What does it mean?
Jein is a combination, or portmanteau, of “ja” (yes) and “nein” (no). The term expresses indecision, indicating that the speaker is somewhere between a yes and a no, simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing, or consenting and rejecting an idea or proposal.
English speakers may use the terms “yeah but…” or “no but…” to express the idea of “jein”, or even a simple “Well, yes and no” or “Kind of.”
Yet these terms wouldn’t generally be translated into German, as German is a lot more precise than English.
What are its origins?
The term was introduced into everyday speech by the Hamburg-based hip-hop band Fettes Brot.
Their 1996 single, Jein, reached the Top 10 of the German charts. The main line of the song’s chorus asks: “Soll ich's wirklich machen oder lass ich's lieber sein?” (Should I do it or should I leave it alone?)
The song is about a man debating whether or not to cheat on his girlfriend.
The music video has a Western theme and sees the band dressed up as Mexican cowboy. It’s worth noting that the video is a product of its time, as cultural appropriation was rarely acknowledged or understood in the 1990s.
How is it used?
Jein is used relatively often in German; however, it is most commonly used in jest, and in a colloquial setting.
Some more business-appropriate alternatives to jein are “vielleicht” (perhaps), “eventuell” (possibly) or “teils” (partly).
Jein is generally followed by a statement that sets the out pros and cons of a proposal or idea.
Uses of Jein:
Findest du den Film gut? Jein, sie ist zwar technisch hervorragend gemacht, aber die Handlung lässt zu wünschen übrig.”
Do you like the film? Yeah, it’s technically excellent, but the plot leaves much to be desired.
Warst du schon einmal in Basel? Jein. Ich war schon einmal da, bin aber nur durchgefahren. Ich habe die Stadt eigentlich nicht gesehen.”
Have you ever been to Basel? Sort of. I've been there, but I was just driving through. I didn’t actually see the city.
“Bist du bereit für deine Fahrprüfung? Jein…Ich bin ein guter Fahrer, aber ich werde unter Druck nervös!”