Word of the Day – “doch”

picture of a unicorn claiming it existsHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will take a look at the meaning of:

doch

It’s 2021, CRISPR gene editing is months away from breaking into the mass market, Open AI is unbelievable, Earth’s orbit is full of satellites and garbage and we’ll see people on Mars in the not so distant future. But despite all the leaps in science, the meaning of doch is now as confusing as ever.

It has thousand translations and at the same time, none of them really captures it. It is even hard to formulate a single concept for it.
Yet the Germans are dochin‘ it out all day, and they just magically seem to know which of the many doch meanings they’re looking at.
Can that seriously all be just context? Or are Germans really good at guessing? Do they maybe have secret hand gestures to tell each other which doch they mean?
No, the truth is that doch actually does have a few core themes that all the uses tie in with.
And today, we’ll find out what those are and how Germans distinguish between them.
So are you ready to clear up one of the biggest myths about the German language?
Then let’s jump right in….

First let me say this: there is no such word as doch in English. Family-wise, it is related to though, and if you analyze long enough, you can find some commonalities here and there. But overall, my recommendation is to NOT think in terms of translations.
You see, what these little particles do is more like adding meta information to the plain “plot” of the sentence. Kind of like tone of voice or the phrasing.
So what we need to do, is the effect that doch has on a sentence… what vibe does it add.
And then we just have to search for a way to express that in English or any other language. Sometimes that might be a word, sometimes it might be the melody, and sometimes, the best match for doch might be to just skip it completely.
So yeah, don’t read to get a translation. Read this to understand the effect.

And with that said, let’s get to the first “function” that doch has.

Doch – Countering a negative statement

First let’s look at the main meaning of doch. As this is so important I have decided to seek external expertise. Thomas and Christian are both students at the Berlin elementary school and are known for their heated discussions. We have the exclusive permission to use one of those debates.

    • Ich bin klüger als du.
    • Nein, bist du nicht.
    • Doch, bin ich doch.
    • Nein, bist du nicht.
    • Doch!
    • Nein.
    • Doch.
  • I am smarter than you.
  • No, you are not.
  • Yes I am.
  • No, are not.
  • Am too!
  • No.
  • Yes.

Doch is THE word to counter a negative statement. This is the main meaning of doch. Of course it doesn’t have to be that obvious. Let’s look at some more subtle examples.

So in these sentences doch is inverting a negative. The negative hasn’t been stated but the doch let’s you know it was there. The next examples extend this meaning of doch a bit. As seen, it is not inverting a positive but rather a negative.

So how does this fit in the inverting a negative meaning? Well you can look at it as if the statement was a double negative. For the examples above this would be as follows. The “doch” kind of cancels out the red negative.

  • I do not have no hunger. <-is the opposite of -> I DO have no hunger.
  • I will not “not go” to the movies. <-is the opposite of -> I will, in fact, “not go” to the movies.
  • I will not “not return” on Tuesday <-is the opposite of -> I will return on Wednesday, so YES, not on Tuesday.
    (this is not proper English, I know. It’s just to show how doch cancels out one negation)

So the doch is sort of inverting a negative but this might be a little abstract.

So maybe we could summarize as follows

Doch is the proper answer to counter a negative statement with the positive opposite as in “No, not – Yes, too.” “Nein.- Doch.”.
Doch can furthermore be used whenever you state something and the statement is the opposite of what has been thought of or stated before …
BY YOU. This is important. Doch expresses that you — whatever fact you state is NEW to you and you thought it would be different if not contrary. If you never thought you would be back on Tuesday, the example above isn’t proper unless you lied and pretended to think you could make it.
So if you want to express: “Something is like this, but I thought it would be different till now.” you can use doch. Actually you ought to use doch. If you don’t, you are not expressing that this information is new to you.

The first sentence is just stating the fact that Thomas won’t come. The second one states the fact that he won’t come, plus the fact that this is contrary to what has been thought so far. These 2 things are different and if you want to say the second, you NEED doch. There is not really another way to express it.

Doch is not proper, however, to counter a positive statement that you never agreed with. So this is wrong:

  • “Ich bin klug.”
  • “Doch, bist du nicht.” / “Du bist doch nicht klug.”

While this is correct:

Here the person was of the opinion that the other person was smart. New info contradicts this impression, hence the new fact, that the other person is not smart, is stated with doch.

Doch – The Questionizer – Tone down Statements

Doch often tones the sentence in a way, that can be reproduced by adding a question in English. There are different occasions to do this. One is if you want to soften statements that would sound too direct, demanding or rough without toning them down.
(In the following examples the second English sentence is the version with doch)

The second example is still pretty rough even with the doch... but it is toned down a little in as far as that the doch stresses the fact that the person talking is really desperately waiting for the other one to shut up.

In other explanations the doch in the last example as well as some of the following are called intensifiers. Though it is certainly not wrong in some cases I chose not to go with this category. In my opinion the cases when doch intensifies are also marked by intonation. The written version does not necessarily sound intensified to me, as is the case with the last example we had.

Doch – The questionizer – Seeking affirmation

Another occasion where the tone of doch is best captured with a question is when you want the other person to agree with you, be it because you are uncertain, you want him or her to share your surprise or you want them to agree because it it so obvious to you. The German sentence looks like a statement. and without doch it is nothing more but the doch gives it a certain hunger for affirmation or response, without really asking anything openly.

The reasons why you seek affirmation can be different but what all the examples have in common, at least in my opinion, is that they are more than just a statement of a fact. Doch makes a statement into a statement that you want the people to agree with … be it because you are in doubt, because you want to for them to be aware of the fact you said or because you think it is obvious.

Doch – meaning depends on intonation

You can say the Super Bowl sentence in a way, that you sound totally convinced and you can say it in a way that you think it is and you are now surprised to hear someone implying something else.
This dependency on melody and intonation applies for doch as a whole.

  • Thomas kommt doch nicht zu spät.

This sentence can mean 3 things.

The first one is an inverting-doch. The person who said the sentence was of the opinion Thomas was going to be late until new info indicates that he will make it in time… To get this meaning you need to stress the doch pretty strongly.
The second sentence is an expression of uncertainty. Here the stress is on spätand the voice carries the idea of uncertainty. It is a statement but it sounds a bit like a question.
The third example is expressing that Thomas is such a punctual guy that it should be clear that he is not going to be late, how can someone not know that. The stress is on Thomas and on spät and the voice sounds certain.

This is a pretty long post and I hope you can still concentrate, but there is one more meaning to come.

Doch – yet and but

As if there wasn’t enough already, doch is also used in the sense of yet and but. I am not an English native so I am not certain as to how close these 2 words are but for a German they kind of have overlapping parts… and one of them is doch.

So… this was the longest post so far. To sum it up, doch is the proper answer in the Yes-No game, it can be used to invert statements, it can mean either yet or but, it can tone down statements and it can turn a mere statement into a statement that seeks affirmation… for whatever reason.

I really hope this is helpful for you. If you have any questions just leave me a comment. If you totally disagree with me, please leave me a comment. If I have forgotten something, please leave me a comment. I will add it to the article, if necessary. And if you have seen a unicorn, please leave me a comment too.

Oh, and I almost forgot… if you want practice what we talked about and see how well it works for you… I actually have a really cool exercise for that. Well, I don’t know if it’s really cool, but it’s definitely an exercise.
There’s a little recap there, too, so it’s definitely worth checking out:

The meanings of “doch” – the exercise

I hope you liked it and see you next time… with something easier… like Auto or Computer… kidding.. it won’t be something that obvious :)

 

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