Academic journal article Language, Learning & Technology

Teaching German Modal Particles: A Corpus-Based Approach

Academic journal article Language, Learning & Technology

Teaching German Modal Particles: A Corpus-Based Approach

Article excerpt


The comprehension and correct use of German modal particles poses manifold problems for learners of German as a foreign language since the meaning of these particles is complex and highly dependent on contextual features which can be linguistic as well as situational. Following the premise that German modal particles occur with greater frequency in the spoken language, the article presents an analysis which is based on corpora representing spoken German. The concept "spoken language" is discussed critically with regard to the corpora chosen for analysis and narrowed down in relation to the use of modal particles. The analysis is based on the following corpora: Freiburger Korpus, Dialogstrukturenkorpus, and Pfeffer-Korpus. In addition, a collection of telephone conversations (Brons-Albert, 1984) was scanned into computer-readable files and analysed using MicroConcord (Scott & Johns, 1993). A quantitative analysis was carried out on all corpora. The qualitative analysis was limited to the telephone conversations and looks at the constraints on and functions of the different occurrences of the form eben.


Discourse particles occur in a variety of languages and have been analysed in great detail for the English language by Schiffrin (1987). Particles of the modal particle type are prevalent in West-Germanic languages: Dutch, Frisian, and German (e.g., de Vriendt, Vandeweghe, & Van de Craen, 1991; Abraham, 1991a for the link between German, Frisian, and Dutch; Aijmer, 1997, for Swedish). Research interest in German modal particles arose in the late 1960s with the advent of a more pragmatically oriented approach to linguistics. They started to shed their image as superfluous, stylistically dubious "fillers" that had to be avoided in "proper German" (Busse, 1992). Since Kriwonossow's (1963, first published in 1977) and Weydt's (1969) seminal studies on German modal particles, a large body of work on the subject has emerged. In those publications, different terms are used for the words that are here described as "modal particles." Thus, we find for example, 'flavouring words" [Wurzworter] (Paneth, 1981), "intentional-particles" [Intentionale Partikeln] (Rall, 1981), "pragmatic particles" (Held, 1983), "discourse particles" (Abraham, 1991b)and "toning particles" [Abtonungspartikeln] (Helbig, 1994), the term which together with the German 'Modalpartikel' (Thurmair, 1989) is the most commonly used. In a number of publications (Dalmas, 1990, 1992; Rudolph, 1991), however, the word particle is used without further specification.

The term particle stems from a structural approach to categorising the various parts of speech into word classes based on the inflexional properties of words. In accordance with this morphological criterion, the term particle is often used to refer to 'non-declinables,' that is, in German, the large group of words that cannot be considered as part of the word classes noun, adjective, verb, article, or pronoun. In this sense, particles may be adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, interjections (Helbig, 1994), sentence adverbs (Thurmair, 1989), and particles in a narrower sense:

Particles as Word Class

A word like aber, for example, which is a particle in the broader sense as it cannot be inflected, can be categorised as a member of the word class conjunction as well as of the class particles in a narrower sense, specifically, as modal particle (e.g., Bublitz, 1977) depending on the linguistic context in which it occurs. Thus, in a word class definition, the words considered as modal particles all have at least one homonym in another class or subclass, depending on the model of categorisation (for a critical discussion see, e.g., Helbig, 1989). In the research literature the term particle is commonly used in its narrower sense, excluding the other groups of non-declinables. The word class particle in the narrower sense is then seen to include subcategories, modal particles being one of them. …

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