and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll, finally… at long last :), have a look at the meaning of
Lassen is very important verb and it is just as confusing for many learners. Sometimes it’s to let, sometimes it’s to leave sometimes and sometimes is used for some kind of passive or something. Oh and then there are the prefix versions of lassen, for example the infamous verlassen which means to leave – except when YOU are trying to use it in a sentence. Then it’s usually wrong.
So… we have lots to talk about. We’ll start with lassen and we’ll see that all the meanings actually boil down to one very simple idea. Then we’ll look at two peculiar uses of lassen and talk about the most important prefix versions and at the end of all that we’ll have a masters degree in Lassenology…. and maybe a slight headache :).
So… are you ready to dive in and find out just what is up with lassen? Then let’s goooo.
Lassen is the German brother of English to let. They both come from the super-mega-hyper-I can’t believe how ancient it actually is Indo-European root *lē(i)-. The original meaning was something like to let go, to slacken but maybe an image can capture it better… think of letting the air out of a balloon. Pffffffffrrrrrrrrrrt… and you’re left with a flabby piece of rubber.
This root can be found in many languages. In English for example, we have late and last which are based on the idea of weak or slow travelling… low energy travelling if you will. Lax and lazy mean that we don’t invest much energy in it and relaxing is all about removing tension from a system. And tension is just a form of energy.
The core of all these is little or no energy…. and that is all we need to explain lassen. That’s a great claim actually :)
Lassen – because it literally takes no energy to explain it
Now, lassen is a verb and “no energy” is not really an activity, so let’s modify the core a bit and say:
to not invest energy into something.
All the meanings are based on that. And we’ll get from one meaning to the next just by making one little tiny shift in perspective… so let’s take the tour…
lassen – the tour
The simplest use or interpretation of investing no energy into something is to not do something. So lassen is something of an opposite to machen.
- “Mein Gott, deine Suppe ist ein Salzmonster.”
“Ja, ich glaube ich lasse das Kochen lieber.”
- “My god, Your soup is a salt monster.”
“Yeah… I think I’m not gonna leave/stop/”not do” the cooking.”
- Eigentlich wollte ich heute abend Fussball spielen gehen, aber ich glaube ich lass das lieber. Mein Knie tut weh.
- Originally I wanted to go play soccer tonight but I think I’m not going to do it. My knee hurts.
- Lass das!
- Stop that/Don’t do that!
By the way… a variation of the last one is
- Lass es.
- Don’t do it. Don’t bother.
The es makes it sound less determined and harsh. You’d use the first if you kid was messing with your phone for example and the second if you’re friend, who recently broke up, ponders calling the ex again and you think it’s a waste of time (and energy).
There’s even a third variation which is super common in spoken German…
- Lass mal.
This is the weakest of the three and I think the closet match is actually a very casual
- No, thanks. or just No.
You wouldn’t use it with a waiter who asks you if you’d like anything else… that would come across a bit arrogant. But you could definitely use it with a friend who suggest something that you don’t want to do.
- “Hey, ich gehe ins Kino. Kommst du mit? Ich hab’ Freikarten.”
“Ne, lass mal … ich muss noch voll viel lernen.”
- “Hey, I’m going to the movies. Wanne come? I have free tickets.”
“Nah, thanks… I still have a LOT of studying to do.”
On to the next aspect. I said earlier that it would be just a tiny step so here it is … not doing something also means that we’re not changing the something. We’re not changing the status quo…. or in other words: we’re leaving things as they are.
- Ich lasse das Bild wie es ist.
- I leave the picture as it is.
- Lass mich in Ruhe!
- Leave me alone!
- Because the weather is so good, I’m leaving the window open while I’m out of the house.
- Weil das Wetter so gut ist, lasse ich das Fenster auf, während ich weg bin.
- Kann ich die Schuhe anlassen?
- Can I leave my shoes on?
- Thomas lässt seinen Teller auf dem Tich stehen.
- Thomas leaves his plate standing on the table.
- Ich lasse meine Sachen überall in der Wohnung rumliegen.
- I leave my things lying all over the apartment.
The last two examples might raise a question. We have random verbs in their dictionary form (infinitive)….stehen and rumliegen… and there’s neither zu nor um zu. That is rare and the question we could ask is: is lassen a modal verb? My informed, highly competent answer to that is …. “Kind of, I guess.”.
Okay seriously, the answer is no, but it’s only “no” because of how modal verbs are defined in German and we don’t have to worry about that. I just wanted to bring that up because this lassen behaves just like it’s English brother to let does. And that brings us to the next aspect of lassen… which is again just a very tiny step away.
In a way, we can see not changing something as not doing something against something. And that is pretty much the same as to allow for something to be or to happen or simply to let. Tadah. Here we have it. To let has lost most of the aspects of lassen and has focused almost completely on the permission idea.
- Lass mich rein.
- Let me in.
- Mich hat heute im Supermarkt jemand vorgelassen…. voll nett.
- Someone let me go ahead in the supermarket line today… so nice.
- Ich lasse mich nicht verarschen.
- I won’t let people bullshit me.
These were pretty straight forward but there are some more abstract or odd uses, too.
- Ich lasse das Glas fallen.
- I let the glass fall (lit.)
- I drop the glass.
- Die Kritiken lassen auf einen guten Film hoffen.
- The reviews allow hope for a good movie (lit.)
- The reviews suggest it’s going to be a good movie.
- Ich lasse mir die herablassende Art von meinem Chef nicht länger gefallen.
- I won’t let the condescending attitude of my boss “please” me any longer.(lit).
- I won’t take/accept the condescending attitude of my boss any longer.
(this must seem really odd but it’s very common. Maybe just take it as a fixed idiom)
- “Ich komme 5 Minuten zu spät.”
“Lass dir Zeit, ich bin eh noch nicht fertig..
- “I’ll be 5 minutes late.”
“Allow yourself some time… (lit.)”
“Take your time, I’m not ready yet anyway. ”
Now, the last example could also be seen as an aspect of it’s own. … a doing nothing as in not taking it away. And there are several such phrasings.
- “Ich hab’ Eintopf gemacht. Willst du was?”
“Ne, ich muss los, aber lass mir was übrig.”
- “I’ve made a stew. You want some?
“No, I gotta go, but leave some for me, please.”
- Maria mag Thomas, weil er ihr ihre Freiheiten lässt.
- Maria likes Thomas because he gives her her space.
Quick recap of what lassen can mean: we had plain not doing something, then leaving something ( not taking away or not changing ) and we had to let ( not doing something against it). And I hope you could see just how close they all really are.
But there’s yet another perspective. Location: random kitchen in a shared flat. Time: dinner party, the next morning:
“John…. feel free to help with the dishes.”
“‘preciate,dude!” (heads for X-box)
“Hey uhm… that’s actually not how I meant it.”
This wasn’t about freedom of choice. This was a demand in disguise. Many phrasings that talk about permission or opportunity can be used that way (may, could) and so it’s no surprise that lassen can do it, too.
- Der Chef lässt seine Sekretärin auch am Wochenende kommen.
Based on what we’ve learned so far this sentence means
- The boss lets his secretary come in on weekends.
But most people would understand the sentence as follows
- The boss makes/has his secretary come in on weekends.
The reason why people understand it that way is … context. It’s just more likely that he has the secretary come than the secretary being so keen on working the weekends.
Here’s another example:
- Der Chef lässt seine Sekretärin hohe Schuhe tragen.
- The boss lets /has his secretary wear heels.
Again, this can be either and what people understand depends on stereotypes and all that. More examples:
- Der König lässt seine Diener kommen.
- The king calls for his servants.
- Maria lässt Thomas warten.
- Maria makes Thomas wait.
- Der Bauer wünscht sich, er könnte es regnen lassen.
- The farmer wishes he could make it rain.
So… lassen can turn from letting someone do something to have someone do something without any change to the structure.
Now, we’ll look a little closer it this demand-lassen in a second but first let’s finish our tour real quick. There is one last meaning, one last aspect and that is… invitation.
- “Let‘s have a beer.”
- “Lass uns ein Bier trinken.”
Technically, this is an appeal for permission. Or if we see permission as a demand then it is an appeal for activity. But people used even if there wasn’t really any need to ask for something and so a request to not invest energy against something became a request to invest energy for something… just like a double minus is plus
- Lass es uns machen.
- Let us do it, (please).
- Let’s do it.
Oh, and do you remember that lassen could be used as kind of an opposite to machen? Well… what would you say would be the translation of
- Let’s not do it /leave it.
Exactly… a double lassen.
- Lass es uns lassen.
We really do say that :).
So this was our little tour around lassen and I hope you could see that we didn’t have to move very much to get from one to the other. From doing nothing to not changing (to leave) to not taking away (to leave) to permitting (let) to demanding to inviting… quite impressive. And a very convincing argument in a “You can’t do nothing all day”-discussion :).
But even though doing nothing is so cool, we won’t do it and instead talk about two phrasings that are a bit peculiar.
lassen – two weird phrasings
Both phrasings fit in perfectly with what we’ve just learned and we could have just used them as examples. But they’re also a bit special which is why we’ll look a little closer.
The most prominent example for the first phrasing is probably this:
- Am Freitag lasse mir die Haare schneiden.
- I’ll get a haircut on Friday.
This lassen is kind of a mix between the demand-lassen and the permission-lassen. Kind of like this:
- Das Kind lässt Papa die Hausaufgaben machen.
- The kid lets dad do the homework.
I doubt that dad is so eager on doing the homework that he really ask for permission. And it’s as unlikely that the kid just said “Dad, do my homework or no HBO for you.”. The kid made him do it in a gentle manner… by asking him. Well actually probably by nagging him but anyway…. this lassen is a somewhat soft form of having someone do something and it is used a lot in context of services that we pay for.
Now, what makes this lassen a bit special is the grammar. In the example with the homework we had two direct objects…. one for the letting (dad) and one for the doing (homework). And in German they come right after one another.
- Das Kind lässt Papa die Hausaufgaben machen.
Now, what’s special about lassen is that we can just skip one of the direct objects… or even both.
- Ich lasse [ ] mein Fahrrad reparieren
- I’m having my bike repaired [by someone]
- Der Chef lässt die Sekretärin [ ] putzen.
- The boss makes (lets) his secretary clean [ ].
- Ich koche nicht, ich lasse [ ] [ ] kochen.
- I don’t cook, I have someone cook.
We have to use different phrasings in English but in German it’s always the same. Of course, that lässt Raum for confusion. … I mean “leaves room”.
- Ich lasse das Kind malen.
This can be two things
- Ich lasse das Kind [ ] malen.
- I let the kid paint [something].
- Ich lasse [ ] das Kind malen.
- I let [someone] paint the kid.
and the only way to tell which one it is apart from context is an emphasis…. on malen in the first version on Kind in the second.
But anyway… so lassen is often used in sense of getting a service of some kind. And I think it sounds a tiny bit less demanding than the “have someone do” phrasing.
- Ich lasse mir morgen die Fälle erklären.
- I’ll have someone explain the cases to me.
- Ich lasse mir die Rechnung bringen.
- I’m having the waiter bring the bill.(lit)
- Ich lasse mich morgen massieren.
- I’ll have someone massage me tomorrow…. sounds odd and demanding
- I’ll get a massage tomorrow… this is how the German sentence feels.
- Ich lasse mich scheiden.
- I’m getting a divorce.
- Kann ich mir Mandelmilch verschreiben lassen?
- Can I have almond milk prescribed to me? (lit.)
- Can I get a prescription for almond milk?
Now let’s get to the second structure, a structure which in German course jargon is sometimes called “Passiversatzform für Passiv mit Modalverb ‘können'” which roughly translates to “term that no German has ever heard of… seriously”.
Here’s an example
- Die Tür lässt sich nicht öffnen.
This is the allow-meaning of lassen and the literal translation is this:
- The door doesn’t allow for itself to be opened.
And because a door is of course not sentient this is just the same as
- The door can’t be opened.
Here, we can see why it’s called Passiversatzform…. because it is just another way to say
- Something can be done…. passive voice
- Etwas lässt sich machen.
Just for the record though… Passiversatzform is just a name and is only used for students of German. I bet you that none of your friends will know what that is. It is NOT a some super special grammatical feature that only German has. Other languages have similar phrasings. They just didn’t think they needed a special name. So don’t let the name intimidate you. After all it’s just a handy structure that happens to express the same as a passive… at times. The edges are super blurry…
- Das Licht lässt sich nicht dimmen.
- You can’t dim the light./The light ain’t dimmable.
(these -able forms would be called Passiversatzform in German, too)
- The fly can’t be caught.
- Die Fliege lässt sich nicht fangen.
- Die Katze lässt sich nicht streicheln.
- The cat won’t let people pet it.
- Thomas lässt sich nicht aus der Ruhe bringen.
- Thomas can’t be fazed easily/isn’t easy to faze.
I mean… where does can’t be done end and lets you do start? All these sentence are the exact same phrasing but would they all be called Passelaffufforms? No. And that’s why I don’t really like the name.
This sich lassen phrasing is really just the plain straight-forward allow-meaning of lassen combined with a verb that has a self reference… and only that when used with a thing, like for example a door, the whole notion of permission makes no sense and it’s about possibility instead. If we need really need to have a -form then I’d much rather have a Passmeabeerform. I’d certainly use that
in after class. But anyways… here’s the basic structure
- Etwas lässt sich verben.
- Someone allows for itself to be verbed. (lit)
- Something can be verbed.
It is used both in written and in spoken German and there are a few quite common examples…
- Das lässt sich nicht mit Sicherheit sagen.
- That can’t be said for sure.
- Das lässt sich nicht ändern.
- That’s just how it is.
- Über Geschmack lässt sich (nicht) streiten.
- There is no accounting for taste.
- Das Ergebnis kann sich sehen lassen.
- Lit.: The result it can allow for itself to be seen (because it is good enough).
- The result is impressive.
I probably forgot some so if you have another cool one, please share it :).
Now that we have a pretty good grasp of lassen and we’re ready to face… the swarm. Dun dunn dunnn.
I can already see it in the distance. A dark menacing cloud. Prefixes. Many, many prefixes. But…. the cloud’s not here yet so… uhm… I guess we’ll have to wait for part 2 :).
So.. hopefully lassen is a little more clear now. It all more or less boils down to doing nothing.And that’s true for the relatives in other languages too, by the way. The German lassen is just comparetervele… more broaderer.
If you have any questions about lassen so far or if you want to try out some examples just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.
Find part two here: