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. Now I’ll tell you the meaning and then you can reconsider :)
So here is what zwar does… 

it sets up a but.
So what is the correct answer… hmmm, let’s see… piles are kind of set up, aren’t they, so maybe 1 is correct…. but wait… maybe he meant to say butt and just mumbled the second t, that would mean number 3 is the right answer…
Well, surprise surprise… the correct answer is 2.
Back some centuries ago it used to be 2 words… zi wārezi was pretty much the same as zu and wāre was a “noun-ified” adjective with the meaning truth… so together it meant something like to the truth or more abstract to speak the truth and people back then used zi wāre to underline that their statement 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…)

By the way…There is another word with the same idea… fürwahr… and this has kept its meaning… but back to zi ware. So, Germans apparently used this way of underlining 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 since mumbling also existed back then 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.”

So this is the original zwar. And then, slowly, a change happened. Zwar became more and more associated with a follow up but. I don’t know when or why this started but maybe the noble class in the medieval times took joy in mocking the common man… picture Earl Michael 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 Earl Michael 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 Earl Michael was like “Gotcha again suckers hahaha… “.
Now, if this happens often enough people will eventually get used to it and already expect a but whenever they here zwar… and thus we have turned a once reinforcing word into a mere but-setup.
Seriously… of course it probably didn’t happen that way but it did happen and today zwar does NOT work without but. .. or aber in German. Zwar does nothing but setting it up and 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:

As you can see, I did not translate zwar because it really isn’t doing much except setting up aber thus giving it more… aber-ness I guess. All the translations with indeed or whatever dictionaries are suggesting are adding a flavor to it that just isn’t there most of the time in a German zwar sentence.
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. More examples:

Now, one question many of you are certainly asking is “Where does zwar go 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 go in a 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 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. Zwar is setting up a but, unzwar doesn’t… but anyway…

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 2 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. Sometimes it means namely and sometimes it is kind of just the essence of namely…

Anyway, I think 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 or you want to write some fan fiction based on the last part, just leave me a comment. Here’s a good title for it.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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