Word of the Day – “da”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Da…y. And this time we will take on one of THE MOST words the German language has to offer… most what you ask? Well, most common, most confusing, most short and al-most in every sentence.  We will look at the meaning of:

da

It can translate to there. But also to here. And to then. And of course also to because. And then there are the dreaded da-words.
Seems pretty confusing. But it actually makes sense, so let’s jump right in, shall we?

The origin of da is a a really old Indo-European sound that was basically just the verbal counterpart of a pointing finger. And it’s the root for pretty much all the “definite” pointers we have today. So the, this, that, there, then, thus or the German der, die, das, dort, dann and so on. The original sense of da, as the Germanic tribes used it, was there in the sense of “not here”.
But the Germans have taken a particular liking in da and started using it in a bunch of contexts that were beyond just location. So it was basically evolving – just backwards.
But let’s go step by step and start with the original meaning.

“Da” (and “dahin”) as “there”

So, da started out as there in a sense of not here. And it still has this meaning.

In all three examples, the da basically functions as a kind of verbal index finger. In the first one, you need a real index finger pointing somewhere to give it “content”, in the other two, the da points back to the location that was established earlier.
But yeah, it’s basically a verbal pointer and it gives us information about location.
So far, there’s no difference to there.
But not every there translates to da. In fact, that’s a pretty common mistake. And it has to do with  German’s OCD with location.
If you’ve studied with this blog for a while, you might have come across this concept already because it keeps popping up.
German is compulsilvely precise about location.

You see, here are three possible “types” of location:

  • origin (where from?)
  • current location (where?)
  • destination (where/where to?)

And the thing with German is that German ALWAYS marks in some way or another which of the three we’re dealing with.
And that has an impact for translating there, as you can see here.

  1. I’m there.
  2. I’m going there.

As you can see, there can refer to a currect location AND a destination. It can answer where? and where to?.
Da can ONLY answer to “where?”.
If your asking for a destination , da by it can NEVER be a fine answer.

  • I’m going there.
  • Ich gehe da…. is really really wrong.

If you want to use it for a destination, you’ll have to mark that in some way. And the most generic option is dahinda… you mark it so it is clear that you are talking about destination and in this case the mark is the most common and most generic destination marker we havehin

  • I’m going there.
  • Ich gehe dahin.

Da  can only answer to what place, not to what place. Try to keep that in mind, because it’s a REALLY common mistake.
Here’s another example.

Cool.
Now, before we get to the other meanings of da, let’s quickly address that da has a rival… dort.

Dort is ALSO a translation for there in the sense of “not here”. So what’s the difference?
Some people might argue that dort is like really far away while da is only sort of away…

but I’m not so convinced. I ain’t no expert in geography, but I think Australia is kind of far away from Berlin and still da AND dort are perfectly fine in the example.
To me, it’s mostly a matter of tone; dort sounds more stiff and formal to my ears. But there’s also research that suggests it depends on region (find it here).
I would recommend you stick with da, and leave dort for the boring books, but you can do whatever you want. The only thing that does matter is that dort is 100% about location. So it does not work as a replacement for da in the other contexts… which we’ll get to know :)

“da” as “here” – and why it’s not weird

I said in the intro that da doesn’t only mean there, but also here. So imagine you sit in German class waiting for your teacher Hans and then all of a sudden, I walk in the door.

We could also use hier, but using da is WAY more idiomatic in a context like this one.
So… we’ve learned that da means there and now we learn that it can also mean here.
Is that just another instance of German being needlessly confusing?
Well… not really. In fact, English kind of does the same thing.
Take this situation: two people are standing next to the stove looking into a pot…

Both people are clearly very close to the soup. So from their perspective the soup definitely qualifies as “here”. And yet, even English uses there.
And I have another example. Two Hours later, the same two people. They are in bed. Naked. Sweaty. All cuddled up. Looks like they did some sports. One starts speaking…

What does that mean? What place is there referring to? Is it really a there as opposed to here? Like… wouldn’t here make more sense in the cuddle-context?
And I have a third example…

  • “Is there a good bar here?”

Here, we have here and there in one sentence. And clearly this is a very common phrasing.
The point I am going at is that also English DOESN’T only use there in a sense of over there as a contrast to here.
In the examples, we can see there in a very generic sense of being present… kind of like this.

  • Is an ATM present somewhere here?

And that idea of being present is the key to German da, as well.

You can say this sentence in the meeting Thomas was supposed to attend, but also at home when you tell your partner about how Thomas wasn’t at the meaning. In either case, you use da even though the perspective on the location changed. But the actual sense of the German sentence is

  • Thomas is/was not present.

Da sein is a really common phrasing in German, and sometimes the translation is there, other times it’s here. But the core idea is being present.

And there is even a noun in German that is based on that idea.

So, this generic idea of being present is the key to understanding why da can translate to here and there. And we’ve seen that English there has this core idea as well.
One key difference is that in German, as soon as there is a location in the sentence, da does mean the classic there as in at that location. So in these instances, the proper translation for “there is” is “Es gibt” in German.

  • Ist noch Suppe da?
  • Is there still some soup?
    (no location specified)


But hey… these are nuances and you’ll just need to develop some feeling for it. The main point of this segment was that you understand that it’s NOT weird that da sometimes translates to here because it can just carry the very basic notion of being present.
All right.
Now… the examples we’ve seen so far were all about location.
But da is actually not limited to that at all.

da – the verbal index finger

You might remember that I called da a verbal index finger in the first segment.
Well… this verbal index finger can be used to point at pretty much anything.
A prime example for this are the da-words.
I have talked about those in a separate article in detail (link below) so I’ll keep it brief here.

Da-words can point to things (or replace them if you will) and actions that have been mentioned before (or are about to be mentioned). And English has them too.

There does not point to a location, it points to  “(eating) dinner” .
English doesn’t use its there-words that much, but German LOVES its da-words and we use them all the time. So English says for that, we’d say dafür and so on.
Yes, it takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s also kind of practical because you DON’T have to worry about cases and gender. Like… you don’t have to think about whether you need dem or den or der or das or die. Da-words don’t care ’bout that.

Sadly, they also don’t care about … like… staying together. At least in German, there’s this trend recently to split up the da-words and put the parts far across the sentence. Like so:

I’ve talked about this split in more detail in another article, though, so I’ll just leave the link below.

Let’s get back to da as a verbal index finger and look at some examples that are not da-words.

As you can see, it can point to all kinds of elements… fact, events, time. Even reasons. And in fact, that’s how it took on the meaning because.

The da basically points to the reason. The only difference to the “normal” da-s is that it actually changed into a functional word and became a synonym for weil. Same meaning, same structure. The only difference is that da sounds a bit more formal. da-sentences also tend to be in front of the main sentence while weil sentences are more often placed after it. And, da-sentences are usually a bit longer and they sound more official.

Anyway…  so da can be used to point at pretty much anything… anything BUT two things. The first one is living beings, because we’d use the proper pronouns in these instances (more on that in the post on the da-words )
And the other thing da can’t point to is manner, mode – the answer to how?.

  • You can’t just take the exam without ever having attended the classes. It doesn’t work that way.
  • Du kannst nicht einfach die Klausur schreiben ohne jemals in der Vorlesung gewesen zu sein. Da funktioniert das nicht….

I used the same logic as before but still this is not just wrong… it is not even close to being understandable. The German word to point at how-related things is … drumroll… so.

  • So funktioniert das nicht.

And I almost feel weird saying it but… I have talked about so in a separate article so I’ll leave the link below :).
Cool.
So now I think we have a pretty good impression of what da is and that it’s super mega common.
Which of course begs the question why.

Why do Germans love their da so much?

And I think it has to do with the fact that Germans have a general love for anything “location” – a love that shines through everywhere in the language.
The question word wo, for example, means where so it asks for a location. But you can find examples in abundance in which wo is not really related to location. For one thing, there are the wo-words (yup, separate article)

but not only that. In daily speech, people often use wo for time:

and some dialects in the southwest use it to refer to… people…  really really really nasty stuff :)

  • Der Mann, wo mich angerufen hat, ist mein Vater.
  • The man, where called me, is my dad (lit.)
  • The man who called me is my dad.

And that’s just one aspect of German’s obsession with location. Another example are the two way prepositions. Or the marking of origin, location, destination that we came across earlier in this post. German is a very “3D-Space” language and when people talk they use their verbal index finger da to point at things in this language space.
Does that mean that you should use da all the time? Well, in fact not.
As far as actively using it goes I’d suggest to stick with the local meaning and the da-words for now. Using da for time or other stuff needs some feel for the language. Sometimes it works perfectly but sometimes it sounds horribly out of place too.

All right. I think that’s enough for today. This was our German Word of the Day da and at its core it’s a verbal index finger that can point to locations and other stuff. And it can also carry a general sense of being present. And by the way, I’m curious if this is actually a universal feature. How is that in your language? Is the word for there also used without any specific locational meaning… for stuff like:

  • I’ll be there for you.

Let me know in the comments. And of coure, if you have any questions or suggestions, leave me a comment, as well.
I hope you liked it and see you next time…

And have fun with you new Ohrwurm :D… I don’t know why they did it.. maybe they just loved the word soooo much

 

further reading:

Da-words Explained  – a thorough, once and for all look at the German da-compound
German da-words undone – a look at how da-words are split apart in spoken German
The meaning of “so” 
Wo-words explained – a thorough, nerdy look at the German wo-compounds

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