Word of the Day – “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.

  • 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.

 

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