you will read that these schons make the statement sound less convinced than it would be without it and that schon sets up the but. But frankly, I think that is missing the point and creates 2 contradictory meanings (reassuring vs skeptical) where one would be enough. There is a slightly skeptical, doubtful tone to schon here but it is not contradicting the dispersing doubt idea…. why not? Well, I could just bail out and say “Well, to disperse can mean a lot of things including to spread.” But, I also think that despite setting up a but, schon asserts the part before the but. But I honestly think that even in those examples, schon disperses some doubt… either the doubt about the mere “okayness” of the whole thing or the doubt about one particular aspect. Let me prove my point with more examples:

Here, schon disperses the doubt about the fun part while leaving room for a but. Wow… this is a really heavy climb :)… but this was the toughest part. Let’s rest for a second and look back…. oh sooo nice…
The core idea of schon is dispersing doubt. But it can remain very skeptical. and at times it just disperses doubt about one aspect while leaving others open for debate. At time it can sound very skeptical and doubtful in general but at least the part before schon is assured. One last example for this:

All right… so we almost got it and there are just a couple of more situations you need to know. Another group of sentences with schon are rhetorical questions.

In questions like these, schon implies that the answer to the is in fact: nothing or no one.  In the first example it evaporates doubts that Thomas could do anything of consequence for me. In the second one it leaves no doubt that nothing will be achieved and so on.
Then, there are those statements that are said as a question ( affirmative questions) and schon is often part of those.

Again, schon has something to do with dispersing doubt. Without schon, it would be a simple affirmative question.

  • You have a license, right?

Schon adds the notion that I have actually little doubt that what I am saying is true and I would be really surprised if the answer were no. So with schon I just want you affirmation of what I already consider a fact. Now, wait a second… affirmation… wasn’t that the core idea of doch… seeking affirmation? Yes, it is and in these sentences the 2 words are really close. But there is a difference.

The schon sounds waaaaaay more convinced. It almost affirms itself (because it has doubt dispersing powers) while doch is yearning for affirmation because it is just not sure. The doch-version can work when you just feel like you heard once that the person has a license but also if the person says that he or she can’t drive that very day. Let me try to capture that in English.

  • Hey it just occurred to me that you have a license, is that right?
  • But why not? I thought you had a license?!

The schon version could be said by a police officer after upon your saying that you have no license to show. The cop assumes that you don’t have it WITH you.
So… schon is way more sure of itself than doch is in affirmative questions.
And thus we get to the last situation… but wait… didn’t I promise there would be only a couple of situations earlier and not 3? I did, but I used it the German way ;)
So… the last situation in which schon is very common looks like this:

So what exactly does the schon do here? It accepts or concedes that there is no way around what is said before and at the same time it sets up a condition of yours.

So … does that tie in with the dispersing doubt idea? Well, it kind of does. Schon verbally admits that all your hope of dodging the romantic comedy is lost. You have to watch one, there is NO doubt about that anymore. Not because of schon, but schon expresses it. And by the way

We made it !!!!!

We have reached the top of the mountain. And I am really exhausted adn I am sure you are too. But the good thing is we don’t have to climb down :).
So… here is the quick recap.
Schon comes from schön which means beautiful. Schon often means already and it is the direct opposite of erst, which has no English translation. As a coloring particle schon always disperses some doubt but it can still sound very skeptical. I think this dispersing doubt thing is really the core of the word and it does even kind of work with the already-schon… I am already here is kind of like There is no doubt that I am here. But this is really abstract and if you don’t agree than that’s fine :). I just tried to boil it down as much as possible. So… if you have any questions or suggestions or if my English examples are wrong or if I missed a notion of schon or if you just need to express that you are tired please leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.
Oh … and if you need to chill out now… here is a song that I find really relaxing … enjoy