Every language has “softeners” that make requests and instructions more gentle. The word mal in German plays the role of the softener. Here’s how to use it — with examples.
German is a language that at times seems a lot like English. Many words in English are of Germanic origin, after all. Basic phrases and many common nouns, verbs, and adjectives have direct parallels between the languages.
So the differences between English and German are striking and somewhat confusing when they arise. It’s a bit like “uncanny valley” — you want to believe they’re the same, but then cases, grammatical gender, and particles all firmly tell you nein!
Particles like doch, gern, and mal are little flourishes added in sentences that you could technically get away with never saying. But you’ll hear them, and using them will help you sound more fluent.
So here’s an overview of a great softener particle in German — mal.
Overview — the Various Meanings of Mal in German
The word or particle mal or Mal in German can mean various things.
The core thing is that all the meanings of mal are (or originally were) related to time. Even the use of mal as a softener (the subject of this article) is a derivation of einmal, which means “once” or “for once”.
The main meanings of Mal or mal are
- A “time”, as in an instance. You’ll see this most commonly in dieses Mal, nächstes Mal, and letztes Mal, which mean “this time”, “next time”, and “last time” respectively. In this form, Mal is capitalised.
- Part of words like manchmal, einmal, wiedermal, nichtmal, schonmal, jedesmal, nochmal, which respectively mean “sometimes”, “once”, “yet again”, “never”, ever”, “every time”, and “again”
- A softener used in phrases like Komm mal mit! (“Come along!”), Guck mal “Look at this!”, or “Why don’t you just try again” — this is the focus of this article.
The first two types of usage of Mal/mal in German are easier to understand. But I want to focus on the use of mal as a softener.
Mal in German as a softener — Explanation
Firstly, what is a softener? In English, you might see sentences like
- Why don’t you just come over?
- Hold this for a sec.
- Quiet down a little.
In these phrases, I’ve boldfaced the parts that you don’t technically need to use to convey the meaning. You can delete them and the sentences still stand. The phrases just become more abrupt. “Hold this!” and “Come over!” are not rude per se and can be totally fine, but context and tone are important.
There are many other ways of softening a sentence. You can use a politeness word like “please” or start with an introductory phrase in English like “Would you mind” or “Would you be so good as to…” if you want to really get formal. German has these too, of course, as do most languages in some form.
But the particle mal works most like “just” in English in that you just throw it in there. In these situations, “just” doesn’t mean “only”, just like mal doesn’t carry its original meaning.
Actually, mal‘s original meaning comes from einmal which means “one time” or “for once”. But a literal translation here is distracting.
Examples of Mal in German
As usual, it’s best to understand any word in another language through focused example sentences.
Here are a number of phrases in which people often use mal in German. I’ve categorised them into a few loose categories.
Instructions with Mal in German
|Stand up/Get up!||Steh mal auf!|
|Look at that!||Guck mal!|
|Listen…||Hör mal zu…|
|Wait a second!||Warte mal kurz!|
|Come here for a sec!||Komm mal her|
|Come along, then!||Komm mal mit!|
Requests with Mal in German
These are sentences with mal as a softener for requests, like asking someone to “just” do something.
|Can you please pass me the salt?||Kannst du mir mal das Salz geben?|
|Would you please be quiet for five minutes?||Kannst du mal fünf Minuten still sein?|
|Could I use your cellphone for a sec?||Kann ich mal mit deinem Handy telefonieren?|
|Would you please come with me?||Können Sie mal mitkommen?|
|Can’t you even have a little sip?||Kannst du nicht mal einen Schluck trinken?|
Softening statements with mal
The final category of sample sentences with mal are those that are statements which may sound a little direct and abrupt, but in which mal is used to soften them.
|I need a hammer for a sec.||Ich brauche mal einen Hammer.|
|I want to visit Kanada at some point.||Ich will mal nach Kanada.|
|Listen, we should get together some time.||Hör mal, wir sollten uns mal wieder treffen.|
|We should go get a meal.||Sollten wir mal essen gehen.|
|I think I should get going.||Ich denke, ich sollte jetzt dann mal gehen.|