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Three German words that aren't the same: ne, nö and na

English-speakers often admire German for its "long words;" winding compounds such as the Feurwehrzufahrt ('Fire Department Access Road'), which I recently came across in my friend's Instagram.


While Americans variably chuckle or admire such lexemes, my own fancy has often been caught by the shortest of words. Here, I'd like to focus on an elusive, but critical trinity that I didn't properly parse until, well, today:


- na

- ne

- nö


Na

Let us start with na word since it is part of the most basic of speech acts: greetings. Forget Guten Tag, Wie geht's dir? or even Moin, here in Hamburg, the key means of saying "hello" and signaling true friendship is a simple as two letters. English doesn't offer us a good one-to-one equivalent. (This means that na is on the same spiritual plane as the Portugese saudade). But here's a rough attempt to demonstrate its proper use:


(Friend approaches a friend.)


-- Na?

-- Na?


(The two friends sip their drinks together.)


With this demonstration and cultural lifeworld in mind there I propose the following prototypical gloss:


- Na?

'So? (You good?)'

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©2019 by Coleman Donaldson.