The meaning and use of – “eigentlich”

eigentlich-meaningHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. And today we’ll have a look at the meaning of

eigentlich

 

And eigentlich is super tricky. The dictionaries say that it means actually, and because actually is such a common word in conversational English, learners start using eigentlich that way. But it’s wrong!

  • Actually, I like beer.
  • Eigentlich mag ich Bier.

But the thing is… these two sentences do NOT mean the same thing. If you’re using eigentlich that way… stop it! Seriously, it does NOT express what you think it does.
So are the dictionaries wrong?
Well, not really. Eigentlich and actually come from the same theme, and sometimes they are translations. But 71,83% of the time, they’re not. And thing the dictionaries are missing is the stuff that’s beyond the meaning – the meta ideas that the words express.
Today, we’ll find out what those are, what eigentlich expresses and how to properly use it, so are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s go.

And we’ll start with the dumbest way to start any tour… a detour.

“eigentlich” and “actual” – two of a kind

When you look up eigentlich in a dictionary, you’ll not only get actually, but also actual. Nothing surprising, as German does not have a “-ly” ending and words can be both, adjectives and adverbs. Schön can be both, beautiful and beautifully. And eigentlich can be actual and actually.
And twhile eigentlich is not a great match for actually, it’s a pretty darn good translation for actual.

  • The actual problem is that you don’t enjoy cooking.
  • Das eigentliche Problem ist, dass dir Kochen keinen Spaß macht.
  • Das eigentliche Ziel der Übungen im Arbeitsbuch ist, die Studenten so zu langweilen, dass ihnen der Rest des Unterrichts super spannend vorkommt.
  • The actual goal of the exercise in the work book is to bore so much that the rest of the lecture seems super interesting to them.
  • Dieses Schnitzel ist nur eine Vorspeise. Das eigentliche Schnitzel ist viel größer.
  • This schnitzel is only an appetizer. The actual schnitzel is much bigger.

They do come from different families, actual being related to action and eigentlich being related to eigen, own. But they both express the same theme: real, core, essential.
So if those two line up so well, then what the heck is the problem with eigentlich and actually?
Well, as I said already, it’s not so much the  surface meaning… it’s the meta meaning.

“actually” and “eigentlich” – same bar, different waiter

Actually is quite common in colloquial English and it’s used to express one specific vibe:

TA DAH!!

It’s hard to explain, but there’s this notion of reveal or breaking news. Like… it’s kind of hyping up things a bit, or expressing excitement, which the other person then picks up and replies to with something like “Oh blah blah blah
Take these sentences:

  • “She’s actually not here. “
  • “I actually don’t drink beer.”
  • “I’m actually learning German, too.”

You could reply with “Oh really.” or “Oh wow” or “Oh damn” to all of those.
And it has the same effect in questions….

  • “Have you actually been there?”
  • “Do you actually know how to brew beer?”

The subtext of these is something like

  • Dude, if this is really true that is one piece of news.”

Of course, not every actually has this news-factor, but in conversations many do have it.

And the key thing to understand is that is the German eigentlich DOES NOT HAVE THAT!
Or to put it scientifically:

Ftadah(eigentlich) = 0
(The Tadah-factor of eigentlich is Zero!)

 

Eigentlich has a very different vibe, a kind of dialectic one…

“A or B?”
“Hmmm, A but in reality B.”

I know, this looks really silly but in a way it really is what eigentlich does. It says how something is, while at the same time implying that it’s different.
Maybe we can think of it as a mix of usually, ideally and kind of.
Remember the sentences from the beginning?

  • Eigentlich mag ich Bier.

This sentence tells us that I like beer while at the same time setting up a situation where I DON’T like it.
In fact, in this example many people would expect a but to follow up.

  • Eigentlich mag ich Bier, aber heute habe ich irgendwie keinen Appetit drauf.
  • Normally/Usually/Generally I like beer but today I kind of don’t feel like it.

Not all eigentlichs are followed by an aber, of course. But this notion of contrasting realities is at the core of how Germans use eigentlich.
And this is precisely why you really should stop thinking  of eigentlich as actually even though it sometimes works.
You think you’re expressing news when in reality, you’re relativize your own statement.
Take this example:

  • I actually have a boyfriend/girlfriend.
  • Ich habe eigentlich einen Freund/eine Freundin.

The English version is a pretty clear statement. You have a partner… tadah! Relationship status reveal!
And the other person goes like “Oh… I didn’t know.”
In the German version however, you’re saying that you have a partner, as well, and you know that that means you shouldn’t be flirting. But the eigentlich kind of sort of says… keep flirting, because you might give in.  So as you can see, the messages in German and English are COMPLETELY different.
Here’s another example.

  • Ich habe eigentlich keine Zeit.

This doesn’t mean that you actually don’t have time, full stop. It means that you don’t kind of don’t really have time… but you might have, if it’s really necessary.
Eigentlich keine Zeit really doesn’t sound like a clear “no” and as a matter of fact,  people even have a way to ask each other to de-“eigentlich” such a statement and be clear.

  • “Hast du morgen Zeit mir beim Pferdestallausmisten zu helfen?”
    Eigentlich nicht.”
    “Und ‘uneigentlich’?”
    “Naja, wenn’s echt sein muss.”
  • “Do you have time tomorrow to help me clean the stables?”
    “Not really?”
    “And unreally?” (no idea if that works)
    “Well, if there’s really no way around it.”

So… eigentlich and actually both make a statement about how reality is.
But while actually makes it sounds like it’s interesting and possibly surprising news, eigentlich hints at that reality might also be different.
Sometimes this vibe is really strong and the eigentlich basically sets up an aber. At other times it’s very subtle. And sometimes, eigentlich and actually do line up.
So let’s look at some more examples how eigentlich is used and get a grasp for it’s vibe.

“eigentlich” in action

Let’s start with some examples where this “dialectic” tone of eigentlich is rather obvious.

  • Ich kann eigentlich ganz gut Deutsch, aber wenn ich müde bin, verstehe ich gar nichts.
  • All in all/usually/for the most part my German is quite okay but when I’m tired I understand nothing.
  • Thomas?! Der hat eigentlich schon Feierabend.
  • Uhm… uh…
    (I really have no idea how to translate that. It expresses that Thomas’ work day is officially over. However, he’s still technically available/in the office. So if it’s not just some random shit but something really relevant he might be talking to you.)
  • “Mit hohem Fieber geht man eigentlich nicht arbeiten.”
    “Ja, ich weiß, aber ich muss das Projekt fertig machen.”
  • “You know, usually people don’t go to work when they have a fever.”
    “I know, but I really need to finish this project.”

In all these examples, the contrast that eigentlich sets up is pretty clear to see.
But as I said, it can also be somewhat subtle.

  • “Lass uns essen gehen.”
    “Oh ja, wieviel Geld haben wir noch?”
    “Oh, 30 Euro… meinst du das reicht?”
    “Ja, ja, das sollte eigentlich reichen.”
  • “Let’s go eat.”
    “Great idea… how much money do we have?”
    “32 Dollar… you think that’s enough?”
    “Yeah, if I am not completely mistaken that should be enough?”
  • “Na? Wie war der Urlaub?”
    “Ach eigentlich ganz okay. Das Wetter war nicht so super und meine Freundin hat sich den Fuss verdreht aber doch… war ganz lustig.
  • “So… how was your vacation?”
    “Meh, all in all,  it was all right. The weather wasn’t that great and my girlfriend twisted her ankle but yeah…  it was fun.”

In these two examples,  the speaker basically makes an assessment and what the eigentlich does is kind of acknowledging that there are good points to be made against this assessment. There are lots of scenarios in which 32 dollars are not enough but based on your experience so far it should be.
And were several things that you WOULDN’T want on your dream vacation, but overall you deem it okay.
In these examples, eigentlich doesn’t set up a but, but it still fits in with this general vibe of eigentlich… making a statement about how something is while hinting at other options.
Here are two more:

  • “Die Wäsche ist nicht sauber.”
    “Komisch. Eigentlich reichen 30 Grad aus.”
  • “The laundry is not clean.”
    “Weird. Normally 30 ° is enough.”
  • “Wo ist denn der Zucker?”
    “Der steht eigentlich immer im Regal.”
    “Ah ja, hab’ ihn.”
  • “Where’s the sugar?”
    “That should be on the shelf, is it?”
    “Ah yeah, got it.”

In these two examples, eigentlich compares how things normally are with how they are in a particular instance. Take out the eigentlich and you have two very blunt statements about reality that kind of negate alternatives.
Like… in the second example, the eigentlich acknowledges that the sugar might not be on the shelf this time.

So… these were some examples for eigentlich and I hope you could see that it always kind of does the same thing, but with a different intensity.
And it can have different intensities in the same sentence, all depending on context…

  • Eigentlich ist das eine gute Idee.

This sentence works can be used to set up a but

  • Eigentlich ist das eine gute Idee, aber wir haben nicht mehr genug Zeit.
  • Theoretically/by itself/technically, this is a good idea but we don’t have enough time.

… but it can also just pick a side after weighing arguments.

  • Du hast Recht. Eigentlich ist das eine gute Idee.
  • You’re right. Now that I think about/all things considered (including the cons) it it’s (actually) a good idea.

And it can also emphasize a contrast between two realities…

  • Eigentlich ist das eine GUTE Idee (keine schlechte).
  • Actually, that’s a GOOD idea, (not a bad one).

And so here, we have an example where eigentlich and actually ARE translation.
And in fact, I’m sure some of you have been thinking when reading the other examples “Hmm,  actually would kind of fit.”

eigentlich and actually – it’s complicated

And yes, there are actually a lots of contexts where actually would kind of fit.

  • “Ein Sojalatte. Bitteschön.”
    “Ähm… ich wollte eigentlich ein Bier.”
  • “One soy latte. There you go.”
    “Uhm… I actually wanted a beer.”
  • “Morgen soll es den ganzen Tag regnen.”
    “Oh echt? Ich wollte eigentlich morgen eine Fahrradtour machen.”
  • “They say it’s gonna rain all day tomorrow.”
    “Oh really? I actually wanted to make a bike tour.”
  • Ich war gestern Abend bei der Party obwohl ich eigentlich keine Lust hatte.
  • I was at the party last night even though I actually didn’t feel like it.

But the thing you need to realize is that even though it kind of works and the messages are the same in the examples… the difference in vibe is still there.
The English versions of the examples have this vibe of  reveal, while the German versions lean more toward sounding like a more dry originally,  ideally or in reality.

There are really only a few phrasings and contexts where the two words line up completely, and that is if you use actually in the sense of in actuality/in reality.

  • I said I want to watch a DVD but what I ACTUALLY want is …
  • Ich habe gesagt, ich will DVD gucken aber was ich EIGENTLICH will ist…

But in all other contexts pretty much there’s always this difference in vibe, and as we’ve seen in the example with the partner from earlier, the messages sent by actually and eigentlich can be completely different.
So even though it sometimes works, my advice is pretty clear: do NOT think of eigentlich as a translation for actually. Just STOP using it that way completely.
I know you’re all asking now “Okay, then what would be the best word for actually.”
And the answer to that is … … … … nothing.

  • “I live in Berlin.”
    “Oh wow, I actually live there too.”

This actually has no good translation, because all it does is express a vibe. Go ahead… try to take it out of the English sentence. Would the message change? No. Not even the tone changes that much. The actually just underlines what a cool surprising coincidence that is.

  • “Ich wohne in Berlin.”
    “Oh wow, ich auch.”

This is the perfect match for the English original, and it has enough “excitement” in it.
And an eigentlich here would be COMPLETELY out of place.
So… STOP using eigentlich as actually for now. You can fade it back in later, once you got a feel for eigentlich‘s unique character.
It’ll overall make your German sound more idiomatic.
All right.
Now, I know it’s been a long post already and you’re probably a bit tired, but before we wrap up there’s one more thing we need to go over real quick. And that’s eigentlich in questions.
So do you have another few minutes in you?
Great :).
You’re the best!

“eigentlich” in questions

In questions, eigentlich can do two things. The first one is trying to get to the bottom of things and there, it lines up fairly well with actually, actually.

  • “Paris ist echt ein schönes, kleines Städtchen. Schade, dass es keinen Fluss hat.”
    “Wie bitte? Warst du eigentlich mal da?”
  • “Paris is a nice little borough. A pity there’s no river.”
    “What?! Have you actually ever been there?”
  • Was willst du eigentlich von mir?
  • What do you [actually] want from me, [ anyway]?
  • Wie heißt du EIGENTLICH?
  • What’s your ACTUAL/REAL name?

The other thing eigentlich can do is introducing a new topic. Which makes it essentially a good translation for by the way… so it’s a pretty useful usage, actually.

  • Wie heißt du eigentlich?
  • What’s your name, actually/anyway/by the way?
  • Hast du eigentlich den Test bestanden?
  • Hey by the way, did you pass the exam?
  • Warst du eigentlich schon mal in Paris?
  • Have you ever been to Paris, by the way?
  • Was macht eigentlich Chuck Norris?
  • By the way... what’s Chuck Norris up to?

The phrasing in the last example is super common in the world of magazines and journals to ask what celebs are doing that have not been in the media for a while.
Oh and in case you’re wondering what Chuck Norris actually is up to… I don’t know for sure. But I do know he’s up to it.
Oh and did you know that Corona virus recently got vaccinated… against Chuck Norris. Didn’t help though. It got still roundhoused.
Man, 2021 and I’m funnier than ever before.
And before you can disagree I’ll quickly wrap this up :).
This was our look at the meaning and use of eigentlich. And the key takeaway is that you shouldn’t use it as a translation for actually. Like… seriously… just go on an eigentlich diet for a couple of weeks to break the habit.
Anyway, quiz for this episode coming soon. And as always, if you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment.
Schöne Woche euch allen und bis nächstes Mal.

 

5 14 votes
Article Rating

Newsletter for free?!

Sign up to my epic newsletter and get notified whenever I post something new :)
(roughly once per week)

No Spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Your Thoughts and Questions

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
157 Comments
Newest
Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago

That’s a lot of meaning packed into one word. Interesting to see the etymology, I’m glad that part made the cut :)

I thought it was interesting that ought and eigen came from the same root word, way back when. It seems like there could be some overlap in meaning. The sugar ought to be on the shelf (but maybe I forgot to put it back), $30 ought to be enough for dinner, the hot cycle ought to have gotten the clothes clean.

I kind of like the banners btw. Something exciting about the green arrow. Never had shingles but I’ve heard it’s not too fun.

Duygu
Duygu
2 years ago

Thank you for all the work done above.
I have a super confusion about the usage of tatsächlich, eigentlich, echt and wirklich. What are the differences then? Each of them sounds like the same but I know this is not true. Of course they should be different, this is german :)

Duygu
Duygu
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

The article does not cover the difference between eigentlich and tatsächlich but I read the comments. Now it is better.. :) For the other words, I have an example.

– Ich hasse dich.
-Wirklich? / Echt? / Tatsächlich?

Which one suits better? or are they interchangeable? All of them sound the same for me, like „really“.

Thanks for all the effort :)

jiamin
jiamin
2 years ago

Does the alternative sense in eigentlich works both before and after “aber”?

Möchtest du zusammen zu Abend essen?
— Ich würde so gerne, aber ich habe eigentlich keine Zeit.
— Ich haben eigentlich keine Zeit, aber emm ja.

Does both answer make sense? It seems like they mean pretty much the opposite (not go vs go)

steelk
steelk
2 years ago

Cheers for the article. Just wondering what’s the difference in vibe between “eigentlich” as you describe it and “normalerweise”? Would the later sound a bit more formal?

Annasc
Annasc
3 years ago

So the other day my boyfriend got jealous seeing me with my co-worker. A couple of hours later he said to me how beatiful I am. “Do you really need someone else to understand that?” – I asked.
Now, is this a good translation? :D

“Brauchst du tatsächlich / eigentlich jemand anderen, um das zu verstehen? “

Annasc
Annasc
3 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Nope, I’m just trying to translate real-world situations into german as a way of practice :D
But I have no one to check my clumsy sentences so I’ll just post my attempts on some of the grammatically/lexically related posts trying to keep em interesting enough for a comment ;)

Tommi
3 years ago

When you have to translate a piece of poetry that actually repeats the word “eigentlich” in its ambivalent meaning at the beginning of each line, followed by different things that are “eigentlich” the case …

In order to preserve the formal structure, I actually suggested to use “actually” (as this is the only word that will actually make sense as the poem wraps up), but to add a “but” to each of those lines, actually writing down the “aber” that is often conveyed when using “eigentlich,” but without actually expressing it. Since there is so much repetition at the beginning of the lines, some more repetition at the end should “eigentlich” not hurt.

“eigentlich ist es mir egal”
“actually I don’t care but”

The problem is that both using the “but” or not using it closes the door in either direction. Using it relativizes everything. Not using it makes everything a fact. In this specific case, I would say that using the but is more true to the overall message.

PS: Poets and punctuation … it’s complicated.

Tommi
3 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I’ll talk to the author :)
He went with “actually [somethingsomething] but”

Tommi
3 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

We discussed the issue and went with a but at the end of each line, as we didn’t want to insert any alteration in the structure, neither at the beginning of the lines, nor at the end. The author was happy with questioning every single line.

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
3 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I think I might even say that if someone thinks this poem can be translated into English, then they don’t yet fully understand “Eigentlich”!

Because every single one of the English “translations” I can think of also provides a “level of certainty of truth” which (previous conversations here have taught me – assuming I understood correctly!) Eigentlich of itself does not. We simply don’t know whether any given Eigentlich here is an “actually”, an “on the whole”, a “usually”, a “theoretically/ideally” or an “I’m saying this but we know it’s not really true”. Because Eigentlich doesn’t of itself include that information.

“Eigentlich geht es mir gut” could be a contradiction of “Are you ill?” – “Actually, I’m fine”. Or it could be saying that on the whole you’re well (but have a few aches and pains). Or it could be saying that usually you’re in good health but today you feel a bit nauseous. Or it could be saying the Doctor says you’re well but you believe otherwise. Or it could be putting on a brave face and saying that no, the breakup with your girlfriend hasn’t affected you at all, but both you and the questioner know otherwise.

Which, as you say, is the whole point of the poem. Because we don’t have a context, we don’t know whether each statement is an “actually…” statement of contradiction/truth, or is a statement of some degree of partial truth which needs a qualifying “…but…” after it. We just don’t know! And because we don’t know, we don’t know which English word is appropriate.

Very nice. :-)

Tommi
3 years ago
Reply to  demoneyes136

Everything you said. Luckily, the author is still alive so we were able to talk about all of this and pick the one solution he thought was most fitting. A compromise, sure, but close enough.

Tommi
3 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Film with reading of the poem in German and English subtitles available until Wednesday only!

If you read this and it’s past October 17, 2018, don’t bother clicking:

https://vimeo.com/295028446

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
4 years ago

(I posted this back in March and didn’t get a reply, and can’t see a way to reply to the original comment by way of a nudge. So I’ll repost (with some edits!) and ask again whether I was getting any warmer!)
*****
It seems to me that you’re saying that eigentlich is kind of like a flag being waved to say that there’s some sort of clash between the literal meaning of the statement it’s included in and some other reality?

In a sense it’s a less literal version of “zwar” which you (so very usefully!) explained as meaning “there’s a ‘but’ coming”. Eigentlich says that there is something “but” or “even” or “though” about the statement you’re making, even if you don’t actually go on to say it. Just to be aware of it…

– It could be that the statement is true (even if appearing otherwise); – “actually”
“Eigentlich ist das eine gute Idee.”

– It could be that the statement is normally true (but today it isn’t); – “normally” / “usually”
“Eigentlich mag ich Bier.”

– It could be that the statement is not literally or entirely true – “on the whole”
““Ach eigentlich ganz okay.”

– It could be that the statement is theoretically true (but with a possible loophole) – “in theory” / “technically” / “strictly speaking”
“Thomas?! Der hat eigentlich schon Feierabend.”

– Or it could mean you’d like it to be true (but you know it isn’t really if you’re honest). – “not *really*…”
“Ich habe eigentlich kein Zeit”

And the reason there are five different (and contradictory!) English translations there yet (as you said) they don’t really work because they “go to extremes where “eigentlich” doesn’t reach” is that all of the English versions express a verdict on the “truth” on the statement. BUT EIGENTLICH DOESN’T. It’s just a flag to warn there is a reality clash in progress. NOT to tell you who is winning!

In a sense it’s the classic flavouring particle issue – the German word doesn’t “mean” the same as the English words you’d use to give the same meaning to the phrase! You can translate it idiomatically in all those ways, but it doesn’t *mean* any of them.

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
4 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

*big smile* Thanks and no worries. Very pleased to feel I’m finally (after a scary number of attempts) possibly getting a grasp on this most elusive but super-common of particles. And even happier if my analysis is helping others.

Fascinated though by your comment that “eigentlich” is sometimes more a means of self-expression than a deliberately placed piece of information. Could you expand on that thought?

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
4 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

– Das ist eigentlich eine gute Idee.
“Here, the “eigentlich” just reflects the inner pondering that has taken place, so the speaker uses the word “eigentlich” to communicate something about their feelings/state rather than about the idea itself. Does that make sense?”

I’m not sure it does. Yet. But that’s probably because I can’t judge what the statement is saying without translating it to English, and the English words tend to have values attached which communicate something about the idea! Which said, this seems an interesting exercise in finding how many meanings one could put on that one simple phrase by way of testing that…

…Somebody suggests a seemingly crazy idea – everybody laughs. Then someone says “Das ist eigentlich eine gute Idee.” English translation = “actually”. Communicating that the idea is, contrary to its reception, in fact a very good one.

…Somebody suggests the group goes to the local Greek restaurant. You say “Das ist eigentlich eine gute Idee … aber [it’s a Tuesday evening and that restaurant doesn’t open on Tuesdays].” English translation? Probably you’d just make it conditional – “That would be a good idea…” which flags the coming ‘but’. Or if the closure was exceptional (e.g. the owner is on holiday) you might use “Normally” or “Usually”. But again you’d be communicating the fact the idea was a good one even if it’s not achievable today.

…You’re weighing pros and cons as to whether an idea is worth doing. You say, finally, “Das ist eigentlich eine gute Idee.” English translation – “on balance” or “overall” or “on the whole”. Again, there’s a communication that it’s not an unqualified good idea, that it has some downsides too.

Three examples, all saying something about the idea. So I’m struggling to see how you could use the phrase to others (or even in your own thinking) except to do this… OR… How about if instead of “a flag being waved to say” I had written it as “a marker to indicate”? As that could then also cover the “indicating your feelings” as well as the more “tada – here’s something you need to know” use which the former kind of implied.

Thanks again for both the original posts and these follow-up discussions.

–Phil

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
4 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

You seem to be saying it’s the difference in whether your emphasis is on what has changed or that there has been change? Though to me both are saying “I want to put a reality qualification on this statement to mark that there has been a change”. Whether your emphasis is the change itself or your thinking about the change, you’re still marking that a change has occurred. So I’d be tempted to keep them in the same “group”. Let me see if a slight reword can cover it. Hell, let’s keep it in one place and tweak the whole thing… *** “Eigentlich” as a particle is a kind of marker to say there is some sort of “reality” qualification on the statement it’s included in. In a sense it’s a less literal version of “zwar” which is used to say “there is a ‘but’ coming”. “Eigentlich” says that there is something “but” or “even” or “though” about the reality of the statement you’re making, even if you don’t actually go on to say it. But it can mean this in several different ways… – It could be that the statement is a change or reversal from a previous position – “actually” “Eigentlich ist das eine gute Idee.” [The emphasis can equally be on what has changed or that there has been a change] – It could be that the statement is normally true (but today it isn’t); – “normally” / “usually” “Eigentlich mag ich Bier.” – It could be that the statement is not literally or entirely true – “on the whole” ““Ach eigentlich ganz okay.” – It could be that the statement is theoretically true but with a possible loophole – “in theory” / “technically” / “strictly speaking” “Thomas?! Der hat eigentlich schon Feierabend.” – Or it could mean you’d like it to be true (but you know it’s not the whole truth, not if you’re honest). – “not *really*…” “Ich habe eigentlich kein Zeit” – Or it could be that the statement is likely to be true but factors beyond your control mean it might not be – “probably”, “I ought to” “Wirst du vor fünf Uhr ankommen?” / “Eigentlich schon. [ accepting that the last three are variations on a theme, just with different kinds of “loophole”! ] And the reason there are six different (and to an extent contradictory!) English equivalents but they don’t (exactly work as translations for “eigentlich” (in that they “go to extremes where “eigentlich” doesn’t reach”) is that all of the English versions express a verdict on the “truth” on the statement. BUT EIGENTLICH DOESN’T. It’s just a marker to warn there is a reality qualification involved, but NOT to tell you which way it goes! (Better?) *** And you’re going to hate me (more!) now. Because I’m going to ask how the change/reversal use of “eigentlich” differs from that of “doch”. Because I seem to recall your saying that “doch” can also mark a reversal to or change to a… Read more »

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
4 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I’ve also just realised I omitted the “eigentlich schon” usage. Which kind of fits into that last group of “loophole” or “self-doubting”, though subtly different again.

“Wirst du vor fünf Uhr ankommen?”
“Eigentlich schon. Sofern nicht der Verkehr ist morgen besonders schrecklich”.

In English I’d probably translate that as “I should do” or “I expect so” which convey the same sense of “this is what I expect but there is an element of doubt”. But a million miles from a literal translation! :)

MichaelVG
MichaelVG
4 years ago

Here’s two examples from a movie I just watched that seem very “American-actually”:

1. Rath and Lola are sitting next to each other…there’s context but no verbal context (she’s not replying to anything).
Lola: Eigentlich… Eigentlich sind Sie ein ganz hübscher Mann.

2.
Boss: Ungebildetes Pack?! Sie haben’s nötig! Sie sollten sich lieber rasieren. Wie sehen Sie denn aus?!
Lola: Der hat eigentlich ganz recht. Du könnst’ wirklich mal was vom Rasieren erleben.

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
4 years ago

This article has been incredibly useful since I first read it some months ago, but what had remained a problem for me in understanding its use was that it seemed to have two diametrically-opposite meanings – “really/genuinely/actually/honestly” and “not really/kind of/technically” – with no obvious way of telling which meaning the speaker intended. Or indeed if I used the word, which meaning the listener would think I meant!

However yesterday a German friend used the word in an email so I said this was my understanding of what she might have meant. She replied that my understanding was herrlich and that “‘Eigentlich’ impliziert immer ein ‘aber’, oder einen gegenteiligen Aspekt.” And suddenly a light bulb went on in my head! So now I must ask if that idea was right!

Eigentlich as a flavouring particle always involves a “but” (or a “though”). However this can be “internal” or “external”…

If “external” then your statement is expressing some degree of reversal or correction – it may be an actual “but” or an implicit one, but it is there. “Eigentlich ist das eine gute Idee” = “(Although on first hearing that sounded dumb and we all laughed) actually that is a good idea.” “Ich wollte eigentlich ein Bier” = “(Though you’ve brought me something else) I actually wanted a beer. And in that usage “eigentlich” is not expressing any doubt or fuzziness, the meaning in each of these is that this is what is really/genuinely.honestly the situation.

If “internal” then the statement is not making a reversal or correction – there is no actual or implied “but” or “though”. So in these cases the “but” becomes *internal* to the “eigentlich” and its meaning changes from certainty/reality to doubt/fuzziness/possibility of not being the case. “Ich habe eigentlich keine Zeit” = “I don’t really have the time (but well, I kind of could if I had to but I don’t want to). “Er hat eigentlich schon Feierabend” = He’s technically done for the day (but might still be willing to help you, I don’t know).

Test. If somebody asked if Thomas could still help them and got the answer “Nein – er hat eigentlich schon Feierabend” does adding the sense of contradiction to the statement flip the meaning of eigentlich from the “technically/in theory/there may be a loophole” one to the “genuinely/actually/really/in fact/that’s the way it is” one?

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
4 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Well, yes, it does appear to go against the theory because the theory said that the “genuine” eigentlich appeared when used as an overt or implied contradiction/correction. However it’s possible it holds as what you seem to be saying is that you simply wouldn’t say “Nein – er hat eigentlich schon Feierabend” because the ‘eigentlich’ has too much loophole there to ever be able to put a definite “Nein” on the beginning. So more bad example than bad theory!

Another test.. hm.. Okay. Let’s see if another example can be flipped from “loophole” to “genuinely” by adding contradiction…

“Du wirst mir mir morgen beim Pferdestallausmisten helfen, oder?”
“Ach, nein, entschuldigung, aber eigentlich habe ich absolut keine Zeit.”

(And yes, thanks to your article I understand it has an entirely different set of effects on questions!)

MichaelVG
MichaelVG
4 years ago
Reply to  demoneyes136

The original article here was really clarifying because I’d been one of those Americans using it like “actually”–and, at the same time, I couldn’t figure out how to express the common (for me at least) expression “supposedly.” Turns out “eigentlich” in fact does that work in German! So since reading this I’ve been using “eigentlich” for “normally […but,]” as well as “supposedly” (which also implies “but”) or “theoretically,” “in principle,” etc. And I’ve been diligently substituting “wirklich,” “tatsächlich,” “doch” where I’d been eigentlich-ing.

Now, this comment is both super helpful and somewhat confusing. Helpful, because it makes sense of times (mostly in movies/TV shows) when I’ve heard “eigentlich” in a way that really does suggest affirmation of the statement rather than doubt. And I was already gonna post here exactly to ask about those. They were confusing, and this comment is to me a little confusing, because that seems to be what the article is saying it -doesn’t- mean. E.g., the example “Ich wollte eigentlich ein Bier” is really pretty similar to

Actually, I like beer.
Eigentlich mag ich Bier.

from the post. But “actually” (as a “particle”-type word) has exactly the sense of lightly contradicting an expectation. Also was ist denn eigentlich los?

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
4 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

So basically Eigentlich has four possible meanings (outside of questions)

– This statement is the truth
– The statement would normally be true, but…
– This statement is not entirely true, but more true than not (“on the whole”)
– This statement is not actually true

Or sticking with beer… (I shall guess…)

– Ich wollte eigentlich ein Bier (I actually wanted a beer, not what you’ve brought me)
– Ich mag eigentlich Bier, aber… (I do normally like beer, but not today/this one)
– Ich trinke nicht eigentlich zu viel Bier (On the whole I don’t drink too much beer, but on occasion I do)
– Ich habe eigentlich nicht zu viel Bier getrunken! (No, I really haven’t drunk too much beer. (but actually we both know I have))

(Have I got those right? :-) )

So all you then have to do is figure out which one somebody meant! Eigentlich leicht… :-)

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
4 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

It seems to me that you’re saying that eigentlich is kind of like a flag being waved to say that there’s some sort of clash between the literal meaning of the statement it’s included in and some other reality, either objective or perceived?

In a sense it’s a less literal version of “zwar” which you (so very usefully!) explained as meaning “there’s a ‘but’ coming”. Eigentlich says that there is something “but” or “even” you could (or should) add about the statement you’re making, even if you don’t actually go on to say it.

– It could be that the statement is true (even if someone might believe or something might appear otherwise);
– It could be that the statement is normally true (but today it isn’t);
– It could be that the statement is not literally or entirely true (the “on the whole” meaning);
– It could be that the statement is in theory true (but with a possible loophole);
– Or it could mean you’d like it to be true (but you know it isn’t really if you’re honest).

If I’m right – and what I was missing before – then what eigentlich does *not* say is which way around that discrepancy lies. Only that there is one. Which is why it can appear to mean all the things in this list but actually doesn’t go that far. it can flag or warn you of all of these but – and what is so hard for us English – like most flavouring particles it doesn’t *mean* how it is best translated!

MichaelVG
MichaelVG
4 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I’ll be able to get back to at least one of those examples, since it’s from a film I’m planning to rewatch, but haven’t done it yet. It’s possible though that they were all examples of the second kind (in the beer examples above). I got pretty fixated on the idea that eigentlich ≠ actually, and now I’m trying to adjust to the idea that (actually,) sometimes it is basically equivalent. For me this is the toughest of the particles… Like, “doch” I think I pretty much get, but this… On the other hand I can imagine that “actually” in its Modalpartikelbenutzung is just as tricky for Germans to master. With “actually” the contrast can be totally imagined and just a vague, soft tone of “ta-da!” But with eigentlich it’s gotta be more pronounced, it seems.

The idea that it implies a contrast but that the contrast can go in either direction makes sense to me, I think. So like:

“Ich mag eigentlich Bier, allerdings nehme ich gerade lieber Wein. Keine Ahnung wieso.”
“Du hast mir ein Wein gebracht, und ja danke dir, aber ich wollte eigentlich ein Bier.”

In the second one I’m guessing you could say “…aber ich wollte doch ein Bier,” which changes the tone–makes it a little more assertive?–but not the meaning.

Can you tell me if my intuition is right in the following?:

“Du hast mir ein Wein gebracht, aber ich hab doch ein Bier bestellt” –passt schon
“Du hast mir ein Wein gebracht, aber ich hab eigentlich ein Bier bestellt” –geht nicht

Stephen P
Stephen P
4 years ago

I feel like “doch” can sometimes be translated for “actually” – the “wow, that’s news” actually.

For example, my wife asked me to stay home the other day because her friend, Uli, was going to drop something off. An hour later, I got a text from my wife. She wrote “Uli kommt doch nicht vorbei” – which I understood as – Uli is “actually” not stopping by. (We expected her, but the reality is different).

Does this sound correct?

hoopla!
hoopla!
5 years ago

Who cares how the actual Germans have perverted up their language.
Eigentlich properly means “essentially”.
Since when did real mean actual?

In math we torture students with “eigenvectors” and “eigenvalues”, and even eigenspaces. During one or both of the WWs, when things Deutsch were ferbotin it became proper in English to replace eigen with “proper: or even “characteristic” vectors.

When Americans say they really like beer, they don’t mean they actually like beer,but rather that beer is of the essence.

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
5 years ago

>Maybe we can think of it as a mix of “usually”, “in theory” and “kind of”. / I can’t put my finger on when it lines up with “actually”. And having likewise thought about it for a while, I’m getting the impression there is one more “in the mix” which is somewhere in the vicinity of “really + though” (or sometimes “genuinely” or “honestly” fit better as “really” may sound emphasising when that isn’t what’s wanted.) Where “actually + though” would often also fit… but not always, because as you say it doesn’t have quite the right vibe. Taking your “actually” examples plus another I found on a worksheet, all of them fit that pattern: Ich habe gesagt, ich will DVD gucken aber was ich EIGENTLICH will ist… (Though) I said I wanted to watch a DVD what I REALLY want is … Eigentlich ist das eine GUTE Idee. (Though our first response was to reject it) really that’s a GOOD idea. “Ähm… ich wollte eigentlich ein Bier.” (Though you’ve bought me something else) really I wanted a beer. “Ich wollte eigentlich morgen eine Fahrradtour machen.” “(Though I’m not now going to be able to) I had genuinely wanted to make a bike tour.” Ich war gestern Abend bei der Party obwohl ich eigentlich keine Lust hatte. I was at the party last night even though I honestly didn’t feel like it Eigentlich wollte er heute kommen (Though he hasn’t shown up) he genuinely wanted to come today So all of these are conveying a core “truth” which has either been reversed or thwarted. Very “eigentlich”! Which is, as you say, often also very close to “actually” except that that only really fits in the reversal cases. If you say “I actually wanted a beer” there is an implication that you expect your friend to go back and get one, which if that wasn’t what you meant you’d have to indicate by a joking intonation/expression or adding a “but don’t worry” – the default state of “actually” is “here is something I need you to know” so there it naturally carries an overtone of “and do something about” unless you actively stop it doing so! “Actually that’s a good idea” works very well because it’s both a reversal (either because the idea was originally rejected or because it wasn’t presented in seriousness) and it’s saying “I think everybody ought to know this”. Likewise the DVD example because again it’s reversal plus you-need-to-know. I’m not sure “actually” works in the bike tour example unless the first speaker had said something that needed reversing. At which point my obvious question is could you use “eigentlich” in both statements? e.g. Something like… “Morgen soll es den ganzen Tag regnen. Egal. Wir wollten eigentlich nicht (wohl?) die Fahradtour machen” “Doch! Ich wollte eigentlich die machen!” The party example works for “actually” because clearly you want them to know that how you felt was not in accord with your actions, so reversal + telling. And… Read more »

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
5 years ago

Wie heißt du EIGENTLICH?
What’s you ACTUAL name?

Typo. “your ACTUAL name”. Though I think we’d usually say REAL name. Would that work too?

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
5 years ago

>“Hast du morgen Zeit mir beim Pferdestallausmisten zu helfen?”
>“Eigentlich nicht.”
>“Und ‘uneigentlich’?”
>“Naja, wenn’s echt sein muss.”
>“Do you have time tomorrow to help me clean the stables?”
>“Not really?”
>“And unreally?” (no idea if that works)
>“Well, if there’s really no way around it.”

No, “unreally” absolutely doesn’t work there in English! But what would…? Best I can think of so far is “*Really* really?” which I think carries pretty much the same implication of questioning the original qualification in a single colloquial phrase.

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

(translating “und uneigentlich”)
>How about this:
>…
>“Not really.”
>“‘Not really, no’ or ‘not really ,yes’?”

Hm. I can’t really see that working for the time-to-muck-out-the-stables question because it’s not really a matter of yes vs no so much as a question of how “strong” your “no” was. (To me a “not really” is saying that you could make the time, but there is something else you’d rather or also need to be doing with your time if you possibly can. So it’s possible “not really” might not be a good translation and you’re closer to “Maybe, maybe not” or “It depends”…)

But given that “how strong?” sense, I suppose “How not really?” might then serve.

I suppose the irony here is that one is using “uneigentlich” to try to get to the heart of the matter – which would normally be a job for “eigentlich”! :-)

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

>“Do you have time tomorrow to help me clean the stables?”
>“Not really?”
>“And unreally?” (no idea if that works)

Thinking about this today (whilst trying to write up my own notes and see if I think I understand this yet!), I think the problem is that “Not really” may not be a good idiomatic translation of “Eigentlich nicht.”. “Not really” is saying that you know that you could make the time really but that you don’t want to, presumably because it’d be at the expense of something else you need or want to do. And from what you say, I’m not sure that’s what’s really being meant by the “eigentlich” here..

Perhaps a better idiomatic English translation might be “I’m not sure I will”. That says that you really don’t know well enough to say either yes or no for certain, but you’re tending towards no being more likely, Which I think is what the “eigentlich nicht” is saying…?

At which point “Und uneigenlich” is saying … “Well, I really need to know now either way”. Or maybe “I need a definite yes or no”

**
I get the impression “Eigentlich nicht” is saying “I’m not sure I will”, that it has a slight bias to the negative. If that is the case, could you answer the original question more positively with just “Eigentlich”? Or perhaps “Eigentlich schon”? And if so, what would that be saying? “I *think* so” ?

[Sorry, I know I’m deluging you with questions at the moment! As such, I shall entirely understand if answers take a while!]

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Many thanks! There were some really useful clarifications in there. And “eigentlich schon” also sounds a really useful phrase to remember. How does its vibe compare with “Ich denke schon” which is also if I remember correctly a slightly “hedged yes”?

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
5 years ago

Could you please say a few words about using “eigentlich” with “denn” as a modal/flavouring particle? I’ve read that the two very often go together (“super common” as you might say! :-) ) to kind of double-soften a question, which I’m presuming is essentially the “by the way” usage of eigentlich?

*Or* now I read your piece, I’m wondering if the other question usage of eigentlich works too such that the “denn” is kind of softening the “trying to get to the bottom of things”?

Nami
Nami
5 years ago

Thanks for post :-) Could you please explain how we could Tatsächlich vs Üblich (Since it both sound more in line usually,really etc) I read one of above comments where you mentioned Tatsächlich is more of question sort of but once we friends were speaking and one of my german friend who was using ‘Tatsächlich’ and it dint sound to me he was telling in question way.

Nami
Nami
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Yes thank you it is clear

cam147147
cam147147
5 years ago

This is a really interesting post. I totally overuse this word, and my girlfriend (German but living in the US for the last 2 years and speaks English VERY fluently) tells me that I often don’t use it right. I read this post and found myself more confused because I felt like I would use actually in so many of the examples you used…until I realized that the meaning is just totally different.

I showed the example sentences to my girlfriend and we discussed the meanings in English/German for ~30min and I think I’m finally getting the sense of the word and see why it’s so difficult. MOREOVER, having had this discussion led my girlfriend to realize that she ACTUALLY (hehe) often uses “actually” in English incorrectly. She didn’t realize that “actually” was such a strong word in English (just as I didn’t realize that eigentlich is such a weak word in German).

The best example that you used to illustrate this is the following:
Ich habe eigentlich keine Zeit.
oder
Ich habe eigentlich eine Freundin.

These sentences make perfect sense with actually, but the meaning is quite different, as you explain. For anyone still confused, I would study these examples…

This word just seems to exemplify the difference between (our stereotype of) Americans vs Germans. We are excitable peoples, and you are cerebral folk.

Eigentlich macht das Sinn, but actually I know plenty of cerebral Americans and excitable Germans! How did I do here? :)

Stephen Pickhardt
6 years ago

Maybe you could help clarify something? At the start of the post, you seemed to warn again using eigentlich for the following:

“Have you actually been there?”
“Do you actually know how to brew beer?”

Dude, if this is really true that is one piece of news.

but later in the post, you wrote that a correct use of eigentlich would be:

“Paris ist echt ein schönes, kleines Städtchen. Schade, dass es keinen Fluss hat.”
“WIE BITTE? WARST DU EIGENTLICH MAL DA? ie bitte?

What is the real difference between these two questions? It seems like in the Paris example, the question is like “Dude, if this is really true that is one piece of news.”

anna138
anna138
6 years ago

This one is complicated for me because I kind of get what you’re saying but it’s slightly elusive at the same time. Like in all of your examples I wouldn’t say that using “actually” is wrong. I think it’s also maybe used a little bit differently in BrE to AmE maybe?

But then I thought that perhaps “eigentlich” could actually mean “actually”, but in the sense of “in actual fact”. Using “in actual fact” has that hint of contradiction or doubt and a real or implied “but” that can be missing from a simple “actually”, and you would certainly never use it as a “Ta Da!” actually.

“In actual fact I like beer, but I just don’t feel like it today.”

“In actual fact, I have a boyfriend ….”

“Do you have time tomorrow?” “In actual fact, I don’t”

“In actual fact, I can speak fairly good German, but when I’m tired I don’t understand anything.”

“In actual fact, Thomas has the evening off (but…)”

“In actual fact, one wouldn’t go to work with a high fever.”

“30 Euros … will that be enough?” “In actual fact, I think it will.”

“How was the holiday?” “In actual fact, it was ok, but…”

etc etc

(The more I write “In actual fact” the stupider it sounds, but it is definitely something we say, I promise, even if not quite as often as this implies!)

In some cases it sounds more forced and stilted than others, but I think all of these work in English to some extent and have more or less the same feel as the German. What do you reckon?

Talia
Talia
6 years ago

How would “incidentally” work for eigentlich?

Talia
Talia
6 years ago
Reply to  Talia

Or “supposedly”?