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 used all the time but that many students find a little confusing. Not so much for the meaning, it’s more the way it is used that is throwing people off. Or at least I think that might be confusing.  Anyway, today we’ll take a look at it and see how easy it really is. Sounds good? Cool.

Of course nämlich comes from der Name and it’s the German version of namely. The original idea was that you use the word to introduce the names of things that you have only referred to before.

Now, in these kinds of contexts the two words are pretty similar. Maybe, there’s 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. The fact that it’s Maria is special. Maybe because I’ve had a crush on her for months now. Also, you might have noticed that I put in a mit in the German version that I feel is not needed in the English one (please native speakers… if I’m talking nonsense let me know :).
Now, some readers have mentioned in the comments that namely isn’t used all that much in English. So I think it’s save to say that nämlich is more common. 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”. If you’re really genuinely intruiged you’d say “Oh , was denn?”
All right.
Now this is certainly interesting but that’s not the reason we’re talking about nämlich. Because nämlich has kind of detached from the whole name-origin. In fact, I think 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 are used to express… a reason.

That’s not too far fetched though. The more “traditional”  nämlich basically introduces a closer look at the what. Or who. I say “a colleague” and then I use nämlich  to give some more detail.  The other nämlich does the same. It also introduces more detail. Just that it’s about the why this time.
More examples.

So… nämlich kinda sorta means  because. The tricky thing is that it doesn’t work like because or weil. You can never just swap a weil or a denn for a nämlich. Why not? Because nämlich can’t be in the beginning of a sentence… weil and denn can’t be anywhere else.

Unlike weil or denn, nämlich is not a functional word. It has no grammatical job to do. The reason that it can’t be in the first position is that it can’t really stand alone either. It cannot fill up a box by itself. It cannot answer a question 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. It’s really more like that gets slapped on 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 3 positions work and the differences are really just nuances here.
All right.
So this is how to use it. It can express the same as weil and denn but the sentences will have a different structure.
Now you might be yourself when to use nämlich. What’s cool about nämlich is that it mark a sentence as a reason WITHOUT having such an in the face mark like because right in the beginning. It’s kind of an understated, cool marking.

You wouldn’t use it for short statements where the why is really the only thing that matters.

The version with nämlich would be really weird. Because of the question, we already know that I’m too late. We just need the reason. In the weil-sentence, the “ich bin zu spät” is merely an introduction that we’re using to sound formal or something. In the version with nämlich the first part sounds like it’s news. Like

  • “Why are you late?”
    “I am late. The reason is that I missed the bus.”

So in these instances you wouldn’t use nämlich. And one situation where it is super common as a means to give a reason for a question

The because-sentence is kind of a short version of

  • I ask that because…

and the classic weil not flexible or free enough for that.
But other than that, I really can’t give general advice. People use nämlich a LOT, for short sentences, for long sentences, in super colloquial speech, in newspapers, in masters thesisessis… you “näm” it.. haha. And on occasion they even combine it with weil.

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.
And…  I think that’s all. That was our German Word of the Day nämlich. It used to be namely but people started using it also to name reasons. In that sense, it’s a super common and super handy alternative to weil and denn  and it does NOT have a direct English translation. It can never be at the beginning of a sentence and it basically works like a little reason-tag that you can slap somewhere in your sentence. And of course it still has the old namely-meaning too.
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.