Thinking about Prefixes

***

Big news, I have actually read out the episode so you can listen to it. This is an experiment and I am not sure, if this actually works or if it is helpful. Also, I am not a trainer reader and English is not my native language so you can listen to me trying to fight off my German accent :D. 
But yeah… I’ve ben wanting to try this for a long time and this theory-heavy episode felt like a good fit. 
So if you want to give it a try, you can download/listen to the mp3 here.
(near the end I say “ancestors of Indo-European”… I mean, “offsprinsg”)

***

Hello everyone,

and welcome to … well… I don’t really know what to call this… topic of the Day, I guess.
It’s not about one word in particular, nor is it about a grammar rule. Rather, I want to talk a bit about one quite general and essential aspect of language:

Verb Prefixes

Verb prefixes are a very prominent part of the German language and many learners find them very confusing. Understandably so. There’s the verb kommen and then there are dozens of variations like auskommen, einkommen, reinkommen or bekommen and their meanings are really all over the place and random.
But verb prefixes are not a German thing. Many languages have them and English is no exception. In fact, English is just as full of prefix verbs as German. They’re just a little more covert because… but we’ll get to that later.

So …today, I want to talk a bit about verb prefixes in general and explore where they come from and if there’s actually a common function that they all share.
That’s not gonna make us masters of German prefix verbs. But it’s like with pictures… having a bit of background puts the foreground in perspective. Wow, that was kind of deep for one beer.
So yeah, if you like theorizing a bit about languages, then follow me. And if you don’t like it, follow me anyway, because it will help you make peace with prefix verbs.

We begin our discussion on a very general level.
There are very different kinds of languages around the world but linguists have found some very general characteristics. One of those characteristics is the approach of adding something to a word to express something. The English “-ed”-ending is a good example for that.

I learned this in school.

The -ed expresses that we’re talking in the past tense. Seems super familiar to many of us, because most languages do something like that. But technically, you could also do it this way:

I learn this in school #past.

In linguistics, this second approach is called isolating (use of isolated words for all concepts)  while adding an ending is termed synthetic.
In reality, almost no language is “purely” one or the other. Most use a mix of both approaches but Indo-European, the ancestor of most European languages as well as of Hindi and Persian, was a BIG BIG  fan of adding stuff and altering words.
Take a look at the verb conjugation and noun inflection of ancient Greek. They got some serious tables in ancient Greek. Looking at tables for German adjective endings will be like looking at the math homework of a second grader after seeing a Linear Algebra textbook – it’s still very very difficult but you know there’s much worse.
Anyway, in the first example we had the ending -ed carrying the information that the sentence is in the past tense. Crucial information, but it’s actually a rather light load. Because
in almost all European languages, the endings are heavily charged and carry lots of information like person, number, tense, mode and sometimes a thing called aspect; or a mix of those.
It’s not really our topic today, but let me give you a quick example anyway, with the Italian verb cucinare which means to cook

  • cucineró
  • cucineresti

The first word means “I will cook.”, the second one means “You would cook.”. So the ending here is benching information about which person is doing it, the tense AND whether it’s an actual event or just an unreal option. That’s quite crazy, if you think about it.
In comparison to Italian and even more so to Latin, English has evolved much more toward the isolating approach. But that’s not the end all be all.
In fact, there’s a theory that a language evolves in a circlular fashion. So from synthetic it slowly drifts toward isolating because of mumbling and doing away with endings. Then, it uses multi word phrases to express itself, which then over time get mumbled again until they’re like an ending. Of course that’s pretty simplified, but just take the term “gonna”. This is the result of mumbling “going to” but if you don’t know that, it looks like a special form of to go to go with an ending.

Anyway, so yeah, most of us do have a notion of what verb endings do. But the end is only one of two “slots” where we could add something. The other one is the beginning.
And already thousands of years ago, the Indo-Europeans would add little syllables in front of their verbs: prefixes.
And the big question is what do those do? What information do they carry? Is there a common theme?
Well… there is.

What do prefixes do

And once again, we’ll take a little detour to linguistics.
One really important way of categorizing verbs, or actions I should say, is by looking at its “type of action” – which in English linguistics is actually called aktionsart, I think.
An action can have a defined endpoint, then it’s called telic. Or it doesn’t have a fixed endpoint, then it’s called atelic.
And just to make sure… this is usually NOT a quality of the verb itself but of the verb as it is used in a context. Here’s an example.

  • I read the whole book yesterday.
  • I read a book yesterday.

The first sentence includes a defined endpoint, the second one doesn’t. If you don’t “feel” like there’s a difference, just try adding a time span to the sentences  in form of “for X amount of time”. That’ll make it pretty obvious.

  • I read the whole book yesterday for three hoursnope
  • I read a book yesterday for three hours…. yup

It works in the second sentence because we can read a book for five minutes as well as for three hours. There’s no defined endpoint. But it doesn’t work in the first example because there we do have a defined end – the finishing of the book.
Now, you don’t really have to remember the terms telic and atelic.
What matters is that you have seen that there’s a the difference between actions that have an inherent goal or endpoint and actions that don’t.
Because the grand theme of prefixes, the core function they kind of share across all European languages is this:

Prefixes lend a sense of goal/direction to a verb.

Now, this is a VERY general statement, so please don’t take it too literally. It’s not a direction in “3D space”. It doesn’t mean that verbs can’t have a defined end without a prefix and it doesn’t mean that every prefix verb automatically has a fixed endgoal.
But prefixes do add some notion of direction or goal to verbs that might not have been there before. And as I said, that theme is true for virtually all offsprings of good old Indo-European; so most languages of Europe.
Bold claim. But we’ll see that it’s actually true… next week, when we go through examples together.

***

Yeah, I know, bohoooo. You want to know now. And I admit, I kind of got you hyped up in the intro.
And I wasn’t gonna split this into two parts initially.
But truth is that I’m way to impatient :).
This is actually gonna be part of the book on prefix verbs that I am working on and I really want to take my time to write it “properly”.  But now I’m kind of excited about this part, because after literally years I finally feel like my writer’s block with regards to this book is gone and I’m just super mega curious for your feedback on this so far. And I am also super mega curious what you think about the audio. Like… is my reading okay and can you actually follow the material by listening to it.

And also, I think it’s actually kind of fun, if you do your own little enquiry first. Think about German prefixes and see if you can find this notion of a goal or direction in them. And take a look at your own language. Do you have prefixes and what do they do?
Let me know all your thoughts in the comments and let’s see what insights we can gain :).
And of course if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it, have a great week and see you next time.

Oh, if you’re wondering about why there’s no quiz today… that’s because I couldn’t think of more than two questions. And I didn’t want to ask about the linguistic bits and terms. Those are interesting, but they don’t really matter all that much so I don’t want to give them too much attention by asking questions about them :).

 

for members :)

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Elsa
Elsa

Hellooo,
OMG, this article is so well written (you managed to use words I didn’t even know existed, like “aktionsart” and “atelic” – I had to google that) I thought I wasn’t gonna find any typos… but I did; only near the end though, I suppose that was the second beer :)
“after literally year” (one year? or is it more years?)
“let’s see if what insights” (“if” is surplus)
“if you have any questions or suggestion” (suggestions)
“have a great and see you next time” (a great time, I suppose?)

Love the audio, although your English sounds soooo charming it’s hard to focus on the content :)

There are obviously prefix verbs in English, as you obviously know (overcome, underestimate, bypass, foresee, etc.), but I think they’re a bit more straightforward (then again, I would, people always think things are dead easy in their own language!)

Prefix verbs are really one of the hardest subjects for me when learning German, so I do want this book of yours really badly!

Bis bald!

Turtles
Turtles

Hope this is easily understood

Ein sehr schöner Artikel. Sie sollten gegen ihren Akzent nicht anrennen,denn ihre Stimme ist Klar. Ich würde hören,wie würden sie einen Artikel von Ihnen,der voller Humor ist, lesen. Das wäre sehr lustig

Jo Alex SG
Jo Alex SG

I love it. I always find this sort of reflection about language structure most interesting, especially when you mention the Indo-European connection, a subject I’m really keen on.
By the way, I actually think it helps to fixate the content even more when I listen to a pod while reading the text itself, especially with such a pleasant voice doing the job:-), no kidding, you’ve got the gift!
Vielen Dank, es hat mir viel Spaß gemacht.

aoind
aoind

You are a very engaging writer Emanuel. I can’t wait to buy your book.

Roger
Roger

Please wish me well in German, English, French or any language you feel like (with or without a prefix).
I am going into hospital today to have a blocked heart artery fixed. If you see another comment it will be a clue that I have survived the operation. Mit besten Wünsche to all. Roger
PS Great article today. Excited to read the book. If necessary please leave a copy at the Pearly Gates. :-)

Ahmad Mazaheri
Ahmad Mazaheri

Ich wünsche dir eine schmerzlose OP , und schnellere Besserung wie früher als möglich . Ich drücke die Daumen für dich .

LEO
LEO

Dear Roger, may God enble you to survive the operation well.
Mit herzlichen lieben Grüßen und guten Wünschen(für die OP) aus Uganda.
LEO

Elsa
Elsa

Dear Roger,
Herzlichen Wünsche, best of luck, bonne chance!
Can’t wait to see another comment from you!
All the best, mate, really!!

lisa

May you have a safe and easy surgery.
Look forward to hearing from you when it is over.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Best of Luck! Francesca aus Italien

pete
pete

I think gonna
is hideous.

I use it all the time
when speaking
But only cause it’s
quick to utter and
usually not important
to the main idea

seldom seen in writing
outside of quoted speech,
i think it gums up the text

it slows me down
if just for a moment
like when i look at myself
in a mirror

and it aint pretty

Denise
Denise

Very interesting article and very well read. If I hadn’t known you were German, I would have assumed you were a native English speaker – probably American.
Very easy on the ear. It’s amazing what I don’t know about my own language!

GlennNYC
GlennNYC

You should not be self conscious when you speak English. You speak flawlessly. I would be hard pressed to detect a German accent. Your command of the language is exceptional. You are super adapt with nuance. (e.g.”I mustered the courage”… not your run of the mill street argot but perfectly applied).Where did you learn English?

DEmberton
DEmberton

As an English German learner I always think that the way separable verbs are taught is backwards. In English you’d learn “to have something on” which is how we’d normally use it: I have a hat on. But in German although it’s word for word identical: Ich habe eine Mütze an, the infinitive version that you learn becomes anhaben, and then you have to learn that the an splits off and goes to the end (WTF!!!). And then you have to learn that when there’s a zu it goes between the prefix and the verb, and then there’s the past participle…

All of which is terrifying. Whereas what we should do is learn the “normal” version: Ich habe eine Mütze an, and then learn that when the haben goes to the end for any reason (which German loves to do) it JOINS the prefix. So really they’re joinable verbs, and not separable verbs. And then it’s much simpler.

I guess in this case “an” is a “direction”. But it seems to me the same pattern works for Pizza:

Eine Mütze anhaben.
Ich habe eine Mütze an.
Ich will eine Mütze anhaben.
Ich habe eine Mütze angehabt.

Pizzaessen.
Ich esse Pizza. (pizza has split off and gone to the end)
Ich will Pizzaessen. (essen has moved to the end and rejoined pizza)
Ich habe Pizzagegessen.

If you take out the spaces then Pizza is working like a separable prefix. Sort of.

Ben
Ben

Pizzaessen is to handle like the noun das Essen (meal/food) and nouns, the thingies with Captiatls, dont seperate easy.

“Ich gehe Pizzaessen”
“Ich will [zum] Pizzaessen gehen.”
“Ich war beim Pizzaessen.”/ “Ich bin Pizzaessen gegangen.” (I’m no linguist, just german)

Funfact and I guess why prefixes are so ridiculously hard in german, they can have the opposite meaning.
– umfahren: drive around / run over
– abdecken: cover / uncover

DEmberton
DEmberton

Umfahren is the classic example with which to amaze your friends. But is it ever a problem? “Ich umfahre den Mann” and “Ich fahre den Mann um” are clearly different. I guess something like “Ich will den Mann umfahren” could be either one. But would anyone actually say “Ich umfahre den Mann” and not “Ich fahre um den Mann” – i.e. using a preposition?

Tien
Tien

Love it! English is my second language and German is the third. I enjoy learning both from your site. And it’s even greater now with audio, because I can afford more listening than reading during my busy days. As I am not a native English speaker, my judgement about your accent would not be valid, but to my ears your accent is great and I can’t tell that you’re not a native. Also looking forward to your book.

Renee
Renee

I think you already did a post on stellen… that’s one of the most confusing verbs or sets of verbs for me in German. Vorstellen, abstellen, bestellen… I’ve been living in Germany for four years and to me the most confusing part of learning German verbs is that they are all so similar-sounding… the second part of the confusingness is the fact that the same verb will often do double-duty (I know English is guilty of that too, so I’m not pointing fingers here, just explaining.) I am right that “vorstellen” could mean to introduce but it could also mean, to understand?!?!? I think that having a whole section on recognizing verb prefixes is going to be very helpful to fix this problem!

DEmberton
DEmberton

Do you mean imagine? “Stellen Sie sich vor” means both “introduce yourself” and “imagine…”. In the second case the sich is actually a dative sich, but it’s impossible to tell.

Lamb
Lamb

Now that’s always confusing me.

Adschara
Adschara

I like the audio. I listen to podcasts daily and this is more convenient for me. There is no problem with your accent. Keep it up! Thanks

Josh P
Josh P

I want to play devil’s advocate here but don’t take my feedback as personal. I think that for the topic, you speak very, very clearly, but I find it too slow to follow on with. I guess it’s something to do with the fact I read quickly (including your posts) and I’m very comfortable with high-speed English. SO listening to it quite a bit slowed down makes it hard to concentrate. Your voice suits this kind of hypnotic style so it might also be that! Your pronunciation is very good and your language control, in general, is very good (the rhythm and intonation and everything sound native to me…just slow).
I honestly listened to the entire thing and then had to go and read it again to actually get the information more clearly – I think your style very well suits a written context though because we all have a voice in our heads reading to us and your pauses and implemented slang and fun language makes it super interesting.
I guess my TL;DR would be that I would love it if you read it faster but I also understand why you wouldn’t want to do that. Thanks again anyway and super looking forward to next week! Learning German has accidentally made me a grammar nerd…

Alan
Alan

Happy New Year, good post and very interesting. I like the written version best because I can pick at it while pretending to work in between taking it in and go back a bit if my concentration lapses, that is less natural for me with the listening version but that could be an age/technology thing. The voice is good, traces of American lilt actually predominates any residual German accent although having spent so many years talking to Germans in English, yes there is some of that too, partly the small differences in syllable emphasis. The bottom line is that it is utterly listenable to. (new word and dreadful English)
In either written or recorded versions your lighter touch makes learning very enjoyable.
Get it done!

Michael Linner
Michael Linner

In my experience the main difference between german and english with respect to today’s article is that german tends to combine words together, in whole or in part. I know that for most english speakers the super long words in german (I’m sure german has just one word for “super long words”), can be quite difficult to wrap your head around. In english a second or modifying word is used more often. That’s why the examples of verb prefixes show up more often in german. I really enjoy your posts!

Greg
Greg

I prefer reading so I can go back over what I just read, i have a slow brain and these heavy concepts take a minute to sink in. Your English is perfect, nothing to worry about there. I think I was noticing the cadence is German, I was recently thinking if I could only imitate a German accent in English it might help me get that rhythm. Leider bin ich nur ein Anfänger und flüssig sein ist weit weg.
Herzlich Danke für die Internetseite, die hat mir sehr geholfen.

Katy
Katy

Okay, so I’ve been absent lately and very lazy and I’m only just getting back into learning German ‘properly’, rather than just idly watching YouTube (. . .and Berlin Tag und Nacht. . .). ;-)

Prefixes has always been something I’ve struggled with as I’ve never really understood them. I was reading the article and then started thinking of loads of examples of prefixes in English – basically anything beginning with over, under, fore, back etc. Anyway, they all lend themselves to indicating a direction, so this all makes perfect sense to me now – even if I’m not making much sense myself (I’m quite hyped up that I’ve finally ‘got it’. Haha).

Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for the brilliant article and I found listening to the recording really useful to help me focus. Your pronunciation is super clear and almost accent-free which is really impressive. I wish that just now and again Germans would just embrace their accent when speaking English, though, because personally I love it and everyone I know always apologises for it. That said, I always apologise for my German pronunciation a) because it’s terrible and b) I’m British and if I don’t apologise for something that’s not really my fault every day, the police will probably find me and shoot me.

Thanks again. :-) Looking forward to next week’s article and, of course, the book!

thorrudbek

I like the audio version… it’s almost like having a Podcast version of the post. Also useful to review the post when driving or jogging. Thanks!

lostindesert
lostindesert

Was your American girlfriend from California? Maybe it’s all the movies you mentioned listening to, but I detect a bit of the CA inflection in your speaking. Quite well done by the way! Keep at it! The book will make it in 2020!

CesarRiv
CesarRiv

I really liked it and being able to listen to the audio while doing other things makes it easier to be able keep up with your content. Your reading and pronunciation was really good as well. Hope to see more articles like this soon!