Word of the Day – “zwar”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day and today we’ll have a look at the meaning of:



And just as it can happen in a real German class, so it can happen here:  an unannounced quiz… hooray. But unless you’re a tuna you won’t be graded… badum tish.
So… Which if the following origin stories of zwar is correct:

  1. it comes from the Polish word zwał that means pile
  2. it is a mumbled, contracted version of zu wahre which means something like to the truth
  3. it is the short version of this sentence German adolescent boys say all the time “zu wenig Arsch” (“not enough butt”)

Have you picked your mate… I mean made your pick? Cool.
Then let’s jump right in and find out all about this useful little word :)

So… here is what zwar does.

zwar sets up a but.

And Not more, not less. And the right origin story is number two.
Back some centuries ago, zwar indeed used to be two words: zi wāre.
was pretty much the same as zu and wāre, an ancestor of our wahr (true), meant something like “that which is true“… or simply truth.
So the combination meant something like to the truth or more abstract to speak the truth and people back then used zi wāre to underline that their statements were true. Here is an English example I manipula… I.. I mean found:

  • “He that once loves with a true desire never can depart,
    For Cupid is the king of every heart, zi wāre.”, John Doe said.
    (from a song by D. Coupland I have on my J-Pod Tou… wait, I feel like I’m mixing up something…)

And by the way…German has the word  fürwahr and that one is actually still has that meaning  today, even though it’s rare. zi ware, however, changed. First the sound.
Germans apparently used it a lot -which is not surprising given we’re roughly talking about the era of knights here, with all their ideals of honor and honesty. And so zi ware was quickly contracted and became a new word zwar.

  • “Ihr habt den Drachen erschlagen? Mir scheint, Ihr lügt.”
    “Neyn zwar, ich habe die Bestie getötet.”
  • “Thou hast killed the dragon? Thou art lying (thuo lyst), it doth seem.” (thanks to Briguy for the awesome ancient English)
    “Nay, I swear/it’s true/truth is, the beast is dead.”

And then, slowly, a change in meaning started happening. Zwar became more and more associated with a follow up but. How did that happen?
Well, picture an Earl or Duke  giving a speech from his balcony.

  • “Oh meine geliebten Bauern, ich weiß wohl, wie hart eure Arbeit
    Tag für Tag ist. Ihr verdient zwar eine Belohnung…”
  • “Oh my beloved pawns, I know well, how hard is your labor day
    after day. You forsooth/truely deserve a reward…”

And everyone was like “Oh, nice, what a kind-hearted prince” and hopes were high. And then Duke continued…

  • “… aber ach, geben werde ich euch keine.”
  • “… but oh, I shall give you none.”

And everyone was like “oh what a let down…” and the Duke goes like “Gotcha again suckers hahaha… “.
Now, of course zwar didn’t evolve because the royalty liked to mock their peasants. But the example can help us understand what might have been the reason for the shift of zwar.
You see, disappointing someone, denying them something can be hard. And we often tend to try softening it with some praise before it. Like…

  • You’ve done done such a great job… but we’ll have to lay you off.

We have the reaffirmed portion in the first part, followed up by a but. Like… the reaffirmation is “code” for what’s to come. You can already kind of tell.
And that’s what might have happened to zwar. People started using it a lot in context where they followed it up with a but and over time, people just got used to it and started EXPECTING a but to follow. And that’s where we are today. Zwar does affirm the first part, the part it is in, but it also clearly signals an upcoming but. And just to make sure…

Today, zwar does NOT work without aber (but) following.

So if you put zwar into your sentence you HAVE TO say aber… people are waiting for it and if it doesn’t come that it is really really confusing. Examples:

And as you can see, I did NOT translate zwar because it really isn’t doing much except setting up the aber,  thus giving it more… aber-ness, I guess.
All the translations with indeed or whatever else dictionaries are suggesting are adding a flavor to the sentence that just isn’t there in German.
So would the sentences be the same without zwar?
Well, as far as meaning is concerned, I would say yes. Zwar is not a coloring particle. It doesn’t add a whole new feel to a sentence as doch or schon do.
It does change the tone a bit. Without it, the sentences would sound a little robotic in my ears. Zwar just makes for a better but-experience. Just like in good movies… you have a setup and a pay-off. An out-of-the-blue-but can be nice, too, but an introduced one often feels more smooth. Not sure, if I am making sense :)
Here’s another example.

So now we know what zwar means. Or better… what it does. What we don’t know yet is where to actually put it.

Where “zwar” goes in a sentence

and the answer is, as often, when it comes to German word order.

It depends!

Yes, it’s in yellow so it is even more annoying .
So… zwar can actually go in a lot of places but basically it comes before the main statement of the sentence; the core, the part that you will contradict with aber

Now here are the possible versions:

  • Zwar muss ich heute meinem Bruder bei seinen…. yes, this is possible, too, but it sounds a bit scripted
  • Ich muss zwar heute meinem Bruder…. here, the whole chunk is what is going on
  • Ich muss heute zwar meinem Bruder … is possible but a bit weird
  • Ich muss heute meinem Bruder zwar bei den… is possible… here only the “help with homework” part is the core, while heute and Bruder feel like optional side information.

All those are acceptable and express pretty much the same thing… at least to me that is. The second option is the best if it is just a general statement. Now what about this:

  • Ich muss heute meinem Bruder bei seinen Hausaufgaben zwar helfen…

This is really really odd and only very precise intonation can make that sound correct. The thing the aber-part contradicts here is really only the helfen so all the rest of the info (brother, today, homework) will remain untouched. A possible aber-part would be this:

So helfen is contradicted to machen.
This is incredibly specific compared with the general time example. So… once again we have seen, that word order kind of evades rules in German.
The best advice I can give you is this…bring your zwar as early as possible but don’t use position 1 because that would sound as if you’re stage acting. This is no 100% guarantee… just a rule of thumb.

All right.
Now before we wrap up we need to talk about the other zwar. What? There is another zwar…as in … a different one?? Yes, of course there is.

Und zwar

It is called und zwar, the translation in a dictionary is namely, and I have absolutely NOOOOO clue why the combination of und and zwar would means that.
As a matter of fact…  I took German as a native language when I was in childhood and still I  learned NO EARLIER than a few months ago that it is spelled that way. I am serious. I though it was spelled unzwar, with the same un- in there as in, say, ungesund (unhealthy)… and that made soooooo much sense to me.
But anyway, so und zwar can translate to namely, but I think the best way to think about it is as a “:”, a colon… just a spoken one :)

Here it introduces a list but it also works without a list…

Here, it kind of creates a pause before a somewhat longer story sets in. But it doesn’t even need to be long.

Here, it kind of connects the two parts.Without und zwar it would be a little disjointed and staccato. But I don’t think that there is a need to always translate it. So that’s what it has in common with plain zwar… what matters is that you convey the essence somehow, you don’t always need to manifest it as a “translated word”.

And I think with this bit of translator wisdom, we’ll wrap it up here :).
Most important to remember is not to ever use zwar without a follow-up aber. Why not? Because it is REALLY unsatisfying… like… not getting the kiss after the first date or, 2 weeks later, having the parents of your love interest come home and you are upstairs passionately, hey by the way … it is still freaking cold in Berlin. See… that’s how disappointing it is if the aber is missing after zwar
So… that was our Word of the Day zwar.
If you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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