German Prefixes Explained- “um”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to another episode of German Prefixes Explained. Today we’ll have a look one of the easier ones:

um (pron.: oom)

Um  is pretty special because it is the o…aw…. awwwwwwwww look… all the other prefixes are making sad faces right now…my god, so cute… hey, don’t be sad okay , of course you guys are ALL special. Everyone loves you okay??… oh great, now they’re smiling again. Sweet. So…
The um-prefix is special in that it is pretty much the only one where we can’t say whether it separates. Ein- always separates. Ver- never does. Sure, there are prefixes like über that usually don’t separate but sometimes they do… but for um there isn’t even a tendency. It is almost Fifty fifty. And in fact, there are many many verbs of which there are 2 versions with um… one where it splits and one where it doesn’t.

  • Ich umfahre den Zaun.
  • Ich fahre den Zaun um.

Just to make sure… the meanings of the 2 sentences are of course not the same :).But before we get to that let’s have a quick look at the origins of um

The origin of um

The word is actually quite closely related to the word by. Now you may say, “hmmmmmmmmmmmmm”. And that is a legitimate point.
They don’t even have a letter in common. But the truth is that both come from the same really old root… ambhi …  just eaten from different ends.

Anyway… ambhi is an old Indo-European word that probably had the meaning of around. With a meaning shifted a bit toward “from both sides” ambi is still part of modern day English in words like ambidextrous

  • “Wow, you can write with your right AND with your left hand??”
    “Yes, I’m ambidextrous.”

or ambiversion 

  • “Sometimes I like to go out and make friends and sometimes I’d like to stay at home alone and be quiet.”
    “Your ambiversion sickens me. You should see a psychiatrist”

or Bambi.

  • “Well… what’s the matter with them?” “Why are they actin’ that way?”
    “Hihi… don’t you know?? They’re twitterpated.”

Where were we… uh yeah right. So by and um both come from ambi. You see… speakers of all times have mumbled and the German tribes have always been among the greatest (their old mastery still shines through in the English of Texas). So they found 2 ways to mumble the word ambi. In one way, they swallowed the am-part thus creating the English word by and the German word bei which both means something more or less along the lines of near.
But they also created a version in which they mumbled away the second part of ambi… the result was the English ymb which soon disappeared and the German um… which did not disappear. Quite not, I might say.
So … this um kept the original idea of around and that is the very core of it today…. together with all those other ideas the word has taken on. But I don’t want to talk too much about the stand alone um so let’s focus on the prefix now.

Um as a prefix – the 2 essential ideas

We’ve learned that um can be a separable as wall as a non separable prefix… often for the same basic verb. (If you don’t know yet what separable prefix means in context of German … please read this first)
From now on the non-separable one shall be in green and the other one in pink… I mean blue.
Also, as is the case with all non separable verbs, the strong stress will be on the first syllable of the basic verb. With separable verbs this stress will be on the prefix.

  • umfahren – (say : umFAAAHren)
  • umfahren – (say: UMMMfahren

So when you see green… it is NOT stressed, when you see blue… then it is. The rhythm and feel is really pretty different and you train a bit and get a feel for it. A great approach is to over-exaggerate … do it as extreme as you can and even if you think it is ridiculous… it probably is just perfect. I am not kidding. Trust me. Be extreme. Here is how it would be as just a rhythm.

  • dit-DUUNNN-
  • DUUUN-ditdinn

So… whenever there are 2 verbs that look the same… they sure do not sound the same :). You really have to make the stress very very strong and almost mumble the rest. That is how German sounds.
Now let’s get to  the ideas of these ums and fortunately, those can be distinguished rather well…

  • The non-separable um pretty much always means around in sense of out of the regular path or following a curved trajectory in order to get around something.
  • The other um is not as easy to describe. Possible translations are over, around or elsewhere… so this isn’t of much help. Let’s put it this way. It always has a pretty direct effect on something which will be altered in some way.

Um as a prefix – examples

And now let’s see what we can do with that…. and the first word is… surprise surprise… umfahren.

  • Ich umfahre den Zaun.
  • I drive around the fence.
  • Ich fahre den Zaun um.
  • I run the fence over.

Works pretty well, I think. In the first version we are driving our car on a path that will get us around the fence. Fence isn’t really directly affected by this.
This is different in the second example. The fence certainly felt something there. We did something driving related with the fence that altered the fence in a way…
Similar words to the first version are basically all the movements you can think of. You can umgehen, umschwimmen, umlaufen, umspringen or even umtanzen something… just be aware that this around-um doesn’t necessarily always imply that you do it because you want to avoid the thing you are moving around. For umfahren it does very often. And for umgehen, to avoid is actually a good translation (read more on the various combinations of gehen and um here)
But for example you can umtanzen a fire because you want to worship the fire-god. So keep in mind… this non-separable um really  just means around… maybe because you want to avoid something but maybe you have other reasons to move around it.
As for the second umfahren, the one that was translated as  to run over, there are other verbs with the same idea of over too… for instance umwerfen (throw over), umkippen  (tip over) or even umfallen.

  • Mist. Meine Vase ist umgefallen.
  • Crap. My vase fell over.

Now, let’s say on my shelf there is vase. Under that shelf is a table on which there is sitting a small ballerina made from the finest of all glasses. The vase is right above that little figurine. Now if my vase were really really considerate it would maybe try to take up some spin while slipping off the shelf so that it could then fall on a curved path around that glass-sculpture… then I could also say this:

  • Meine Vase hat meine Glasfigur umfallen.
  • My vase fell around my glass figurine.

But I don’t have a vase on a shelf so that is pure hypothetical.
All right…  now I think it’s time to take a new basic verb  and add um to it: umstellen. Of course there are both versions so let’s see what we can learn there.

  • Die Polizei hat das Haus umstellt.
  • The police has surrounded the building.
  • Ich habe meinen Tisch umgestellt.
  • I have put my table elsewhere/I have altered the positioning of my table.

The first version is a good example for an around where avoiding is not the point. But still it is a quite clear and rather narrow concept I’d say. The police has put stuff around house (their cars and themselves). Also, the house is not directly affected by that.

The other umstellen is not well translated using over this time. Clearly what I do has an effect on table. And something of table will be altered…. the table’s being put if you will… So… this um is really hard to translate as all it does really is express this idea of modification or alteration. I put the table (stellen) thus altering how it was put before, if that makes sense
There are many many verbs with this kind of alterumumschalten for instance.

  • Diese Sendung ist langweilig. Schalt mal um!
  • This show is boring. Alter the switch-configuration (lit…. kind of) Change the channel.

So you don’t want it switched off… just switched elsewhere.
Another important verb is umziehen….

  • Ich bin seit 1 Jahr nicht umgezogen.
  • I have been staying in the same flat for a year now./ I haven’t moved for a year.
  • Ich hab’ mich seit 1 Jahr nicht umgezogen.
  • I haven’t changed clothes once in a year.

Yep. I know. I’m sorry okay, but it’s not my fault. Umziehen can mean to move into a new flat or to change clothes… please don’t ask me why, it has something to do with ziehen.. whatever the reason may be… the um suggest a change and that is what happens. A change of flat or change of clothes.
Now there is of course the question of how to know whether the separable um implies over or whether it implies change.
Well on an abstract level, over as in to throw over, is just a subset of possible alteration you can do to something. But generally when you have doubts you can look at the verb and see what makes sense.
You see, if you’re super-skilled at throwing things and you have indestructible vases at home you could say:

  • Ich habe meine Vase umgeschmissen.

And mean

  • I’ve “put” my vase elsewhere.

But the verb schmeißento throw highly suggests that if it is um, then it is probably over because little other alterations make sense with vase and throw.
There are a few verbs where both versions (over or just a change of sorts) make sense. One is the already mentioned umziehen.
If you have a fence, a rope and a car you can successfully umziehen /pull down the fence but again I think the context will help you out. So don’t worry too much. Just think of the stressed um as one that will alter or change the object directly in a way and let context do the rest.

Now… I think the ideas of the 2 ums are pretty fleshed out already, so I think it will be enough if we do one more example… and that is going to be umschreiben.

  • Wenn man ein Wort nicht weiß oder es nicht sagen will, kann man es vielleicht umschreiben.
  • If you don’t know a word or you don’t want to say it, maybe you can “talk your way around it“.
  • Wenn ein Kapitel in einem Buch schei… uh nicht ganz so gelungen ist, sollte man es vielleicht umschreiben.
  • If a chapter in a book is shi… uh maybe not the greatest success ever, one probably should rewrite it.

I chose this example because it shows us the around-um in an abstract situation. Umschreiben is really really hard to translate. Dictionaries suggest to paraphrase but that doesn’t feel quite right to me. Umschreiben something is really talking and getting all the information about that something across without directly saying the word. So you say everything around it.
The other umschreiben is one more example for the whole alter-idea of the separable um. The text is not written completely new… it is just changed.

Wrap um.. I mean up

All right… so we have 2 ums. One is not separable and it carries the idea of around.  Oh… before I forget… one important verb we didn’t mention yet is umgeben… which means to surround in sense of nature or places.

  • Der See ist umgeben von einem kleinen Wald.
  • The lake is surrounded by a small forest.

So whatever does the surrounding… in German we say “It gives around”… does not get the Makes-Total-Sense-Award but it is acceptable I guess…
The other um we’ve learned about is separable and it implies change of sorts. What change exactly depends on the basic verb and the context. Is it always change? Well, mostly… in context of clothes it can also mean literally around.

  • Ich muss einen Schal ummachen.
  • I have to wear a scarf. (careful: to wear does rarely translate to ummachen !!! :)

So… literally it means to make around. I am “making” the scarf around my neck. The reason why it is still in the separable group, the alter-group, is that the scarf as well as I are definitely affected by what I am doing. The scarf will be bent or folded if you will… the verbs of the around-group really had almost no direct effect on the thing.
Anyway… so… there are many verbs for which a version with either prefix exists. But for others only one of them makes sense. However, the 2 concepts are so clear and they are actually deeply wired inside a brain of German native speakers. So you can be creative and create new words based on the pattern and people will probably understand you as long as the context helps a little. Let me give you an example… umflirten.

  • “Und? War das ok für dein Date, dass du ein Kind hast?”
    “Hehe… das Thema hab’ ich charmant umflirtet.”
  • “So? Was it all right for your date that you have a kid?”
    “Hehe… I used my charmer and flirted around that topic.”
  • “Und? Wie lief dein Date?”
    “Nich’ so gut?”
    “Warum nicht? Du bist doch sooooo charmant….”
    “Ja, zu charmant. Ich hab’ sie quasi umgeflirtet.”
  • “So? How did your date go?”
    “Not too great.”
    “Why not? Come on, you’re soooooo charming…”
    “Yes, too charming. I basically flirted her down.”

I am sure Germans would quite immediately understand either dialog despite umflirten not officially being a word.

Anyway… there is one last question I’d like to address and that question is:

How do I know which um it is?

But don’t worry. This is not as hard as it may seem. You see, rarely will you see the infinitive form. But in a statement in present tense the separable um will be at the end. In past tense, one ge-form will have a ge in it and one won’t ….

  • Ich habe umgefahren. (I ran over)
  • Ich habe umfahren. (I drove around)

So basically whenever you see umge-something… that is the alter-one. Why? Because verbs with non-separable prefixes don’t get no ge (if you want to read up on that click here).
And then, keep in mind that both version are pronounced entirely differently so you can definitely hear which one it is…

  • stress on um? – the alter-one
  • stress on syllable after um? – the around-one

So… there are really only a few cases where you have to guess but I am pretty positive that the context will help your figure it out :)
Cool.
So… I think we’re done here. This was our German Prefix Explained with um. If you have any questions or suggestions or cool verbs with um please leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

If you want more prefixes: