Thinking about Prefixes

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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 :).

 

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sging
sging
3 months ago

Regarding your “slots”–they don’t have to be just at the beginning or ending of the word–there can be infixes as well. Some languages use them quite a bit–Malay/Indonesian comes to mind.

Monty
Monty
9 months ago

Thank you for the audio recording! Very convenient for learning the material while driving! :)

Maya
Maya
1 year ago

Super…. it comes live and onlive with voice… German accent is actually attractive… only if possible speed up a bit .., Looking for More

azulargente
azulargente
1 year ago

today, I was going through this website and reading, and wishing that you had a podcast to listen to also. serendipitously, I happened upon this exact page where I see you made a recording! I LOVE IT. have you made a podcast, by any chance….? it would be so amazing. :)

Aldas
Aldas
1 year ago

Good idea with an audio, you could also make audio sound on the same page for our own comfort that we could stop and resume the audio when need more time to think. Besides, you can suggest audio at 2 speeds, one can be at normal speed and another audio at a higher pace.
As well, you could keep all articles with an audio in a separate section, I mean you can still differentiate them according to their type but have a different section only for them on top of everything. Because then, people can easily find them on your website whenever they are at the bus… and just follow the audio as they go.
This website has a great potential, after you will establish all your ideas it will make much easier for people to learn German.
Additionally, if you would add a guidance on your website for new learners or intermediate learners, etc it would be easier for people to get their head around, what they should first do when they start learning. Because most people’s problem is to stick with learning after they see that the progress in language learning is long and gradual process…

Chloe
Chloe
2 years ago

As I’m about to learn German. And I’m about to move to Berlin. And I’m about to visit a language school. I suppose your site will be my replacement for the otherwise needed books *-* This post is absolute gold!!! I love this, I love everything about it! Great, great, great content! Thank you so much! I will post regular Updates, as soon as I landed in Berlin. I just want to let you know, how your site can support me in my super-intensive course and my language journey in general. It is amazing. I’m sooooo excited. New people, new city, new country, new continent :O

Anyway as I said: amazing content and we’ll definitely write again soon ;)

Yuheng
Yuheng
2 years ago

Hey Emanuel,

I really enjoy your style of talking. It is very much amusing and easy to follow. Thank you for making this great project.

Best,

Yuheng

SteveBead
SteveBead
2 years ago

I think more idiomatic for this phrase is: “the be all and (the) end all”

Marcos
Marcos
2 years ago

Great job Emmanuel, you are better in every post you do. I´m a brazilian curious about languages as well. I´m majored in a superior course that we here in Brazil call “Letras” in Portuguese . In it I´ve studied Portuguese and English, interested in literary and cultural aspects of these languages. But this course is done mostly by whom is interested in teaching languages.

Concerning your question about our languistic uses of prefixes, well, I´d say that your example in Italian is good, so I translate it to our formal Portuguese:

Eu cozinhO (I cook, simple present)
Eu cozinhARIA (I would cook, kind of “conditional future”, as our grammar call it)

I did it to show you the similar aspects of the example you give us in Italian.

Well,

sorry any mistakes because I´m not so practical as you do in writing in English.

And keep doing your excellent work here and I´m very glad to continue receiving your e-mails.

Marcos
Marcos
2 years ago
Reply to  Marcos

Ops.., sorry, your name is Emanuel… ;]

Alec
Alec
2 years ago

Keep the audio…. great! Yes, I can detect a typical German accent but it’s clear with good intonation (and I have hearing problems!) I can also hear that you learnt quite a lot of English in the US, which is quite different from a NZ accent. There is a German speaker I talk with regularly in NZ and you sound very much like him but he doesn’t have the American accent. I find Germans are very good at pronouncing consonents in English, whereas native speakers are often a bit lazy.

Olga
Olga
2 years ago

As always an interesting, informing intriguing article. I like your immersion into linguistics with a general approach. Thank you for your job!
When I began learning German and met for the first time ‘trennbare Verben’, I thought, OMG, I would never master them. Your articles, Emanuel, on this topic help me a lot to catch the matter. Dafür bin ich dir sehr dankbar! And look forward to your book!
One question to the term ‘mode’ in the extract
“… carry lots of information like person, number, tense, mode …”
Do you use here the term ‘mode’ instead of ‘mood’? Or are these two separate terms?

Anonymous
Anonymous
2 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Thank you!:)

skypod
skypod
2 years ago

I really like the audio, the pace is just right for the content. And very well written. Tiny point: in UK English we say “that’s not the be all and end all” meaning, “that’s not the most important thing in the world” (I think maybe you used it to mean “that’s not all there is”?). Great stuff, though.

Kathleen
Kathleen
2 years ago

Hello,

I want to leave a Big Thank You for being sponsored by the German learning community on the site – team spirit! I really appreciate it and look forward to finally being able to learn German :)

Kate

Anonymous
Anonymous
2 years ago

Hindi is the language, Hindu is the belief system :d

Philip Coombes
Philip Coombes
2 years ago

Hi – new to the group. The audio definitely helps the learning process (and the accent is fine!). Perhaps a tad faster. I used the audio alongside the written and it helped to see and hear at the same time, a kind of reinforcement if you like. Hope to hear/see more. As a new learner, are there any earlier topics I can access (particularly around grammar). There are many of us ‘older’ learners who want to learn a lot of a new language, specifically around areas of use that impact on us, without the wish or need to learn everything. It’s interesting to learn these nuggets around a language and why things are as they are, so your topic today made a lot of good sense. Many thanks.

Eli
Eli
2 years ago

Thanks for the Audio, very very helpful !!
I’ve once made an Excel chart with all the prefixes… after few months I’ve gave it all up, there are just to many :-) but slowly comes intuitive understanding and in an a way i find myself slowly understand the “root core” (or direction) of the word as Hebrew semitic root. So it can be understood how flexible it can go and how all the prefixes are like (mozilla audio player) add-ons to the meaning.

Annette
Annette
2 years ago

Really happy to have a chance to learn German through this online course thanks to the helpful free membership. HUGE thanks to those who gave extra so others could also learn woohoo!

Thiago
Thiago
2 years ago

Ich bin Emanuel und allen Mitgliedern dankbar, die ein bisschen extra bezahlt haben, um Leute wie mir zu helfen. Kleine Geste, große Wirkung.

Hugh Warren
Hugh Warren
2 years ago

It’s nice listening to your voice – you do have an accent and a bit of an Americanish (to my Australian ear) twang, but beautifully fluid, clear and well modulated. Maybe a little slow (not sure about that one).
By the way: we normally say ‘be all and end all’ (in that oder, rather than ‘end all and be all’); also I think ‘ay-telic’ rather than ‘ah-telic’.
A great topic to explore in this way with a bit of theoretic background. I’m gradually getting the hang of your prefix verbs and that sense of direction that you mention, but I still can’t resist quoting them and their use as a comic aspect of German when talking with my German acquaintances. I am also constantly reminded of your advice from a year or two back about not trying to construct them for ourselves – therein awaits disaster! (In contrast with nouns, which can just be gaily jammed together and always seem to be intelligible, even if it’s the first time a German-speaker has ever heard that particular combination! Interesting.).

Mark Kelly
Mark Kelly
2 years ago

Ha. And the discussion and comments are brilliant too.