It’s a new year and there’s lots of motivation to finally learn something new. What sounds wonderfully exciting at the beginning, however, can quickly turn intimidating when the time comes to actually do it. This holds true for learning languages, too. You would like to take what you’ve learned and apply it to conversation, but then live in fear that you’ll make a mistake. The good thing is, the German language provides the perfect antidote for such moments: German filler words.
Filler words are an inherent part of language. German filler words such as ähm (“um”), genau (“exactly”) or sozusagen (“so to speak”) are the sort of verbal pauses that you use more or less unconsciously.
The one problem with filler words is that they often have a bad reputation, and that’s not only the case for German! Used properly, however, filler words are a useful tool, and they can help you to sort yourself out or express your feelings in a language. Thus, they’re the perfect companion to language learning. Through them, you’ll sound more authentic in the language you’re learning, while also buying yourself time to think about the vocabulary you need next. That’s why we’re here to take a closer look at these words and phrases.
What Is A Filler Word?
Filler words, sometimes called Flickwörter or Blähwörter in German (“patchwork words” or, literally, “word flatulence”), are words with little informative value. Similar to Floskeln, or empty phrases, these words are not necessary for understanding the context of a phrase, and are used almost exclusively in spoken, rather than written, language. Contrary to popular belief, they actually help to improve fluency (more on this later).
When Do You Use German Filler Words?
Linguistics also speaks of particles, which can also function as filler words. Perhaps you’ve even heard a bit about modal particles or “flavoring particles” already. These include, for example, halt, ja or doch. They’re used to express, among other things, feelings or a particular subjective attitude. In this way they can clarify the speaker’s intentions. Their meaning is heavily dependent upon context and can vary as such. Fun fact: German uses comparatively more modal particles than French or English.
These small words are a natural component of human language and lend it authenticity. Without them, our communication would be a lot less lively. In addition, filling linguistic pauses gives the speaker time to think. If you’d like to sound natural in your new language, here you’ll find a list of the most-used German filler words.
The 10 Most Popular German Filler Words
This list gives you the most popular German filler words and shows you how they’re used in context. Their use is multifaceted, however, and varies from context to context. The best way to learn about them is to try to listen to a native speaker and figure out how they’re using them.
If you’d like to continue an interrupted train of thought, you can use also (loosely translated as “so” here) as a good marker. Alternatively, this filler word can be used to strengthen emotive statements or questions.
Example: Also ich denke, dass wir etwas in der Küche ändern sollten. (So…I think we should change something in the kitchen.)
Doch is one of the most often-used German filler words. You hear it, for example, when a person is particularly surprised or can’t believe something. This small word, which has no English equivalent, also comes into use when someone wants to express their indignation or impatience.
Example: Du kannst doch nicht einfach Blumen aus dem Stadtpark klauen! (“You can’t just steal flowers from a city park!”)
A commonly used filler word that is usually translated as “actually,” Eigentlich is useful when you would like to express your attitude but not sound too direct. It implies a certain casualness. Especially in questions, this German filler word strengthens or relativizes a certain sympathy or reproach. Alternatively, you can also use eigentlich when you would like to introduce a spontaneous thought into a conversation.
Example: Warum hast du eigentlich nie zurückgerufen? (“Why, actually, didn’t you ever call back?”)
Like with the other German filler words, genau‘s use depends heavily upon its context. Loosely translated as “exactly,” “genau” is often used to emphatically affirm what someone else has said.
Example: So ist es doch, oder? Genau. Ja, so ist es. (So is that how it is, then? Yes, that’s the way it is.)
Literally translated “so to speak,” sozusagen appears primarily in spoken language. It’s interchangeable with the filler word quasi and serves to relativize expressions. Sozusagen is written as one word.
Example: Ja, die Katze hat ihr eigenes Kissen. Sie gehört jetzt ja sozusagen zur Familie. (“Yes, the cat has her own pillow. Now she’s a member of the family, so to speak.”)
Ja (“yes”) is not just for agreement. It can also help you if you would like to express that something is rather surprising. Additionally, in the case that you’d like to warn someone or signal urgency, ja is an appropriate filler word. You can also use ja to indicate that something is obvious.
Example: Lass mich ja nicht wieder so lange warten! Es ist wirklich kalt draußen. (“Don’t keep me waiting so long! It’s really cold outside.”)
When you’d like to emphasize that there is no need to say anything more about a situation or to even question it, you can say this indirectly with einfach (which is often translated as “simply”). This filler word can also be used to lend emotional color to an utterance.
Example: Es ist einfach so. (“That’s simply the way it is.”)
Halt is another little word with many uses. As a filler word, halt (“just”) can express that something is very obvious, immutable or banal. It can also be used to express resignation.
Example: Er ist halt so! Pünktlichkeit gehört nicht zu seinen Stärken. (“That’s just what he’s like. Punctuality is not one of his strengths.”)
If you’d like to encourage someone, you can start the encouragement with vielleicht (“maybe” or “perhaps”), to make your emotional intentions clear. But watch out: your tone makes all the difference! Depending on how you emphasize the filler word, it could also contain a very threatening undertone, and come across as less friendly to the other person.
Example 1: Ich war vielleicht aufgeregt, als sie mich an der Bar angesprochen hat. (“I was perhaps a little excited when you approached me at the bar.”)
Example 2: Vielleicht stellst du dich mal lieber in der Schlange an! (“Well maybe you’d rather wait in line, then!”)
If you need to weaken the contents of an utterance a little bit, then quasi (roughly equivalent to “sorta”) is a good choice of filler word to use.
Example: Ich habe quasi mit dieser Torte ein neues Kunstwerk erschaffen! (“This cake I made is kind of a work of art!”)
Watch out: Most filler words also have homonyms! The same word can be used as a conjunction or adverb. In these cases, the word can’t be omitted and does not represent a filler word! Take, for example, the following:
- Nach einigen Überlegungen konnte ich mich doch erinnern. (Here doch works as an adverb: “After thinking about it a bit, I can remember after all.”)
- Das wäre einfach. (Here einfach works as an adjective: “That would be simple.”)
- Der eigentliche Grund ist, dass ich Pizza mit Ananas echt eklig finde. (Here eigentlich works as an adverb: “The actual reason is that I find pineapple on pizza disgusting.”)
German Filler Words You Won’t Find In The Dictionary
Some German filler words you won’t find in any dictionary. Linguistically speaking, they aren’t words at all, rather just sounds or syllables that appear in natural language. The good news about them, however, is that they can be drawn out as long as you want, so they fit the pause you need perfectly. Here are a few examples:
Example: Ähm, ich glaube, ich habe den Einkaufswagen verwechselt. (“Erm, I believe I may have my shopping carts mixed up.”)
Example: Ähhh nee, ich war letzte Woche nicht im Berghain. Ich glaube, du verwechselst mich. (“Ummmmm, noooo, last week I was not at Berghain. I think you’ve got me confused with someone else.”)
Example: Hm, das sagt mir leider nichts. (“Hmm, unfortunately that doesn’t tell me anything.”)
Example: Sie kommen eh zu spät. (“Um, you’re late.”)
Example: Mhhh, ja, das könnte zeitlich passen. (“Well, yes, that can happen from time to time.”)
These little filler words themselves vary from language to language. You’ll learn them best in your target language if you listen to people speak in everyday conversations, or watch films and television in your target language.
4 Tips For Avoiding German Filler Words
Although the advantages of filler words are clear, their reputation is not exactly great. Some people recommend banning them from your language, and it’s not uncommon to hear feedback like this: “That was a really good presentation, but the person said sozusagen too much.” Like so much else, it really comes down to frequency and context. Especially in written language, it can be helpful to check your use of filler words. The following tips can help you avoid filler words.
Analyze Your Speech
When you have the feeling that you’re using too many filler words in your spoken language, it can help to ask your companions for their honest opinion. Alternatively, you can record yourself speaking and then listen to which filler words you tend to use the most.
Mind Your Breathing
Conscious breathing and speaking more slowly can help you to avoid the use of filler words.
Take Conscious Pauses
A conscious insertion of pauses can increase suspense and also prevent the use of filler words. Here, it’s important to put the pauses in the right places, as taking too many or making them too long can also have a disturbing effect.
Use Shorter Sentences
When you use longer sentences, it’s easy to lose your train of thought, and that’s when filler words come into play. Shorter sentences can remedy this problem.
An excessive use of words such as ähm, äh, genau or other fillers is especially inappropriate in specific contexts. However, deployed in moderation, they can be very useful. German filler words are one of the best ways to avoid mistakes in the language and to maintain fluency. Knowing the filler words of your target language can also help you to give the impression of fluency — even when you can’t find the right word.
35 More German Filler Words
While we covered the most basic, there is really a huge number of words in German that you can use for filler. If you have the desire to use German filler words more in everyday language, then in this list you’ll find some further examples — along with their approximate translations — so that you don’t get bored. (Remember, their meaning varies with context!)
- echt (“really”)
- einfach (“just”)
- endlich (“finally”)
- etwa (“somewhat”)
- fast (“almost”)
- folgendermaßen (“as follows”)
- ganz und gar (“absolutely”)
- gar (“at all”)
- genau (“exactly”)
- gerade (“just”)
- gewissermaßen (“sort of”)
- ich glaube (“I believe”)
- ich sage mal (“I’d say”)
- im Prinzip (“in principle”)
- immer (“always”)
- in etwa (“approximately”)
- in gewisser Weise (“in a way”)
- irgendwie (“somehow”)
- irgendwo (“somewhere”)
- letzten Endes (“eventually”)
- letztendlich (“at long last”)
- mal (“once,” “times”)
- man könnte sagen (“one could say”)
- manchmal (“sometimes”)
- nun (“well,” “now,” “then”)
- nur (“only”)
- schon (“already”)
- sicher (“sure,” “certainly”)
- sogar (“even”)
- sonst (“otherwise”)
- wirklich (“really”)
- wohl (“probably”)
- überhaupt (“at all”)
- übrigens (“by the way”)
A version of this article was originally published on the German edition of Babbel Magazine.