Word of the Day – “werden”

werden-pictureHello everyone,

and welcome to our German word of the Day. Do you hate summer as much as I do? The summer with its annoying sun… always shining and bein’ all pushy like “Hey… hey go outside. It is like sooooo nice outside, you have NO idea man. Come on, go outside and enjoy me.”  and you’re like “Nah… I was outside this morning already… I just wanne sit in my room now.” but the sun is like “Oh whatever. Hey you know what … I am going to set now. Hey, I’ll set and it’ll be balmy. Hey hey why don’t you go outside and grab a beer and watch me set.”… ugh. Summer.
But finally, at loooong last the flippin’ season is over.
It is autnmnmn now. Also known as awsotumn. Days are getting short. It is getting cold and rainy. And freezing, too.
Colds will be caught,
Jackets will be worn,
Sheep, they will be shorn.
German, it will be taught.
And taught for real… it is fall and at German is Easy that means one thing: intensive-season. Hoooray. No more filler. Time to tackle the BIG things. Time to step up the game. That simple! Like basic math:  fall + game = stepped up. And for the college folk:  game(fall) = stepped up.  Nuff said.
And without any further ado… today we will talk about the meaning of:

werden (bin geworden, wurde)

And by meaning I mean what the word werden means for the German language. Because it not only a word. Werden is a philosophy… okay,maybe that is a little too much but werden is a really important word for the German language. Why? Because it has 3 functions. It is a “normal” verb, nothing special… just an activity that all life is meant for. Then, it is also used to build the future tense and last but not least it is the tool to build the passive voice.
Today we’ll look at all those things. Not at the grammar and structure of all those things. Today, we’ll explore WHY German uses werden for those 3 things… why does it mean to become, what happened to the German bekommen, why does German use werden for future, why do we use it for passive when so many other languages use to be… and finally we’ll find out about some crazy things that we can do with the German passive that is impossible in other languages. So… sounds like we’ve got a lot ahead of us. Are you ready to dive in? Coooooool.

werden – the verb

Werden is the German word for to become. And before we go on there, let’s quickly talk about one thing that many find confusing. German has the bekommen. That  looks a lot like to become and they words are obviously brothers. But bekommen is to receive. How weird. How could 2 obviously related words take on completely different meanings. But is the combination to receive/to become really that weird? It is not… in fact English has a word that means both. To get.

  • I got an e-mail…. you receive something
  • I got tired…. you become tired.

The underlying idea is that you “reach” something. And that can happen in 2 ways. It reaches you.. then you receive it. Or you reach it.. then you become. Of course you have to put on your abstract glasses :).
Back in the old Indo-European language this phenomenon was quite common. Verbs would have 2 directions. And there are still some verbs like this around. Like to get. It can mean to obtain, but also to become and even to reach places (get home). Another example is to make. You can make a salad or you can make a bus. Same sentence structure. Just one word was changed. But the meanings are completely different. A German example that is similar to this is the verb schaffen (to create, to pull of successfully).
The ancestor of to become/bekommen, *bikweman, used to be one of those verbs, too. But German and English very early on started to go for one of meanings… English chose one, German the other and today they seem totally different. Now, what’s interesting is why the languages chose different versions. I don’t know it for fact why they decided the way they did. I wasn’t there because I was sick at the time. But it might have gone down like this:

“Hey fellow English men, we have this word bikweman
and it means 2 things… that is confusing. Let’s pick one.”

“Yay!”
“Which one should we pick then.”
“We have to get for to recei...”
To get kicks ASS… best word ever.”
“But we also have weorðan for the other mea…”
“Whatever. weorðan sucks anyway. Let’s use bikweman instead.”
“Okay…so from now on bikweman shall be our new word
for
 weorðan.”
“I have a question… can we use to get for that too? Pleeeaase???”
“Uhg… fine.”

Shortly after in Germany…

“Hey fellow Germans. We have this bikweman and it means 2
things. Brits just picked one. Let’s pick one, too.”

“Jaaaa.”
Brits picked to become. Should we do the same?”
“But we have werden for to become and we DON’T really have a
word for to receive.”

“Oh… oh you’re right… okay I guess we don’t really have a “Wahl” then. From now on bikweman shall be our word
for to receive, 
and for to receive only.”
“My god, that will be confusing for soooo many.”

 So… long story short… English once had a version of werden too but it got rid of itGerman on the other hand loved werden and is using it to this day in the old meaning…

  • How can I become fluent in just a matter of days? (the answer: you can’t unless you’re a snowman)
  • Wie kann ich in wenigen Tagen fliessend werden?
  • Maria explains why she became a vegetarian.
  • Maria erklärt, warum sie Vegetarierin wurde.
  • Thomas becomes more and more arrogant.
  • Thomas wird immer arroganter.

Now… English actually uses a wide variety to express the idea of self development. English actually uses a wide variety of phrasings… 

  • Maria is getting tired.
  • Maria wird müde.
  • Sarah becomes/turns 24 this November.
  • Sarah wird diesen November 24.
  • Man, you’ve grown tall.
  • Man, bist du groß geworden.
  • Thomas is going crazy.
  • Thomas wird verrückt.

German uses werden for all those situations. So whenever the core is self development or changing from one state to another state…  werden is probably the word you need because the concept is the very core of that verb.

Now, it hasn’t always been that way… the origins of werden is a actually a root that meant to turn, to wind. Looks like a rather specific activity… but man oh man… you have no idea how many words come from that root. it brought us words like

  • vortex, work,to wind, vertical, warp, versus,
    worth, 
    ergonomic or worm

and in German we can find even more

  • Wert (worth, value), wirken(have an effect, seem), werfen (throw),
    werden
    Wand (wall), wenden (turn), winden (to wind)

    Windel (diaper), Werft (shipyard) and many many more…

When I first read that I was like… wait … how? I mean… we’ve seen Star Trek so I  now that warp and worm are related … (get it, get it… worm hole and stuff?) but  hat does work have to do with turning or bending?
Of course we can’t analyze all of them here but let’s do some examples.  The word Wand (wall) for instance is related to winding and bending because  lack in the days you’d “weave” your walls and fences from bast fibers or straw. And that is also how work ties in there. Originally, working meant to construct stuff by weaving. Or take the German werfen (to throw). That makes sense as soon as you realize that is is simply a description of your arm movement… you turn your arm in a way.
If you want to know more about the other ones , just leave me a comment and we can try to figure it out :). But now let’s get back to werden.

So… it comes from a word that meant to turn, to bend and the question is: How does that connect to the current meaning? Well…  it is actually not big of a distance. If you want to become something you kind of have to turn in that direction. Let’s say you’re a social worker but you want to become an investment banker like everyone else… then you will take steps to reach that goal. You’ll go to school, buy a suit, cut your hair, watch “Wall Street” … you will “turn” toward that goal, you turn yourself and your life if that makes sense. And if it doesn’t … well, we don’t even have to make many words. Let’s just look at this again.

  • In fall the leaves turn red and yellow.

I can also use to become here. It is the same thing. We’re using the word to turn in sense of to become. That is exactly what happened with werden. It lost the turning part. And English had the very same word werden once… people just didn’t like it and so they got rid of it.
Germans didn’t. And then they didn’t even more… wait… that sound odd… anyway. Soon Germans started to use their werden to build and express other ideas… and one of them is the future.

werden – the future


English mainly uses will to express future tense. German uses werden.

  • Ich werde morgen ins Ballet gehen… Spaß, natürlich nicht.
  • I will go to a ballet tomorrow… kidding, of course not.
  • Ich frage mich ob die Menschen in der Zukunft mal auf dem Mars leben werden.
  • I ask myself whether people will be living on Mars in the future,

Hmmm… curious. In relation to, say, Chinese, German and English are little more than dialects of the same language. So why would they use different words to build the future, to begin with? The answer to that is that …oh wait… Steve,my producer, wants something… … … what?… I….. I don’t understand, what do you mean “out of time?!”…  … but… but… I can’t just stop here. We just started intensive-season man! How intensive is it to just stop right when we got going… ….. oh… … … oh yeah? well tell the network executives to go hang themselves off a cliff if that is so cool… … … … fine. So guys… as it seems we have to stop here, because the network thinks the show is “too long”. I know it sucks but so does Kanye West.
That didn’t even make sense.
So… if you have any questions about werden so far or you want to complain about the sudden stop, just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

If you’re curious you continue with part 2 right away here:

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