“Only” in German – “erst, nur, einzig”

difference-nur-erst-gleich-Hello everyone,

and welcome to another German Word of the Day “What is the difference”-special.
And today, we’ll look at a difference that many of you didn’t even know was a thing that you need to be aware of – the difference  between
erst, nur and einzig


What’s that?
Oh, you don’t think it is a problem?
Well, I do because my students keep making mistakes like this one:

  • “Ich war die nur Spanier im die Kurs.”

As always, I then say something along the lines of “Geez, what a big, dumb mistake. Can’t you even get one sentence correct?”
Seriously…  I’ve lost a lot of students because of that mistake. That’s why we’ll try to clear that up today. So… take a seat, turn of your phones, take out your pen and paper
and get ready for half an hour of good, old fashioned Frontalunterricht.
It’ll be the super fun.

The problem:   people mix up erst, nur and einzige/r/m/s/c/φ/♥.
The cause:        all three words are translations for only.
The solution:   look at all 3 words one by one

We’ll start with.. hmmm… let’s start with einzige..uhm… I mean “Class! We shall commence with einzige and we shall skip the whole ending tail now.”

The meaning of “einzige”

Einzige directly comes from eins which means one. The ig-ending usually makes an adjective out of something and the z … well, that’s just there for harshness. So einzig is technically the most literal translation of onlyone-ly…. one-like. Only used to be an adjective too, so it was originally only used in phrasings like this one:

  • This path is the only way across the icy mountains.

Only then broadened and became the word it is today (I think it’s an adverb… when in doubt, it’s usually an adverb). Einzige on the other hand didn’t change and it is an adjective to this day.

  • Ich war der einzige Spanier im Deutschkurs.
  • I was the only Spanish guy in German class.
  • Das einzige, was mir gefallen hat, war, wo er mit dem Drachen gesprochen hat.
  • The only thing that I liked was when he was talking with the dragon.

In the second example, there is no noun following the einzige. This is because in German all adjectives can do the job of a noun.

  • Thomas ist der einzige, dem Maria ihr Geheimnis verraten hat.
  • Thomas is the only one, whom Maria has told her secret.

Now, whenever people feel like einzige is not only enough, they go for einzigste… we could think of it as “only-est”. Sound stupid but it is very wide spread. There’s a website that collects snapshots of it … it’s everywhere… in ads, in signs… even in a tattoo (check out the page here). You should definitely stick with einzige for now :).
Now, you can find einzig here and there outside of this adjective context…

  • Du bist echt einzigartig.
  • You’re truly unique.
  • Das ist einzig und allein Thomas’ Schuld.
  • That is solely Thomas’ fault.
  • Das Essen war echt lecker, einzig der Suppe hätte ein bisschen mehr Geschmack gut getan.
  • The food was really good, only the soup could have benefited from a little more taste.

Neither of those is rare but especially the last phrasing does sound scripted and I don’t think people say it that often. You can of course use it if you want but what you really need to remember is that whenever you have a phrasing like

  • the/my/your…  only something

that’ll be

  • der/die/das/mein… einzige ….

If you use nur in that case, that sounds really really wrong and I am not sure people would understand.
Why not? Well, because nur has never been an adjective. Not even close.

The meaning of “nur”

has been a sentence…. sort of. It comes from ni waere which is (very) short for wenn nicht wäre and that translates to if there weren’t… let me give you an example. In an old Germanic village people sit around the fire, eating boar and drinking beer. Then, the brewer stands up and says

  • “Wir haben kein Bier… (everybody goes like Huh?)… Ni wären die 10 Fass hier. (everyone is relieved).
  • “We’ve got no more beer… if it wasn’t for those 10 barrels.

Obviously the old Germans didn’t bother all that much with word placement and agreement of subjunctive mode and that crap interesting grammar like that. This is how the phrase was used so the German nur was born form the idea of “if it wasn’t for that there wouldn’t be any”. It became a fixed phrase, people used it a lot, and they got lazy about it, so the phrase was shortened. Much shortened. But it does make some sense… ni waere … I mean … endings get skipped all the time so we have niwaer, and if you fuse the i with an English version of w then you’re already at something that sounds like newer. And from there to nur it’s not that far.
As the phrase shortened, the meaning broadened and today it does a lot that only also does. It can tell us that something is considered “not a lot”

  • Wie soll ich das alles machen? Der Tag hat nur 24 Stunden.
  • How am I supposed to do all that? The day only has 24 hours.
  • “Kommst du?”
    “Ja, ich will nur noch schnell eine Email schreiben.” (here, it’s “not much” that we have to do)
  • “Are you coming?”
    “Yeah, I just want to write an email real quick.

It can tell us that there is there is “not much variety”.

  • Ich esse viel Pasta, aber nur Capellini.
  • I eat a lot of pasta, but only angel hair.

It can express a condition, a requirement

  • Nur, wenn du die richtigen Worte sagst, geht die Tür auf.
  • Only if you say the right words will the door open.
  • Ich mache den Abwasch nur für eine Massage.
  • I’ll do the dishes only in exchange for a massage.

As we’re at it, the same sentence again with a “not much”-nur.

  • Ich mache den Abwach für nur eine Massage.
  • I’ll do the dishes for (just)  one massage (only) .

So, if only is used as an adjective then it will be einzige but other than that nur is a fine translation… unless… well… and that brings us to erst.

The meaning of “erst”

The number one translation for erst is first but as similar as they may look, they are not related. First come from fore and that goes back to the overwhelmingly ancient Indo-European root *per… you might know it from prefixes like ver- or pro- or prepositions like für or for. We can take forward or forth as a basic idea here, so first  is essentially about being locally ahead of the pack.
Erst is originally the most-form what would later become the English word early. Early, earlier, earliest. Yep, that totally makes sense. We’d have to take out something, but that was a lie anyway…  … ahem…. …  …. … I thought that was clever but anyway…
Erst comes from early and it is about being ahead of the pack in time.But I mean… time and space really go hand in hand… when you’re the winner of a marathon, you ahead of everyone else (first) and you arrive the earliest (erst).
All right.
So, just like einzige, erst started off as an adjective and it is still used that way.

  • Die erste Frau.
  • The first woman.

And, just like first, it is also used as .. uhm… let me think… uhm… an adverb of time… probably.

  • Erst koche ich, dann esse ich.
  • First I cook, then I eat.

But that’s not it. From there, erst broadened even further and became one of those hard to grasp word. It’s really hard to describe what it does in one sentence. But luckily we’ve already talked about erst in detail (I’ll add a link below) so we’ll just focus on the part that matters today:
Just like nur, erst can expresses that the speaker considers something “not much”but it talks about ongoing processes. Which makes sense, because erst used to be a time-word. Nur talks about what is there. Erst (as a translation for only) talks about what is there plus it expresses that the speaker thinks its “work in progress”.
Imagine you, your loved one and a few work colleagues are going out for a few drinks.

  • Ich habe nur zwei Bier getrunken.
  • I(‘ve) only had two beers.
  • Ich habe erst zwei Bier getrunken.
  • I’ve only had two beers (so far).

The first sentence works perfectly fine the next day.The second one would be appropriate if your loved wants to go home. Note that it DOESN’T necessarily imply that you will have more. You’ll probably give in and go home. The erst just expresses that you thought you were going to be there longer. It expresses that you think it’s “early” in an ongoing process. And that is lacking in nur.

  • Ich war nurerst einmal in Paris.
  • I’ve only been to Paris once (so far).

With nur, this is a simple counting. The erst doesn’t really express that I have plans to go there again. Maybe I really hated Paris. But it acknowledges that I am alive and that is an ongoing process. I mean, who knows, maybe I’ll have to go for job reasons.

  • I had been learning German for only 2 months, so I couldn’t really talk all that much yet.

There is no so far here, but still there are enough hints. The had been learning instead of just learned , the context, and of course the yet… all those suggest that, I considered the learning at this particular time as ongoing. So it should be erst.

  • Ich hatte erst seit zwei Monaten Deutsch gelernt, konnte also noch nicht wirklich viel sagen.

 Nur wouldn’t be totally wrong because the whole thing is in past. But in the following example it would stick out quite a bit.

  • My son was only 2 years old when he could already pontificate.
  • Mein Sohn war erst 2 als er schon geschwollen daherreden konnte.

Why would nur stick out here? Well, we’re talking about age, and that is a “work in progress”. Living beings always age (except men, or course; we ripen). So the “ongoing-ness” of this verb (be some age) is so strong that the exact phrasing or context doesn’t matter. It’ll always be erst, and never nur.
Let’s do another example.

  • I’ve only been in Berlin since Monday.

This is another example where nur would stick out as wrong. And the reason is since. Since clearly tells us that I haven’t left. No need for a so far or a yet. Since in this phrasing makes it clear that it’s ongoing.

  • Ich bin erst seit Montag in Berlin.

All right. So this is erst. You need it whenever you want to express that you consider something ongoing or of something is kind of ongoing by default (like life). Using nur is understandable but people will definitely notice. Just keep in mind. Nur really only counts and deems it “not much”.  Erst comes from early and brings in a time-component…. like a preliminary result. Sometimes, we can add that component by using extra words, by the way. For instance in the beer-example.

  • Ich hatte bis jetzt nur zwei Bier.
  • I’ve only had two beers so far.

This is perfectly fine and communicates the same as erst would. But this only works for “countable” things…. like beers, or times in Paris. It would sound wrong with age, for instance.

All right. We’re almost done here, but there is one more use of erst that doesn’t really fit in with what we’ve learned so far.

  • only then.

This can be either… erst dann or nur dann but there is a difference.

  • You need to do this, this and finally this, only then the door will open.

If you use nur here, you’re expressing that the door will only open IF you’ve done all this.
If you use erst, you’re saying that the door will only open AFTER you’ve done all this. Just think “earliest then”.  Nur is about condition, erst is about time.
So … what would we need here?

  • You need this, this and this. Only then the door will open.

We need nur because we’re just listing items. There is no time involved.

But enough with the boring nuances that no one can remember. This is it for today. This was our What is the Difference-Special for the German words  for only. We could just say it’ll be nur except when either:

  •  the phrasing is similar to “The only blah” – then it’ll be einzige in German
  • or  we are talking about a work in progress and there might be more to come – then it’ll be erst

And now is the perfect time for an exercise.

  1. There is only one sentence in this exercise.

The exercise has exercised a lot. That’s why it is so little.
And with that unfunny pun, we’re done. Yay! Voll gut! Go ahead and try your own example with the words in  the comments. And of course if you’ve questions or suggestions – tell it to the hand so it tells it to the keyboard so it tells it to the browser so it tells it to the router so it tells it to the server so it tells 
I hope you liked it and bis nächstes Mal :).

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