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.

for members :)

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Anonymous
Anonymous

You really are brilliant! And these posts are so helpful!!
Just one little thing – I don’t think that in English, one would slab something anywhere. Slab doesn’t really work as a verb. Slap, yes. We slap things all over the place.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Du hast mir nämlich sehr geholfen, Deutsch zu lernen. Im März kehre ich nach Uganda zurück. Ich werde alles daran setzen, dass ich die Sprache, nämlich das Deutch nicht verlernen. Ich bin sehr dankbar. In meinem eineinhalbjährigen Aufenthalt in Deutschland hat sich meine Vorstellung über die Sprache und das Volk geändert. Ich habe gelernt, auf keine Sprache herabzuschauen bzw ,,hinaufzuschauen”( I hope such a think exist. I wanted to say the opposite of looking down on a language. German is easy, help me please!!)

Hillary Wade
Hillary Wade

I’ve always thought of the because nämlich as a sort of “to give it its name” or “to call it by it’s name” phrase. For example, “I am, to call it by it’s proper name, tired.”
I am really glad that I discovered your blog :)

drachen34
drachen34

“Yesterday, I went for a few drinks with a colleague, namely Maria.”

Since you asked for reassurance, that is correct. If you’d stuck a “with” in there, it would have sounded weird.
“Namely” itself is actually a pretty rare word in English. If I’m going to name those I’ve referred to earlier in the sentence, It’s either because I forgot to be more specific when I started the sentence, and I want to amend it, or I’ve deliberately left the specifics out for suspense, such as in the Maria case. Even in those cases, I’d more likely start a new sentence, or just list the names without “namely.”

Such as:
“Yesterday, I went for a few drinks with a colleague, Maria”
“There are two reasons why I am not coming to the party. a) I am tired and b) Maria is gonna be there as well and I do not want to see her.”

In situations where one might want the word “namely,” they’re more likely to go for “specifically,” which means mostly the same thing. Nonetheless, “namely” is a real word in English, and agreeably the most appropriate (or at least easiest to remember) translation for “nämlich.”

“There’s a very common misconception about language learning – namely that it’s possible to do it quickly and without effort.”
This example sounds the most like something someone would actually say; probably because it sounds like part of a formal discussion or lecture.
One wouldn’t likely use “namely” in casual conversation, unless they’re trying to sound fancy, or express a serious attitude about the subject.

Of course, this may just be my experience in the English speaking part of the world where I live. “Namely” may be common elsewhere.

drachen34
drachen34

“That’s not too far fetched though.”

I just thought I’d let you know that I’m not sure if you’re using the term “far fetched” correctly. I reread that part several times trying to figure out what you meant.

What exactly are you saying is not far fetched?

Are you saying that the “nämlich” that adds detail to the “what” isn’t far fetched from the “nämlich” that adds detail to the “who?”
Because if so, then you’re using the wrong term.

drachen34
drachen34

In light of my above critique-y posts, I’d just like to let you know that I found this “Wort des Tag” very interesting and useful.

I’ll try to use it more, and at the very least, I’ll hopefully remember what it means when I read/hear it.

Furthermore, this lead me to wonder about weil vs denn. I’ve read/heard both before, but only really understood weil to mean because, before this post.
From the context of this post, I’ve surmised that both can be used interchangeably, but the sentence structure changes depending on which you use.
I assume you’ve already done posts on weil and denn, so I’ll probably look those up the next chance I get.

João Victor
João Victor

Your blog is really good, even for non native English speakers (like me). The comic tone that you set on the explanations lightens the load of it and then it becomes easier to understand and absorb. Thanks for your great work.

Duncan

Thanks again!

Although, is there a repeat showing of The Walking Dead at midnight or something?

Ich muss um <> zu Hause sein. Ich will nämlich The walking dead gucken.
I got to be home by <>. I want to #reason watch The Walking Dead.

Duncan

I used <> to draw attention to the numbers but the inside text was removed – WordPress must sanitize input to prevent scripting attacks..

The above should read:
Ich muss um * 9 * zu Hause sein. Ich will nämlich The walking dead gucken.
I got to be home by * 12 *. I want to #reason watch The Walking Dead.

jwan
jwan

vielen herzlichen danke

berlingrabers

Wie würdest du “nämlich” (wenn es mit “namely” übersetzt werden kann) mit “und zwar” vergleichen?

Heide Lee
Heide Lee

Firstly: I Love your blog, namely for the airy attitude towards grammar. I would like to point out that I would have said “I HAVE got to be home by nine…etc.” “I got” doesn’t work; cannot tell you why, just sounds wrong.
Thanks for all your great tips even if I am too much of a beginner to get half of them.

alexviajero
alexviajero

Hi Heide, I’m not trying to be the English police here, but in spoken English, “I got” is perfectly fine in this case. “I gotta go” or even “gotta go” is heard all the time. Purely grammatically, it would be “I’ve got to be home,” but in speech (informally), “I got to be home” is exactly how one would most often hear it expressed conversationally. :-)

berlingrabers

I’m a little torn on this question. On the one hand, “I gotta” is definitely common and idiomatic (at least in America), but there is something weird about reading “I got to.” I think “I gotta” is obviously simulating speech, and “I’ve got to” is the construction that lies back of the spoken phrase – “I got to” just feels orphaned between the two. At the least, it sounds sort of dialect-y. I can understand Heide being weirded out by it.

Then there are the weird differences between the way Americans and Brits use “have got”…

Heide Lee
Heide Lee

Actually, Alex, I was being the English Police! Ha! Great phrase BTW! Because I am sure the correct phrase is ‘I have got’ (or ‘I’ve got’, if you prefer) or even ‘I must’. True, ‘I gotta go’ (which has two meanings) and even ‘gotcha’ = ‘I understand’ are heard constantly. Perhaps its an age thing… I’m just an old fogie? American English is my first language but I am immensely bothered by: ‘my bad!’, ‘loving it’, and ‘you gotter understand’.

eknehr
eknehr

I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of months and it is really helping me come along with my German. This post was very useful and very easy to absorb. I’m making my way through your Word of the Day library, slowly, and it is very illuminating. Please keep up the good work. What I am learning here is far beyond what I am getting from more formal, read expensive, means.

ellem910
ellem910

Das war ein richtig toller Blogeintrag, wie immer :)
Ach ja… Kackpräsentation… können Sie einen Blog Post über “slang/swear words” schreiben? Wäre nähmlich(?) sehr praktisch.

alexviajero
alexviajero

Point taken. And all true. I think when I went back to read the original sentenced referenced, I read it in the context of the slangy, imagined conversational voice I’ve created in my head for Emanuel, so “Got to” sounded just fine to my ear. He’s got so many American tics down pat, I just naturally assumed leaving out the “have” was intentional, for effect. It also could be that I grew up outside of Minneapolis, speaking with that accent that Frances McDormand and William H. Macy captured, with only slight exaggeration, so perfectly in the movie, “Fargo.” I haven’t lived in that area since I was 21, so mercifully I don’t talk that way any more, but I still get to enjoy it when I visit friends and family in that area from time to time. (That speech pattern is clearly a legacy from the many Norwegians and Swedes who settled the area not all that long ago. Though born in the US, my maternal grandmother’s first language was Norwegian, and she spoke English with a combination foreign (Norwegian) accent, and the typical “Fargo” one that native speakers from the Minneapolis/ NW Wisconsin area have.) Anyway, I think “got to” also represents the way it is actually spoken there, just as “gotta” does in most of the rest of the U.S.

The British use of a superfluous “done” in constructions like, “You shouldn’t have gone out last night!” “You’re right, I shouldn’t have done!” is the one that distracts me from a dialog every time I hear it — which is often when watching English TV. In American English, there is a heavy PERIOD/STOP right after the word “have”, so when (some of) the Brits add that “done” it feels Iike I’ve just tripped over something unexpected on the path.

berlingrabers

Maybe there is a regional/dialect aspect to it. I was actually reading some C.S. Lewis today and noticed him use “got to” this way for a character’s dialogue (so that’s obviously coming from an Irish-born philologist 60 years ago). My American English is fairly muddled-to-neutral – one parent from Nebraska, one from western Pennsylvania, raised in Texas, Georgia, and West Virginia. I guess overall I speak High Texan?

I always liked the West Virginia use of “done” for the past participle: I eat, I ate, I done ate. (Pluperfect? “I had done ate.”) :D

eknehr
eknehr

Although for true southern english, that should be “done et” vice done ate. Done ate sounds very formal at least in the deep south. I grew up in GA. Never heard anyone use “had done” – too complicated at least for spoken southern.

Ich finde Deutsch ganz logisch. Es gibt Regeln, und Menschen folgen die Regeln. Eigentlich, beim Deutschlernen habe ich nämlich viel über englisches Grammatik herausgefunden, die ich in der Schule nie gelernt habe.

berlingrabers

Yeah, WV and other Appalachian dialects are kind of different. I don’t remember hearing “et” there, but it’s been a while.

Love the compound modals too (“might could” etc.).

Gary Wilson
Gary Wilson

Thank for all your great work. For me “namlich” would most typically be used in the context of “actually” in English.

Noor
Noor

I made a list of some words that I couldnt understand even with the help of a dictionary …and NÄMLICH was the first in the list.
Im not a native speaker of English..and my English is quite good but I dont usually use the word “namely” in fact I don think that I have ever used it before, so when I read that nämlich means namely I find that it is still not clear..but after your explanation I can say that I can use it easily now..

Thank you so much..

Andy
Andy

I get what you’re saying. For me, “namely” was one of those words that I kind of understood whenever I stumbled upon but never actually took the time to learn because I didn’t seem to be used a lot. In German, however, it seems to be everywhere.

Hutch
Hutch

Great post as usual. Thank you so much!

aizik1992
aizik1992

Warum weinst du?”
“Nämlich”…
WRONG!
aber..
WRONG!

Vielen Dank für den Beitrag (post)!

Anonymous
Anonymous

Thanks for this brilliant explanation of “nämlich”, it was very helpful.

Chris
Chris

Hey! I recently found your blogs..I love ’em, definitely the best on the www. Ich habe eine Frage..
Du hast schon gesagt, dass in einem Satz man ‘weil’ und denn’ sowie nämlich benützen kann..
Und auch mit ‘deshalb oder deswegen?
z.B Morgen kannst du mir helfen? Sicher! Zurzeit bin ich Arbeitslos, deshalb hab ich nämlich veil Zeit…