German Prefixes Explained – “ab”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: April 17, 2023

Hello everyone,

and welcome to a new episode of  German Prepositions Explained.
In each episode, we take one German preposition and look at what its core ideas are, how these show up  in the use as a prefix, and we’ll go over the most important fixed combinations where a verb always wants this one specific preposition and we’ll see if there’s any logic to it.
Sounds dry?

Well, “sand” also sounds dry but people eat it anyway.
“Emanuel, I don’t think people eat sa….”
Oh, yeah?! Ever heard of this thing called … erm… mette… uh… matterfour!
“It’s called metaphor, Emanuel.”
Ugh whatever, you knew what I mean, right. But thank you!
Anyway, the preposition we’ll look at today is

ab

So if you’re ready to jump in, then let’s goooo.

The family of “ab”

The origin of ab is the provocatively ancient Indo-European root *apo-, which the core idea of:

away, off

This root is also the origin of English of and off, but there are actually quite a few other surprising relatives.
Like after for example, which used to be a “comparative” form of aft with a core theme of “away to the rear”.
Or the Greek based apocalypse which is the old apo- combined with a Greek word for cover.
So the original sense  was about “taking off a cover” and for a long time simply meant revelation rather than the modern doomer meaning.
Or how about awkward, which originally meant something like “off-turned, turned the wrong way”.
Or ebb, which comes from the simple idea that the water is “away”.
And let’s also mention apology, which is the old apo combined with the Greek logos, which meant speech, reasoning. An apology was originally kind of a “counter speech”, something you say to make something someone else said go away.

But yeah, the most important offspring are definitely of and off in English and ab in German. And while they are all brothers, they’re actually not really translations. At least not without some cavities that would make a dentist look twice.
“Hey uhm… I think you mean caveats, Emanuel.”
Oh… right.. thanks. Caveats. The dentist joke doesn’t work then, I guess.
“That didn’t work anyway.”
Oh… okay. Well I was trying, at least.
So, one big caveat is that off has added this idea of “not active“. It makes sense if you think of it as very abstract “not present/away”, but generally, the German word for that is aus, not ab, bar the occasional exception of course.

  • My phone was off.
  • Mein Telefon war aus.

And the other one, of, has taken on this notion of possession or belonging.
I’m not entirely sure how that happened, but either way, the German counterpart for that is von, not ab.

  • That’s the phone of my sister.
  • Das ist das Telefon von meiner Schwester.

And even if we’re not talking about these contexts, there’s still no guarantee that ab is a translation for of or off.

As with all prepositions, I think it’s the better approach to understand the core idea(s) of a German preposition and then just pick the English counterparts based on that.

The core idea of “ab”

So what is the core idea of ab?
Well, there’s actually two, and I think the first one is best captured as:

separation

And it does mean that as a standalone.

  • Du siehst anders aus… ah, dein Bart ist ab.
  • You look different… ah, your beard is gone/away/off.

This sense is pretty much in line with the idea of away that was the core of the family, but choosing separation over away, because ab is not merely about something not being there, but rather of the moment of “parting”. And this will be quite important because as usual, German goes all free-jazz with the theme like it’s Sun Ra or something.

Anyway, so separation is the first theme of ab, and the second theme is best captured by:

downward

In fact, the German word for downward is abwärts and ab is often (not always) the counter to auf in the sense of upward.

  • “Wie läuft’s in der Beziehung?”
    “Es ist ein auf und ab.”
  • “How are things in the relationship?”
    “It’s an up and down thing.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Does that somehow tie in with the first sense?
Well, we could think of it as “separation from the top” but technically the same logic would hold for the opposite direction (separation from the bottom).
Maybe it’s because of gravity. Like, things that are “attached” somewhere, usually move downward when you “cut them off”. Like… an apple will fall down if you separate it from the tree.
If that makes sense to you, then great, but I think it’s overall more helpful to think of it as a separate theme, and that’s what I’ll do for the rest of this article.

So yeah, these are the two themes of ab:

  1. separation
  2. downward

Now it’s time to see how these show up in practice. And while we’d usually start with the use as regular preposition, today, I’ll actually start with ab- as a verb prefix.
Because there, we can really see how the two core ideas are used and that’ll help us a great deal with the use as a preposition.
So yeah… let’s get it.

“ab” as a prefix

Many prefixes in German have two core themes, and usually, both are somewhat equally common. But ab- is pretty much dominated by one of the themes – the idea of separation, away.

Sure, there are SOME verbs that are built on the idea of downward. absenken for instance, which is about (slowly) lowering something, though senken alone is pretty much the same. Or abseilen which is about lowering by rope,  rappelling down.

But most of the verbs that have the notion of downward in them ALSO have the other notion of separation, away, and it’s arguably the more relevant one.
abstellen is a good example for that, in its sense of putting down something that you’re carrying.

  • Können wir den Bierkasten kurz abstellen? Meine Arme tun weh.
  • Can we put down the case of beer for a second? My arms hurt.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Yes, we’re putting the case “down”, but the focus is arguably more on “separating” from it for a bit.
Similar thing for abnehmen which can be about taking off – in the sense of taking something “away” from somewhere. Be it taking off your hat, or a heavy bag your friend is carrying. Or taking a few kilograms off of your body.

  • Ich nehme meine Mütze ab.
  • I take off my hat.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Das sieht schwer aus, soll ich dir was abnehmen?
  • That looks heavy, should I take some/help you carry?
    (also works for figurative loads)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Thomas hat 4 Kilo abgenommen.
  • Thomas has lost 4 kilograms.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The first example looks like the verb could be about “downward” but in the other examples you can see that really the “away” is what matters.

So yeah, that’s the idea of separating, away is really at the core of most prefix verbs with ab-.
Which is good, because it means less untangling to do for us.
But of course this idea comes in various shades and with various levels of “abstract”.

For the bulk of ab-verbs, the core theme of separation is pretty visible.
Sometimes it’s more about taking away, removing

  • Ich mache den Aufkleber von der Tür ab.
  • I remove the sticker from the door.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Marias Präsentation war wieder der Hammer. Da könnt ihr euch alle eine Scheibe abschneiden. (common idiom)
  • Maria’s presentation was again absolutely amazing. You can all take an example there.
    (“cut yourself one slice off)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich habe keine Lust abzuwaschen.
  • I don’t feel like doing the dishes.
    (lit. “washing (the dirt) off”)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And sometimes it’s more about going away

  • Wir sind vom Thema abgekommen.
  • We veered off topic.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Das Flugzeug hebt ab.
  • The planes lifts/takes off.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich glaube, der Abfluss ist verstopft. Das Wasser läuft nicht richtig ab.
  • I think the drain is clogged. The water doesn’t run away/drain properly.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

There are many more and as you can see it’s quite the range of contexts –  but I think the core idea shines strong.

Now let’s gradually turn up the “twist” and see what happens :).

“ab-prefix” – turning up the twist

abgeben for instance can mean to give someone a share.

  • Ich gebe dir was von meiner Pizza ab.
  • I’ll give you a bit of my pizza.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Doesn’t really seem to fit in with away, separation on first glance,  but if you think of it as cutting off a slice of the pizza, then it fits right in.
And once we’ve made sense of abgeben, we can also make sense of abkriegen in its sense of to be hit.
Sounds weird right, but abkriegen is simply the other side of abgeben – it’s the  getting a share. Which can be of course a “desired” share, like a slice of pizza. But the thing is… it can also be getting an “unwanted” share – like a bit of vomit on your shoulder.

  • “Das Kind im Flugzeug neben mir hat gekotzt.”
    “Hast du was abgekriegt?”
  • “The kid next to me on the plane threw up.”
    “Were you hit?”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Another nice one with a twist is  ablehnen. Literally, it would be “to lean off/away” but it’s actual meaning is to turn down (an offer). Like… you kind of “lean the offer away from you”, if you will.

  • Ich lehne das Angebot ab.
  • I turn down the offer.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And let’s also mention abholen here. Its translation is to pick up in the sense of going somewhere specifically to pick something or someone up, and the “logic” here is that you kind of go to place and then “fetch” (holen) the thing or person “away” from there.

  • Ich hol’ dich morgen von der Arbeit ab.
  • I’ll pick you up from work tomorrow.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Mist, ich habe mein Paket nicht abgeholt und jetzt wurde es zurückgeschickt.
  • Crap, I didn’t go to pick up my parcel and now it got sent back.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

So these were some examples for verbs that are not immediately obvious but we can still see the core theme if we squint a little.

But of course ab- wouldn’t be a real prefix if there weren’t also some REALLY abstract takes on it.
And that’s what we’ll look at in part two of this article.

I know, I know, some of you are disappointed now, but for the majority of people, this was already enough to digest in one go, and there’s quite a bit more to come because we also have to look at ab as a preposition.

So yeah, let’s wrap this up for the day and continue next time with a fresh mind.
As usual, if you want to check how much you remember of the article, just take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
And of course if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and I’ll see you next week. Bye :)

Test Yourself on the prefix “ab”

 

Oh, by the way, if you want to read some more… I have talked about some of the most important ab-verbs in detail. In these articles, we go over ALL the meanings that they have and see how they connect to each other:

And you can find plenty more with brief overviews in my dictionary :)

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