German 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:


So what is this da? Let’s look it up an a dictionary, maybe… just one seconnnd… WHAT? No translations found??? What is wrong with you stupid dictiona… oh… ops … I misspelled it, my bet …all right, now I got it… so the first translation of da is there. And the second translation is here?  Whaaaaaaaaaat? That doesn’t make any goddamn sense… how can something mean there and here at the same time? Oh wait there is more… da can also mean then? And because? This is soooo confusing… hey, hey uhm… guys, it is really hot today so would you mind if take it easy we talk about the word Bus inste… oh you would? Ugh fine… so da it is. But it’ll be a lot and I won’t fake enthusiasm…

Da has an origin.
Something Indo-European. It’s history so it’s really boring. The same origin brought us such great words like der, die, das, all three all time favorites of the German learning community. Da is also related to the but the closest English brothers are there and then. Back a few centuries, I think the period is called midevil age, da used to have an r… so it was rda… uh… I mean dar. In fact it is still there in those infamous da-word like darauf or darunter… we’ll talk about those later. But for the most part dar faced the same fate as the eastern part of Germany did in 1990… it was “Ge-De-rrt”….   … … politics and grammar puns… so lame.
Anyway, the r is gone for the most part. Germans soon fell in love with the new  da and here we are … we use da for everything. Literally. But let’s go step by step and start with the original meaning.

Da as there

So … originally da meant there as in not here or at that location. And it still has this meaning.

Now, to really understand da as a whole, it is worth it to take a closer look at the function of  there/da in those 2 examples.
The first one doesn’t make much sense, at least if it is not accompanied by a gesture of some kind… like for instance a pointing index finger. So there and da are kind of empty. They are just the verbal counterpart for the gesture.
The second example is different. This makes perfect sense. There/da work like a pronoun here… I don’t want to say an der Ostsee again so I use a stand in to shorten my sentence. If we want to replace persons or things we use stuff like he, she or them… for locations we often use da (or there).
Now… does that mean that the first and the second da are different? Well, not really… in both cases we can interpret da as a verbal index finger pointing to a location… in the first example, the location is specified by a real index finger, in the second the location was specified in the first part of the sentence. What does da dut dudely do? It points toward a location, so it can be the answer to where?.
All right.
Now, there is one very important difference between da and there when it comes to pointing to a location. I have said it in a number of times already but I’ll say it again… as far as location goes, there are 3 possible informations you can give:

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

This is universally true. Now, the thing with German is that German ALWAYS marks in some way or another which of the 3 your indication of location is…. always. English doesn’t really care, so sometimes you mark and sometimes you don’t.

  • I’m there.
  • I’m go there.

Now… there can be used to replace a location AND a destination. It can answer where? and where to?.
Da can ONLY answer to where?. If your asking for a destination (or an origin but that’s too much for today) da can NEVER be a fine answer. So if you want to answer a where to question you need to mark your da… 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

  • Ich gehe dahin.
  • Ich gehe da…. is really really wrong.

So… when you talk about a location that is somehow the answer to where? then there translates to da. If your location is in fact a destination so it somehow is the answer to where to?, then there translates to dahin.

All right. Cool.. oh wait.. I almost forgot: no enthusiasm. As shown da can mean there. There is another word in German that can mean there. We will look at this word now.

da vs dort

The word is dort. So what is the difference between da and dort? Does German have here, there and uber-there? No. Dort actually used to be the translation of there in sense of a destination… so it was

  • Ich gehe dort used to be correct but those days are long gone, it is super wrong now
  • Ich gehe dorthin… is correct now

Anyway… dort has lost this indication and today it is just answering to at what location. The difference between da and dort is rather small as far as location is concerned. Some people might argue that dort is like really far away while da is only sort of away…

but I don’t know… I am not a geograstry-genius but I think Australia is kind of far away from Berlin and still da and dort are perfectly fine. In the end it is a regional thing and if you don’t want to take my word for it because I can’t say geoblahbla… well then here’s a source. It is in German but the maps are in Color.
So… they are both interchangeable in sense of there /not here, but still, there is a difference between da and dort. Dort is 100% about location. Dort can only ever refer to locations that are NOT here. Da on the other side can refer to almost everything as we’ll see later. So … I think you can always replace dort by da but not the other way around.
Movin’ on. Hoora… oh wait… no enthusiasm.

da means here – or does it?

We looked up da in the dictionary. There it said, da can mean here. How weird. Let’s do a boring example. Imagine a really boring seminar at collitch… you all sit and wait for Hans Gruber, your German teacher, to walk in and say his usual lame “Detective Hans is on the case.” line… but in walks Katrin, blond, blue eyed and willing.. to teach you.

Hmmm… looks like it’s true and da can really mean here
but does it really? And what about the English there?? Is it really as there-ish as everyone thinks?? Something just doesn’t add up here. German CSI investigates…
I see 2 people. Not sure which gender but they know each other. Swooooosh. They  are in the kitchen. Both stand next to the stove looking inside a pot. One starts speaking…

Hmmm… peculiar. Both people’s heads are virtually adjacent to the soup so from there perspective the soup is definitely “here”… and still they say da in the German sentence and  what’s even more important is that they use there in the English sentence. 2 Hours later, flashhhhh flash flashhhh. the same 2 people. They are in bed. Naked. Sweaty. All cuddled up. Looks like they did some sports. Maybe Pilatio. One starts speaking…

What does that mean? What place is there referring to? Where will the person always be? Why there? Why not here with the other person? Cut.
Meanwhile somewhere else. A street. Someone is asking someone else something:

  • “Is there a good bar here?”

Hmmmm… . we have here and there in one sentence. A common type of sentence. Why aren’t English speakers confused by this?
The reason for all those example is this:  there actually doesn’t always mean there as in over there/not here. In phrases like there is it has little to no locational content. Instead, it expresses the idea of being present… kind of like this.

  • Is an ATM present somewhere here?

And that what we need because the German da is used in the exact same way…

You can say this sentence in the meeting and also at home when you tell your partner about the meeting. In either case, you use da and it will be understood in THE EXACT SAME WAY. So the translation of the sentence is NOT one of those 2:

  • Thomas isn’t here.
  • Thomas wasn’t there.

but rather:

  • Thomas is/was not present.

Only the context tells us what location we are talking about. There are many examples like this. Sometimes English uses there as well but at other times English would use here instead.

In all those the point is not making a distinction between there and here but only being present at some location… what location? Context tells us. There is even a noun in German that is based on that idea.

So… what seemed to be a contradiction is in fact none. Da does not mean 2 contradictory things. Just like the English there, it sometimes refers to a specific location (not here) and sometimes it is really really broad and just expresses the idea of being present.
Now… as similar as they are there is a HUGE difference in how German and English use their being-present da. The English phrase there is is very present. But German chose a different option. We say es gibt.

But what about the broth-example we had earlier?

  • Es ist noch Suppe da.
  • There is still soup left.

Here, we’re using da sein and not es gibt. So when to use which?

This would work too but the other one sounds better. It is kind of hard give a clear rule when to use which and I believe that in many instances they are interchangeable. A possible guide line could be this:
if there is some other indication of location in your sentence –  use es gibt.

If we were to phrase that using da sein, we would wind up having 2 things that have the potential of answering the question where.

This is not wrong. Sometimes people might even use it for style reasons. Es gibt is just more common and sounds better to me.  Da sind is more pointing, more palpable than the English there in there is. Or let’s try it this way:
da sein means to “be present at the location that context tells us”
while there is means just to be present without much locational implications.
All right. So originally da used to be a location pointer with a meaning of not here.  But Germanic tribes felt some love for this little word. So they broadened the meaning to the point where it doesn’t mean a specific location anymore but just carries the idea of being present. But for the Germans this still wasn’t enough… why stop there when you can use da for so much more.

da – the verbal index finger

As a matter of fact the German da can be used to point at pretty much anything. A prime example for this are the da-words.
I have talked about those in detail here, so we’ll keep it brief. 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 really point to a location here. It points to dinner or to eating dinner … doesn’t really matter … but it does not point to dinner table.  However, English doesn’t use them that much. Germans do. Germans do use da-words.  Da-words are everywhere. the da is like a verbal index finger pointing at something that has been said before. Instead of saying for that  or with that or on that we say therefor, therewith or thereon.  And that is in fact practical. What? Oh no no no…  I DID say practical, not annoying… you know… that can be dem, der, das, den or die… but we can always say “look there!” or “on/with/by/after what’s there”. When you use a da-word neither case nor gender matter. So they actually should be students best friend.
Anyway… I don’t know if that is the reason or not, but it could be… da-words sound nice and they save case-hassle. Oh by the way… I have another theory for why we love our da-words so much but … I won’t tell you now :). It has to do with a core idea of German that explains almost everything but I want to save it for the sentence structure posts. So you’ll have to wait :).

One last thing about the da-words… there has been a tendency recently to split them up and disperse the parts across the sentence because… that is how we roll :). It is already sort of standard in spoken for the combinations with hin and her. Here’s an example:

This must be  a slap in the face for students who have finally internalized that final short words like von or vor are part of the verb…. so what’s the verb in the second example? Mithaben? No… it is just haben and the mit at the end belongs to the da at the very beginning and damit is a weird way of saying mit das.  Sorry :). I know it sucks.  These split up da-words are definitely something you can hear in daily life.
Anyway… soooooo the da-words use the location pointer da as an index finger to point at (or replace) pretty much anything.
But da is also used alone to point to stuff… things, events, life phases, time… you name it.

Da even has become an intro word… so just like dass or ob it can start minor sentences.

This da is pretty much a synonym for weil. It means because and unlike denn it has the same grammar as weil and you can technically replace any weil with da and still have a grammatically correct sentence.
In practice da-sentences tend to be in front of the main sentence while weil sentences are more often placed after it. Also, da-sentences are usually a bit longer and they sound more official. You can find this da in newspapers a lot but in every day conversation it is somewhat rare I’d say.
So it is up to you whether you learn it or not. Now… how is that da tie in with the  index-finger idea? Well, it might be a little far fetched but  to me it makes sense and I can see a connection… kind of like this

  • There, I am hungry! I’ll eat now.

Maybe people just used it that way and used the weil-word order. But I don’t know for fact.
Anyway…  we have seen, that da can be used to point at pretty much anything… anything BUT 2 things. We already know that da can’t point to persons…. what? … oh… oh we know that because I briefly mentioned it :)… seriously.. check out the post on the da-words to learn more (I’ll add the link below). Now, what is the second thing at which da can’t point? It is manner, mode or simply 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.

All right. So let’s sum this up… Da is a very mighty verbal reference. Whenever you see da in a sentence, you can think of it as an index finger pointing at something that has been mentioned before… be it a location, a time, as part of a da-word a thing or an activity… it can even start a sentence that gives a reason. The only 2 things it can’t point at are “people” and “manners” so da can never be part of the answer to who or how.
So… and now we’re left with one burning question:

Why do Germans love their da so much?

I can’t really give you an answer to that but I think what it actually is is a love for “location” in general. The question word wo means where so it asks for a location. But you can find examples in abundance in which wo is not really related to location …in standard high German, wo is used to ask for things:

in daily speech people use it for time:

and some dialects in the southwest do 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.

So the German language has a tendency to speak in locations. I don’t know why this is neither where this comes from but it is a fact. 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. It is a location pointer meaning not here but, just like its English brother there it is also used in a broader sense of being present.  By the way… I am really interested if this is 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.

Anyway… with the exception of persons and manners of doing things da can be used to point to all kinds of stuff like time, place, events, things, activities … think of the word like an index finger.
If you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. 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