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.”

“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
“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.”

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,
    ergonomic or worm

and in German we can find even more

  • Wert (worth, value), wirken(have an effect, seem), werfen (throw),
    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 what can we do. I promise that we’ll do part 2 as soon as possible and oh by the way… there is something that might compensate you for the wait… because… you get to choose the next prefix. Just vote for the one you like most in the poll right below. The poll will set a cookie on your computer to keep you from voting more than once but when you click on results you will find buttons to share the poll with other people so you can push your prefix :). I am really curious what it’ll be.
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:


23 responses to “Word of the Day – “werden”

  1. Thanks very much for the efforts you exert to make us understand the Deutschesprache which sometime in the past ( es hat gesheint vollig unlogisch zu sein) appears as if it is completely unlogical language
    thanks again
    and may I ask you to recommend to me some resources about the german lanaguage in order to understand its prefixes and the nuances of meaning between many verbs that means one verb in the english language

    looking forward to seeing part 2 of the verb werden
    thanks again and in advance
    your sincerely


  2. So glad I found your blog! I think you will give me some of the missing puzzle pieces I have to learning German!


  3. Hi Emanuel,

    I was just wondering if you knew why the conjugation of werden changed from the more regular “werden wirst ward geworfen”, like the verbs helfen and werfen, to changing the simple past to “wurde” which is irregular? I thought it was interesting cos people seem to like to form verbs by analogy to other verbs (like when people use bring brang and brung in English). :)


    • Oh that is a tough question and I have to say that I do not the answer… I have found one source online that claimed both form had been existing side by side for centuries but I don’t know how accurate this is and why people would go for “wurde” eventually… I have asked that in a forum and I’ll update you if I get an answer… here’s the adress if you want to check it out too:



    • All right so someone actually gave a really interesting answer in that forum… here’s the link:


      I don’t know how good your German but I’ll just summarize it real quick:

      The Indo-European of the Germanic languages (Indo-European) was using one vowel more, one for the past singular and one for the past plural. This is still visible in mdern day islandic. There they say:

      ich ward (I changed it to German)
      wir wurden

      And there are other verbs that used to work that way to. For instance helfen

      – ich half
      – wir hulfen

      – ich fand
      – wir funden

      Also those are preserved in Islandic.
      German (and English as well for that matter) has lost this distinction and picked one version for the past for each verb. For helfen, finden and others it happened to be the singular version, for werden, the plural. Why, is not known. However, the commentator in the forum speculates as to why wurde conjugates with an -e for first and third person singular which is different to verbs like finden or helfen. IT might be that it is because werden has benn used as a helper verb very early on. So the structures it was used in were similar to sentences with modal verb or sentences with haben or sein. That might be the reason why the 2-syllable past (wurd-e) was preferred… because of the rhythm.

      So… it is still unclear why exactly they went for u instead of a but at least we have some background on that now :)


      • That makes a lot of sense to me, and it’s interesting the way Icelandic kept the archaic declination patterns. Ich fand den Schreibstil des Antwortenden nebenbei sehr wortgewandt, seine Sprache hat so eine Genauigkeit, die nett zu lesen war. Das ist was ich am meisten an Deutsch mag, glaube ich :) Das Wort “wurde” war also vielleicht wirklich eine Anologie, aber zu Hilfsverben und nicht dem Ablautmuster. Irgendwie wie das Wort “Antwort” weiblich ist obwohl “Wort” sächlich ist. Ich dachte vielleicht das liegt daran, dass die meisten Nomen, die mit einem T enden und aus Verben geformt sind, weiblich sind. Aber ich weiß nicht ob das wahr ist oder nicht, aber es ergibt Sinn möglicherweise :)

        Danke für die Antwort :)


        • Haha… ja die Antwort in dem Forum war sprachlich sehr gut. Die Sätze hätten vielleicht einen Tick kürzer sein können, aber es lies sich gut lesen. Die “Schreibe” hat mich ein bisschen an eine Webseite erinnert, die dich auch interessieren könnte (dein Deutsch ist ja ziemlich gut):


          Ich habe sie vor einiger Zeit entdeckt und dort schon einige Sachen gefunden, die ich noch nicht wusste und die auch in keiner der Standardgrammatiken stehen. Zum Beispiel alles über die bidirektionalen Verben. Der Mann spricht in den Videos etwas zu schnell für meinen Geschmack. Das geht mir dann nach 10 Minuten immer auf die Nerven. Aber was er sagt, ist fundiert und er ist turbosupermega-gründlich… ich glaube für dich könnte zum Beispiel alles zum Konjunktiv interessant sein…. also viel Spaß damit :)


  4. hi
    stimme means voice or sound
    and the be- prefix with a verb means to inflict something on another something
    so bestimmen means to inflict sound on something as I understood from your be- article
    how on earth could bestimmen means to accertain or to be right as in ( Das bestimmt= That’s right)
    please explain
    and thanks in advance


    • Good question, I was thinking about making “stimmen” a word of the Day. But anyway… first let me clear up a little misunderstanding:

      the phrase that means :

      – “That’s right”


      – “Das stimmt”

      in German so it is just the verb “stimmen” without the “be”.
      As for “bestimmen”… you said that Stimme means voice and sound… and there is already kind of the solution… just think of “bestimmen” as “to inflict voice” and not “to inflict sound”.
      If you “inflict voice on something” you kind of speak up for it. That is why “bestimmen” can mean “to make the decisions”, “to rule” or “to nominate”… all things where you go like “I want this and that” . Ascertain is definitely not the best tranlsation… my favorite is “to determine”.. hope hat helps a bit


  5. I don’t know if the exposed chronology is right, but if “werden” came to be used for future, what would they use before? something like “will” or maybe the portuguese future conjugation?


    • ok, it was already answered in part 2, sorry


    • The answer is, they used nothing. They simply didn’t express it via grammar. Germanic languages originally only used present and past. Past for … well.. past, and present for all the rest. Future was indicated by giving time information or simply by context… so basically kind of like German works today.

      – Bei Teutates, wir besiegen die Römer.

      If the chief says that during the meeting of tribes, then obviously he is talking about the future and not the present…because in the present all they do is talk and eat wild pig:)


  6. André Rhine-Davis

    “Sarah wird diesen November 24.”
    Is “diesen November” in the accusative case? That’s the only way I can see it fitting with “diesen”, but I don’t see how that makes any sense :S

    Also, as a noun and adjective, Old English “weorþ” does still exist, as English “worth” (c.f. German Wert/wert). The verb “weorðan” survived into Middle English as “to worth”, and although it is effectively dead and gone now, there are still some archaic frozen phrases that apparently still exist (although I’ve never personally heard anyone say them) such as “Woe worth the day” (with “worth” in the present subjunctive and “the day” in the dative) i.e. “may woe happen to the day”.

    “For, adds our erudite Friend, the Saxon weorthan equivalent to the German werden, means to grow, to become; traces of which old vocable are still found in the North-country dialects, as, ‘What is word of him?’ meaning ‘What is become of him?’ and the like. Nay we in modern English still say, ‘Woe worth the hour.’ {Woe befall the hour}”
    – Thomas Carlyle, “Past and Present” (1843)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is Accusative and it makes no sense :)… it just happened to be that way that time indications use Accusative. Actually there is a Gentitive way too…

      Eines Tages….

      I don’t know if it has ever been possible to say “dieses Tages” but I wouldn’t be surprised. Anyway… Accusative is the common way and there is no reason why. Oh… of course it couldn’t be Nominative because that would be confusing….

      Dieser Januar habe ich..

      That would mean subject reassessment for the brain :D

      As for “werden” … I didn’t know that the old version carried over into “worth”. That’s interesting. But what’s also interesting is that “worth” as in value as well as the German group of words around “wert” come from the same root as “werden”.

      Das wird teuer.
      [That worth expansive.]fictional
      That’s worth a lot.


  7. There’s also English “worship,” which didn’t originally mean “anbeten/Anbetung” but was a noun meaning “honor/dignity/renown.” That’s why some officials still have “worshipful” or “Your Worship” as titles; classically it just meant “honorable.” I guess the “wer-/were-” in “werewolf” comes from that “turn” root too? And “weird.” Would make sense.

    Apparently “went” as past tense for “go” actually came from “wenden”/”wend”; somehow “go” poached the past tense from “wend,” which still exists, usually to describe a river (“The Mississippi wends its way through the heart of the North American continent…”) but now, I’m fairly sure, has “wended” as its past form.

    Also, yet another fun use for “get” can be found in Genesis (1. Mose) 4:1 in the good ol’ King James translation. (Hope my HTML works right…)

    “Get” really is the best verb of all the verbs.


    • Oh wow, that does make a lot of sense. These instances of past tense poaching are really fascinating. I can’t think of a particular example in German except “sein”/”to be” which is really an amalgamate of various sources, and not only in Germanic languages as far as I know.
      As for “to get”… isn’t that just the standard receiving-get? Or is there something I’m not … ahem… getting?


  8. Yeah, I think “go/went” and “be/was” are the only examples in English. I learned about “went” in Greek class – there are a few more of those in Greek (at least New Testament Koine Greek). The verb for “carry” is “phero” but its past (aorist, if that means anything to you) form is “ēnengka,” obviously from another older verb.

    I guess that “get” in Genesis probably is basically “receive/acquire,” though as I recall the verb it translates (“qanah,” presented as the etymology for the son’s name, Cain or in Hebrew “Qayin”) can either mean “get” in that normal sense, usually applied to livestock or slaves, or “create” (some more contemporary translations reflect the latter meaning). Luther translated it with “gewinnen.” But then there’s also “beget” with the reproductive meaning…


  9. Can you please simplify this, without all the stories at the beginning? Just present the structures, and let’s get on with it!


  10. Great explanation. Loved the imaginary dialog!


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s