and welcome back to the second part of our look at the meaning of
In the first part, we talked about its origin and the somewhat normal mal as in einmal zweimal and so on. If you haven’t read that part, click right here and read it first please:
Today, we’ll get to what most of you are probably most interested in: the particle mal. We’ll see what it does to a statement and why Germans use it so much. And we’ll go over the most common combinations like noch mal, schon mal, erst mal and so on… so are you ready? Great.
mal – keeping it casual
In part one, we found out that the core idea of the noun das Mal is a fixed point in time.
And we already saw in the intro of part one, that that’s also also what mal is used for.
For instance a tourist guide in Berlin is very very likely to say this:
- Hier war mal ein Grenzübergang.
- Here, there was once a border checkpoint.
Einmal would work here as well, and the meaning wouldn’t change, but that’s due to context and is not always the case.
Take this statement.
- Ich war mal in Paris, aber das ist lange her.
- I’ve been to Paris, but that was long ago.
If we were to say einmal instead, the number would get the focus and people would understand that I was there exactly once, not twice.
Mal by itself however really only means once in the sense “at some point, doesn’t matter when exactly” and I think sometimes, it’s more natural to just not translate it at all… but that’s just me.
- Ich will mal nach Kanada.
- I want to go to/visit Kanada (at some point).
- Kann ich mal mit deinem Handy telefonieren?
- Could I use your cell phone?
Using einmal would sound odd in both these examples. A bit like this:
“Could I use your cell phone one time?”
The focus on the number is just too strong. So yeah… Germans use mal in a sense of “at point in time that I can’t specify or don’t feel the need to” . It is NOT the same as saying einmal and often, translating it would sound super odd. Here are some more examples:
- “Warum willst du denn nicht in das Restaurant, Schatz? Da gehen wir doch immer hin.”
“Ja, aber ich will einfach mal was neues ausprobieren.”
- “Why do you not want to go to that restaurant, honey? We ALWAYS go there?
“Yeah, but I just want to try something new.”
- Ich hab’ mal eine Weile in Finnland gelebt.
- I’ve lived in Finland for a while.
- Marie will auf jeden Fall irgendwann mal Kinder haben.
- Marie definitely want to have kids at some point.
- Du hast eine neue Wohnung? Cool, ich komm’ auf jeden Fall mal vorbei.
- You have a new flat? Cool, I’ll definitely drop by.
Now, obviously this mal doesn’t really convey much information. What it does do – and this is kind of the core of its more abstract use – is it adds a casual and relaxed vibe. All these examples would work without mal and still have the same meaning pretty much. But they would sound different.
Maybe it’s because mal basically signals that the exact point in time doesn’t really matter that much. But whatever the reason may be, it does change the tone of a statement and makes it casual. That’s a pretty nice effect, right?
And so it’s no wonder that Germans now also use it in contexts where it has no more notion of time whatsoever.
- Ich brauche mal einen Hammer.
- I need a hammer real quick.
Here, the person needs the hammer NOW, not at some point. The mal is just in there for the casual vibe. Like… without mal the sentence is like this guy wearing a tie and having his shirt buttoned up all the way, being strictly about dealing information. The version with mal is the same guy at a lounge, drinking a Martini with two buttons open.
This “casualization”-effect is also the reason why people use mal incredibly often to soften orders…. not in a restaurant but these everyday command we tell to our friends and coworkers.
- Wart’ mal kurz!
- Wait a second!
- Halt mal kurz, bitte!
- Could you hold this for a second?
- Komm mal her, ich muss dir was zeigen.
- Come here for a second, I have to show you something.
- Erzähl mal, wie dein Urlaub war!
- Tell me about your vacation!
- Guck mal, dahinten ist ein Filmstar!
- Look, there is a movie star over there!
All these short sentences are direct orders and they could easily sound blunt and commanding. But the mal really softens that. Sure, it’s also a question of how you say it, but the mal makes a HUGE difference.
These everyday commands softened with mal are INCREDIBLY common in German and I can’t possibly list all examples… sag mal, zeig mal, versuch mal, guck mal, mach mal… you can hear all of these every day and the list goes on and on.
But that’s not all. Mal is also used for the same effect in questions, that are hidden commands.
- Kannst du mir mal das Salz geben?
- Could you pass me the salt?
- Kannst du mal 5 Minuten still sein?
- Could you be quiet for 5 minutes?
In fact, the second one would sound like an actual, legit question without the mal, so here the mal also communicates that it’s actually a request.
Time for a quick recap before we move on.
First, we learned that people use mal in the sense of (at) a/some point in time and that it’s often not even necessary to translate it. And people use that so much, that it has evolved into a coloring particle that can make your sentence sound casual, your command soft and your question like a soft command without having anything to do with time.
What we’ll do now, to finish this off, is going over the most common combinations with mal one by one to see if they fit in with what we know and also to get a feel for them. Because in 2020 the year of natural fluency.
I just made that up.
But we can make it real.
The most common combinations with “mal”
Mal is part of quite a number fixed very common combinations. So fixed and so common that for some people don’t even know whether it is one word or 2 and the way they pronounce it really makes you think it is one.
In some phrases, the mal is more the mal of einmal, in others it is the casual-maker but don’t try too hard to explain these combinations. They just evolved and here they are. So… let’s look at some, shall we :)
This one is so famous, it even has its own website… what? Oh, no that wasn’t a joke… it really does, here’s the link.
The literal meaning of it would be one more time or once again. But often it is best translated with just again. In that sense you can also say noch einmal.
- Ich habe um 3 versucht anzurufen und dann noch (ein)mal um 5.
- I tried calling at 3 and then again at 5.
And just like again, you can use it many times in a row… here is a nice example I found in a review for a remote on Amazon, where you can also see the spelling issue:
- Beide entsprechenden Knöpfe drücken – dreimaliges Blinken bestätigt Speicherung. Nun nur noch ausprobieren – Geht nicht. also noch mal. Und noch mal. Und noch mal. Und nochmal Bedienungsanleitung und Rezensionen gelesen….
- Push the respecitive 2 buttons – 3 time blinking confirms succesful saving. All that’s left is trying – doesn’t work. So again. And again. And again. Read again manual and customer reviews…
(an Amazon review, sorry for the glitch in the audio)
When said the right way, noch mal can also sound annoyed.
- “Bitte wiederhole das Wort noch mal.”
“Oh Goooott , NOCH mal.
- “Please say the word once again.”
“Oh god, aGAIN.”
But, just like mal, noch mal doesn’t always carry the idea of one time… heck, it doesn’t even always carry the idea of repetition. Imagine you meet a friend in the street and he or she invites you to see a movie…
- “Ich geh’ ins Kino. Willst du mitkommen?”
“Ja gern, aber ich muss vorher noch mal nach Hause.”
- “I’m going to see a movie. Wanne come with?”
“Yeah sure, but I have to go home first/before.”
So… what does this mean? It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have gone home already before that day and that this time will be going home AGAIN. Also, it doesn’t mean that you have to go home once and not twice.
It means that before you can go to the movie there is another task on your list…. so… you’re almost done with your list for that day but going home is still on it and you will have to do that first. That is what noch expresses… yep, I will do a post on that, too…. And what about the mal… well, this is the casual mal here. It means nothing. You can leave it out and have the same sense. Maybe it adds some notion that you won’t be home for long but honestly… just think of it as the casual-maker.
A brother of noch mal is the one word word… nochmals… but I’ll leave that for the dictionary :)
All right. Moving on.
This one exists in more than one version but the idea is always the same. You can use it as a stand alone statement.
- Mal sehen/schauen.
- We’ll see/ I’ll have to see.
- “Kommst du im Sommer mit an die Ostsee zelten?”
“Mal sehen… kann ich noch nich’ sagen.”
- “Are you going to go camping at to the Baltic sea with us this summer?”
“I’ll have to see… don’t know yet.”
But you can also use it in a real sentence.
- Mal sehen/schauen, ob Thomas heute pünktlich kommt.
- Let’s see, whether Thomas will make it in time today.
One common expression following the same basic idea is this
What? Isn’t this that chicken wrap thing? Well, almost… it is actually dialect for
- Schauen wir mal.
- We’ll see /Let’s see.
Does mal translate to anything in these examples? No. Does it make it sound casual? Yes. And also, a one word infinite would be strange :)
For nicht (ein)mal it actually helps to think of mal as one time.. so literally nicht mal is NOT one time… as in 0.75 times :). And that is not so far away from the actual meaning… not even.
- Du hast nicht mal deinen Teller in die Spülmaschine gestellt.
- You did not put your plate into the dish washer one time. (lit.)
- You didn’t even put your plate into the dish washer.
- Der Film ist super kurz… ich glaub’, nicht mal 80 Minuten.
- The movie is super short… I think, not even 90 minutes.
- Ich habe nicht mal was getrunken und ich hab’ trotzdem einen Kater.
- I didn’t even drink and I have a hangover anyway.
Speaking of have… I think I have to mention something about nicht mal ….
- Ich war nicht mal in Paris.
is NOT just the negative of
- Ich war mal in Paris.
The combination of nicht mal really feels like not even. So the sentence means:
- I was not even in Paris, (let alone other cities… if that makes sense in English)
If you want to say the you’ve never been to Paris, that would be:
- Ich war noch nie in Paris.
But that is another story.
Now, a very similar combination to nicht mal is gerade mal which translates to barely or just (one times).
- Der Film ist gerade mal (grad mal) 80 Minuten lang.
- The movie is barely 80 minutes.
- Was? Du bist fertig mit der Aufgabe? Ich bin grad mal bei der Hälfte.
- What? You are done with the exercise? I’ve just/barely/only done half of it.
To make it a little more confusing, gerade mal has a second meaning which is a temporal one which ranges from right now to the immediate future
- Ich bin gerade mal 5 Minuten nicht im Büro.
- I’ll be out of the office for the next 5 minutes.
- Ich bin grad mal in der Küche.
- I’ll be in the kitchen for a few moments.
This is really hard to pin point and honestly, I think this meaning is not the most important one so won’t really need it.
What you will need is this
This is another one of those combinations that are so common that people tend to write it as one word. Officially 2 words is correct though. Now, I have already written about the word erst in detail (here’s the link) . And the good news is that male doesn’t add much to that except for it’s usual casual vibe.
- Ich muss erst mal nach Hause.
- First, I have to go home.
We could leave out mal here without changing the meaning.
However, the bad news is that I lied… mal can change erst and remove a lot of the notion of first. I mean, it is still there… but only on an abstract level. So what does it mean?
Erst mal often means for now/ for this point in time.
- Du kannst erst mal hier wohnen bis du was eigenes hast.
- You can live here for now, till you find your own place to stay.
Interestingly, erst mal also works when a time is given. Then, I have no idea how to translate it without having the English version being overly long and stilted.
- Du kannst erst mal ein paar Wochen hier wohnen….
- You can live here for a few weeks…
So... erst mal is somewhere between first and as a first step, if that makes sense.
- Das Fahrrad ist zwar noch nicht komplett ganz, aber man kann erst mal damit fahren.
- The bike isn’t completely fixed yet, but for now it is “driveable”.
- “Wie findest du mein Bild?”
“Hmmm, is’ schon cool aber irgendwie fehlt noch was.”
“Ja, ich weiß, aber ich weiß nich’ was. Ich lass’ es erst mal so.”
- “How do you like my picture?”
“Hmmm.. it’s pretty cool already but I feel like something is missing.”
“Yeah, I know, but I don’t know what it is. I’ll leave it like that for now.
Wow… in the last example, every German sentence was shorter than the English counterpart… now who would have though that was possible :)
Anyway… there is also a one word version of this… erstmals... and, oh my… the meaning of it is different… horayyyy.
Erstmals means for the first time and it only works in certain contexts which I can not tell more about because I have no idea. It is more of a newspaper word anyway.
- Erstmals steht eine Frau an der Spitze des Konzerns.
- For the first time, a woman is leading the corporation.
And finally, the last very very common combination is schon mal. It basically is just a combination of the already-schon and the (at) a point in time – mal but the translation can be quite different.
- Warst du schon mal in Paris?
- Have you been to Paris already at some point in time? (lit.)
- Have you (ever) been to Paris (yet)?
Are you bored of Paris examples, yet :)?
- Hast du schon mal Insekten gegessen?
- Have you ever eaten insects?
You can basically take out either schon or ma l and have pretty much the same question but the combination sounds best and is used the most.
And just to make sure… if the answer is negative, the phrasing you need is this:
- Nein, (noch) nie/nicht.
With the noch implying that you might do it in the future.
Now, there are other meanings of schon mal… it is not ALWAYS ever…. ever is actually just a byproduct of the combination. Imagine you are cooking with friends and you are making pasta. Your friend is in charge of the sauce and keeps cutting vegetables. You get bored would love to do something too, so you ask
- Soll ich schon mal die Nudeln kochen?
- Should I go ahead and boil/cook the pasta?
So here, schon mal is less already than schon alone would be. Another example… the deed is done and the plates are filled. And then your phone rings. It’s your mom. So you say…
- Oh… ich muss kurz telefonieren, aber ihr könnt ruhig schon mal essen.
- Oh… I have to take this one, but you guys can go ahead and start eating.
Sure, you could just think of it as already but to me, the vibe is a little different.
Now, finally, lastly, we need to talk about the other meaning of schon mal... yeah… I can hear you all sigh. The thing is, schon can mean already, but it is also a particle that disperses doubt to an extent… kind of like a skeptical yes. And this can also be the case in the combination with mal. Here are the 2 versions back to back…. I’ll stay at the dinner party…
- Ich muss mal telefonieren aber du kannst schon mal essen.
- I have to make/take a call real quick, but you can go ahead and/already eat.
- Pasta mit Thunfisch kann man schon mal essen, aber nicht zu oft.
- Pasta with tuna? I guess, I can eat that … but not too often (kind of literally)
- Pasta with tuna… well, it is a fine dish but please not too often.
Is there a difference in pronunciation? No. Can you only now by context? Yes. Is that important for a beginner? Hellllllllllllll no :). Just remember the “normal” schon mal.
So, this was the second part of our analysis of mal. I’m sure it was long and exhausting for you and I am just as sure that we did not cover all there is to say… there are more combinations out there and I also, I didn’t mention that mal can also means times in a mathematical sense.
- 2 mal 3 macht 4
und Drei macht Neune !
- Freckles on her nose,
Diddle diddle dee,
a girl came riding
Oh… quite some freedom in translation there :)… well, sure seems like the German Pippi Longstocking is an engineer doing math and stuff…. probably building cars, too.
Anyway… to sum up the most important thing… mal, while originally probably just a shortened form of einmal, has evolved into a word of its own. It can mean (at) some point in time with no focus on how many times we are talking about but it has been used so much that often it is just a particle making the sentence sound casual. The most prominent use of this mal are these little commands like guck mal, sag mal, frag mal and so on and so on… and you should definitely try to include that into your own German.
And now… all that’s left is the one mal no one of you expected…. that mal that means … to pee.
- Mama, ich muss mal.
- Mom, I need to pee. …Ok… it can also mean I need to take a dump, but peeing is more common.
Yes, this is not a joke. Any German… any German will understand this. And it is not the worst way announcing that you need to see a bathroom.
- Ich muss mal.
Kids say it all the time in the car.
All right… so, this was mal the monster. If you have any questions or suggestions or you have others mals that we haven’t talked about yet, just leave me a comment. I am can’t wait to explain more :). I hope you liked it, I’ll see you next time…
and here is the complete German version of the Pippi Longstocking song. Have fun with your Ohrwurm.