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.

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…