and welcome to another episode of German Prefixes Explained. And today, we’ll talk about what is maybe the most confusing and yet most common one of them all, the prefix to end all prefixes, the chosen ONE, the last verb-bender…
The German Prefix “ver-”
Seriously, ver- is like the hydra of German prefixes. You see one verb with ver-, you make sense of it, and boom, two more pop up that seem to have a completely different.
I mean… just look at this.
And what as if this wasn’t already enough, many verbs with verbs with ver- have not one, but two or three meanings.
But I have really really good news for you!
Because all these various meanings come from the same 4 basic themes. And what’s even better is that all these four basic themes share one core idea.
Yes, you read that right – one core idea.
So… today we’ll go where only few have gone before, deep into the heart of the jungle of ver.
It won’t be easy. It won’t be comfortable. It won’t be save. I’ll be frank. Not all of us will make it through. But it will be worth it.
The history of “ver-“
If the present is somewhat confusing, a look at the history can sometimes help bring some clarity.
And it sure does for ver-, because when you look at the origins, you’ll find that “ver-” is actually multiple words and prefixes that got “consolidated” into one.
Versions of them existed in Latin and in the old Germanic languages and versions of them also exist in English today.
Here they are:
per – (perfect, perform,…),
pre – (predict, pretend,…)
pro – (prolong, produce, …) and
for(e) – (forego, forget,…).
And sometimes, the connection between those and ver actually shows. The most obvious pair is probably vergessen means to forget. But also verschreiben means to prescribe are virtually literal translations and so are verlängern means to prolong.
What happened in German is that ver- is an UNSTRESSED prefix. Unstressed prefixes get less “love” by the speaker and so they slowly get washed out over time. Case in point, the German prefix vor-, which is ALSO part of this family. But because it is a STRESSED prefix, it got to keep its color, so to speak.
Anyway, so now we know which English prefixes ver- is related to, but that actually helps very little, because the English prefixes are very unclear themselves. Like… what does pro- mean? Sure, by itself it’s about “in favor” or something like that. But when you look at verbs like prolong, prohibit and produce… whatever the pro adds to these, it certainly doesn’t add the same idea to both verbs.
Or take prescribe and proscribe. Why do the words mean what they mean? Why not the other way around?
So ver- is not only a mess because it is mutltiple prefixes in one, it is also a mess because its ancestors were a mess already.
There is one thing though that they all share – and that’s their origin. Because all the prefixes pre, per, pro, for(e) , the German vor and ver and also für, and even some instances of pri (prime, price or principle,..) – all those come from the same root. Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for the one, the one and only, the super mega turbo ancient Indo-European root
So… in a way, German ver- kind of brings it full circle a bit because it consolidates various offsprings back into one.
Now, this root is an incredibly important and productive one, and besides the prefixes it’s also the origin of to fare, German fahren (to drive) and führen (to lead) and other words.
And the reason it has such a large family tree, in my opinion, is that it’s core idea is actually one of the core themes of humanity, heck, of life itself even.
It’s the idea of:
Going beyond a boundary.
And because words have their limitations, I have also tried to condense the core theme into a visual image:
“the essence of ver-“.
We can find this “theme” in virtually ALL ver-verbs and also in fahren and the other members of the family.
We talked about bit about this in the article about die Erfahrung (experience) actually (I’ll put the link below).
If we want to grow, if we want to experience life, we need to go outside of our comfort zone, we need to experiment. We need leave the perimeter. Did you notice all the pers in this statement ;)?
But venturing out into the world is really just ONE form of going beyond a boundary. The large variety in ver-verbs comes from the different kinds of “boundaries” that are crossed. The good news is that I found there to be basically 4 themes, 4 different kinds of boundaries to go beyond.
Now, the normal thing to do would be to just tell you the 4 themes and then go over them one by one.
But to keep up the suspense a little longer, I’ve decided that we’ll instead just pick one of them – the most coherent one – and look at it in practice, before we reveal what the others are.
So, let’s jump in to the first theme of ver-verbs.
The first meaning of “ver-“
Take a look at these examples…
- sich verlaufen – to lose the way
- sich versprechen – to make a slip of the tongue
- sich verschreiben – to make a typo
- sich verrechnen – to miscalculate
Have you noticed a common theme?
I’m sure many of you have actually noticed that in daily life already, that there’s a whole bunch of ver-verbs that are used in contexts of doing something wrong or making a mistake.
And that is precisely the first theme of ver-verbs:
Crossing the boundary from right to wrong.
Now, I’m sure you also all noticed that infamous sich in all the examples above. That’s of course NOT a coincidence.
Because many times, a ver-verb used in the sense of wrong will go with a self reference. Or in other words, it’ll be used reflexively. And if you see a ver-verb in a sentence with self-reference, there’s a fair chance that it’s a wrong-ver you’re looking at.
Why is the self reference there?
Well, I don’t really have any actual sources about that, but the way we can make sense of it is to think of the verb as “guiding ourself beyond the boundary from right to wrong while doing an action”.
Let’s get to some examples, though.
And the most “iconic” one is probably sich verlaufen. Now, verlaufen itself has more than one meaning (we’ll get to those later). But sich verlaufen is about getting lost while walking. You “guide yourself beyond walking the right path“.
- Ich habe mich im Wald verlaufen.
- I got lost in the woods. (while walking)
And it’s the exact same pattern for sich verfahren, which also means to get lost. But this time, it’s getting lost while driving.
- Ich habe mich verfahren.
- I got lost (while driving).
Actually, this pattern of “sich + ver-verb” is pretty strong and ingrained in a native speakers head, and it is what linguists call “productive”. That means that you can get creative with it and make up new words, and you have a very high chance that it’s not only understandable but actually idiomatic.
Like… we could take another movement verb, for example. Like spazieren, which is to go for a walk.
Using the pattern we just learned, we could come up with sich verspazieren and every speaker would immediately understand that you mean getting lost while going for a walk and that you’re playing with the language like a pro.
Seriously, people will be impressed.
- Ich habe mich im Park verspaziert.
- I got lost in the park (while going for a walk).
And as we’ve already seen in the list in the beginning of this segment, this pattern is not limited to movements.
Schreiben means to write and but sich verschreiben means … making a typo. You “guided yourself writing beyond the boundary of proper spelling” if you will.
- Ich habe mich verschrieben.
- I made a typo.
Here are a few more examples…
- “45 Euro für 3 Bier und eine Schälchen Nachos??? Ich habe mich wohl verhört…. Sie müssen sich verrechnet haben.”
“Nein, die Preise stehen so in der Karte…. 1 Bier 10 Euro und Nachos 15”
“Was? Das steht da nicht.”
“Doch, das steht da… vielleicht haben Sie sich verguckt.”
- “45 Euro for 3 beers and a tiny bowl of nachos??? I didn’t hear that correctly I suppose… You must have miscalculated”
“No, those are the prices that are written in the menu… 1 beer 10 Euro and nachos 15.”
“What? It does NOT say that.”
“Yes it does. Maybe you have “mislooked”/misread.”
- Ich habe mich verlegen.
- I have been laying in a wrong way (and now my neck hurts).
“I have layed myself the wrong way.” (lit.)
Okay, the last one is probably not 100% guessable, but you can at least get the gist if you see it in context. And most of them really are pretty darn obvious, at least when they’re used in a sentence.
And as I said, the pattern is “productive”, so we can play around an make up new words.
Like… you tried to cook something following a recipe but you messed up?
Sich verkochen would describe that perfectly.
- Ich habe mich verkocht.
- I make a mistake at cooking.
Now, does the wrong-ver ALWAYS come with this self reference?
Well, no. The self reference is not a “condition” for the wrong-ver.
So there are ver-verbs that don’t have it and that still are about the idea of wrong, making a mistake.
Like verlegen for example, which can mean to “misplace” in the sense of placing it somewhere weird and then not finding it.
- Mein Opa hat seine Brille verlegt.
- My grandpa mislayed/mispalced his glasses.
And verstellen can be about the idea of wrong with and without the self reference.
- Thomas hat sich verstellt.
- Thomas faked his personality.
(He put “himself on wrong settings.”)
- Thomas hat seine Stimme verstellt.
- Thomas has faked his voice.
And conversely, NOT every ver-verb that does come with a self reference is always about the notion of wrong.
- Ich verbessere mich.
This means that I improve myself, so it’s a different theme of ver- at work here.
The pattern with the self reference is a trend, but it’s not a rule or anything. So don’t get stuck on it too much.
Also, don’t forget that most ver-verbs have MORE than just one meaning. So the wrong-use is A meaning, but probably not the only one.
In fact, even verspazieren, the verb that we kind of made up earlier, has a second meaning: passing a period of time by going for a walk.
German™! Because even words that don't exist have 2 meanings.
Oh, and while we’re talking about reasons why we love German so much, let’s also mention that sometimes a ver-verb WITH self reference can have two distinct meanings.
Sich verschreiben for example.
By itself, it means to prescribe…
- Der Arzt verschreibt eine Tablette
- The doctor prescribes a pill.
And we’ve learned that sich verschreiben means to make a typo.
- Die Ärztin verschreibt sich.
- The doctor makes a typo/misspells something.
But technically, this sentence could also mean that the doctor is describing… herself. Like, as a remedy.
I mean, why not.
- “Will I be ok, Dr. Samantha?”
“Oh yes, I prescribe you: myself…. 3 times a day.”
“Awesome… best illness ever.“
That’s an alternative medicine that I’d be willing to give a try. I mean, for science.
But seriously, I think we’ve got a good (first) impression of the wrong-ver.
But as we’ve learned, that is just one of four themes that we create from the essential idea of ver- the going beyond a boundary.
There are three others.
And at least two of them kind of relate to the idea of wrong, because they’re all just a matter of perspective.
Meanings are just a matter of perspective
Forget German for a second and listen to this old folktale of a village somewhere in the deep deep forests…
There once was a little village called… “Circle”. Outside stretched a wild
forest beyond the horizon. Little Sam and little Pete, two boys of 10 and 12
years, had never left the fence without their mother. And even then they
didn’t go far into the forest. “The forest is a dangerous place.”,mom always
told them, “the forest lion will eat you.” But being boys, Sam and Pete got
bored inside the village. They felt ready for an adventure. So one day, they
packed up their little wooden spears and snuck away. The best hunters of the
village spent the following days forging the forest. But they could not find the
two boys. The whole village mourned the loss.
But then, it was almost a week later, Sam and Pete walked up to the wooden
gate. Their leather clothes were torn, they were dirty and Pete was limping.
But around their neck was hanging a tooth, a tooth of a forest lion and the 2
couldn’t look any more proud. “Lion tooth or no lion tooth… going into the forest alone was wrong of you?”, the mom said and tried to hide her relief. “We couldn’t find you. You must have
been far away.”, the hunter said. “Hmmm… looks like they’re young men
now.”, the old wise chieftain said.
What I hope this story does is to illustrate the different ways we can interpret the simple idea of going beyond boundaries.
You can see it as wrong, for example, if someone goes beyond the “boundaries” of spelling. But if you think about it, that’s really only wrong by convention. We could see it as a bold exploration of what’s possible with letters. A change away from how it was to how it’s going to be.
I mean, how would there ever be progress if no boundary was ever crossed.
Going beyond a boundary can be wrong. Leaving the village was wrong because mom told them not to. But going beyond a boundary can also lead to new experiences, it can mean transformation. They left as young boys and came back as young men who had hunted down a forest lion. That’s change, the second big theme of ver-verbs.
And we could also take a more “neutral” perspective and just acknowledge that the boys were there, and then they were not there. They were away, gone. That’s the third big theme of ver-verbs.
And all three are at their core about going beyond a boundary
away – the boundary between here and not here
change – the boundary between one state and another state
wrong – the boundary between right and wrong
And as they’re often a matter of perspective, the lines between them can be blurry.
Now you might be like “Wait a secone, didn’t you say there are FOUR themes for ver-verbs?”
Well yes, the forth one doesn’t really fit in with the village metaphor, so I left it out.
What that forth meaning is, and of course how the away-ver and the change-ver look in practice… that’s what we’ll find out in part two of this article.
But for today, we’ve done enough.
If you want to recap a little bit and test how well you remember the article, you can take the little quiz… which is… uhm… not finished yet (sorry sorry… I’ll add it very soon, probably within the next two weeks, Elon time ;)).
And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions so far or if you want to venture guesses about some ver-words then just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.
If you want to jump right into part two, you can do that here: