Word of the Day – “nämlich”

Hello everyone,

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

nämlich

 

Nämlich (spelled backward it would be  hcilmän)  is one of those small little words that are both – used and confusing. Sure, it ain’t no doch, but still nämlich  is giving many learners a hard on… erm… I mean hard time, hard time.
And it’s not so much the meaning, it’s more the way it is used that is throwing people off.
Today we’ll take a look at it and see that it’s actually quite easy if you see it for what it is.
Sounds good? Cool.

You might have suspected it already – nämlich comes from der Name and it’s the German version of namely. And the original use of the word was to introduce the names of things that you have only referred to before.

As we can see, in contexts like these, nämlich and namely are pretty similar. But there is a little difference in tone. It’s hard to put into words and maybe I’m wrong but at least to me, namely can be pretty neutral and dry. Nämlich on the other hand always has a bit of “Tadaah!” in it.

To me, the English versions sounds very much like pure information. Her name is Maria, that’s the message. The German version sounds a bit more like the fact that it is Maria is somewhat of a reveal. It makes it sound special. Like… maybe I have had a crush on Maria for a while now but I never did anything and now I tell my friend that I finally did it.
Also (as some of you have pointed out in the comments) namely isn’t used all that much in English and I think the German nämlich is way common in statements like the ones above.  As a matter of fact, you can even use it as a sort of question word to prompt the other person to go on already.

This does sound a bit impatient and reserved though. Like… “come on, you want to say it so say it“. So if you’re really genuinely intruiged you’d say “Oh , was denn?”.

Now, so far there was nothing confusing about the word. It has a different tone and it’s more common – no big deal.
The reason we’re talking about nämlich is its other use…. the use as a hashtag.

nämlich – #reason

I mean… not literally, of course :).
The thing is, nämlich has kind of detached from the whole name-origin. I’d actually say many Germans aren’t even aware that there’s a connection. And that’s no surprise because probably two thirds of the nämlichs in everyday speech nowadays are used to express… a reason.

Instead of using weil or deshalb, the speaker uses nämlich to mark the second half as a reason for the first one. And that way of using nämlich isn’t too far fetched, actually.
The more “traditional”, namelynämlich basically introduces a closer look at the what or the who. I say “a colleague” and then I use nämlich to give some more precise info.
The new nämlich does the same. It also introduces more detail. Just that it’s about the why this time.
Imagine there being a “for reasons” in the first part…

  • I’m drinking the beer for reasons … namely, I am thirsty and football is on.

All you have to do here is take out for reasons and boom, you pretty much have the German nämlich… well except one really important feature.
Let’s look at some more examples and see if you know what I’m getting at. I’ll give you a hint… it’s about word order.

Did you catch it? Nämlich is NOT at the beginning of the phrase. Weil and denn are ALWAYS at the beginning of their section. And deshalb and darum can be.  Nämlich CAN’T be used in the beginning. And that means even though it kind of is a translation for because, you can NOT just replace a weil or a denn with it.

The difference between weil or denn is that nämlich is not actually a functional word. It doesn’t know how to do grammatical tasks like conjoining to phrases.
And it doesn’t only have no grammar job, it also can’t answer the question “why ”  by itself, like deshalb can for example. That’s why nämlich is not in position one and it can’t stand alone. . It cannot fill up a box by itself.

Deshalb can answer the question why alone as long as there is context. Nämlich can never do that. It doesn’t have enough substance for it. So it’s really more like a quick tag that is slapped onto whatever the reason is.

I hope that makes sense :).
So… you’ll always find nämlich somewhere in the middle of the sentence, right before the part that’s the reason for what has been said before. And yes, nämlich can be at different positions.

  • Morgen habe ich keine Zeit. Ich habe [nämlich] meiner Freundin [nämlich] gestern [nämlich] versprochen, mit zu ihrer Firmenfeier zu kommen.
  • Tomorrow I won’t have time, because I’ve promised my girlfriend to go to the office party with her.

All three positions work but the differences are nuances and it would lead us down the rabbit hole of sentence structure, so let’s not go there today. What matters is that nämlich is NOT in position one.

Cool.
So since we already have weil and denn and deshalb to express reason, you might be wondering why to even bother with nämlich and why Germans use it so much.
Well, the fact that it’s not at the beginning makes it kind of an understated, cool marking. It doesn’t scream reason  like because does, for example.

In both these examples, the second part has interesting news in it that we ALSO mark as reason for what we said before. But reason is not the ONLY purpose it’s there.
This probably sounds quite complicated though. And I’m not sure if that even really does the word justice.
People use it a LOT, and in all kinds of “environments” – short sentences, long sentences, super colloquial speech, newspapers, in masters thesisessis… you “näm” it.. haha.
And actually, in spoken German they even combine it with weil sometimes.

I translated it as actually here because I think that kind of captures that Tadah-vibe of nämlich I mentioned earlier.
But there’s no deeper intention behind using weil and nämlich together. It might be simply because “weil ich nämlich” has a nice flow.
So yeah… I can’t really tell you something like “Use nämlich if these conditions apply.” You’ll just have to build a feel for it over time.
But at least I hope you now understand what the word does. It’s like a #reason you can casually slap onto something.

AndI think that’s it for today. That was our German Word of the Day nämlich. If you want to check how much you remember and understood from the article, you can take the little quiz I have prepared for you… erm…. once I’m done. It’s January 26th 2020, Emanuel is grinding quizzes. Seriously, I’ll add it soon.
And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. And if you have no questions you can leave a comment, too. I nämlich like to read them :)
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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