Prefix Verbs Explained – “ankommen”

2 meanings of ankommenHello everyone,

and welcome to a new episode of our epic series Prefix Verbs Explained – today with a look at the meaning of

ankommen

 

And despite what it sounds like, ankommen actually isn’t uncommon at all. Many of you probably know that it’s the German word for to arrive.
But that’s not the only meaning it has, as you can see in the beauty:

Yup, that’s a real sentence.
Ankommen actually has four meanings and on the surface, they seem quite disconnected.
But with a bit of mind yoga, they’ll all make sense. So let’s roll out the Yoga mat and jump right in :).

Now, when I said that ankommen has four meanings, you probably sighed inside about German and its pesky prefix verbs. And yes, they’re really pretty in our face in German.
But if you’ve read my (awesome) series on Prefix Verbs in general you’ll know that English, too, has a LOT of prefix verbs. We just don’t see them as such.
And to arrive is a perfect example because it comes from Latin *arripare and that was a combination for the prefix ad-, which expresses toward and reaching, and the word ripa, which meant shore – the same word that river is from.
So the original idea of to arrive was to get to shore.
German ankommen is a bit more “walking focused” if you will, but they both are at their core about the idea of “touching base” after a journey.

  • Das Flugzeug kommt um 6 an.
  • The plane arrives at 6.
  • Ich bin gestern abend angekommen.
  • Maria arrived/came yesterday evening.

And if you want to include the location, then in German you do that with an.

Yes, this does sound a little clumsy, but that’s how it’s done and hey… arrive at is kind of the same, because the a- also used to be an ad-.

Now, there’s a couple of noteworthy differences between ankommen and arrive.
The first one is that ankommen ONLY works for arriving at actual locations. It does NOT work for conclusions, decisions or something other abstract. There are many possible verbs for these cases but generally kommen without an will do the job.

  • Ich bin zu einer Entscheidung gekommen.
  • I have come to a decision.

On the other hand, ankommen is commonly used for letters, parcels and emails, while in English different wordings are more idiomatic.

And there’s are a few more idiomatic uses.
Suppose you want to go to that very fancy restaurant with your crush. You made reservations and got all dressed up but what you didn’t know is that they have Krawattenzwang. A word that sounds like an asthma attack but it’s the German word for obligation to wear a tie. You however are not wearing one so the door man might say this:

And while the connection to actual ankommen is still pretty clear here, there’s also a more abstract variation of this.
Like, suppose the date went well regardless and you’re a couple now and one day, your partner starts complaining about how you dress and that you don’t have enough class. You argue and then they bring up the infamous tie-gate. That’s a perfect moment to say this:

But I think you can see the idea of “showing up” in that, still.
Cool.
So that’s ankommen as to arrive.
But as I said, that’s only one of its meanings.
Just as common, or even more common, is the second use of ankommen ….

“ankommen auf” – to depend on

The word to depend once again is a nice example for an English prefix verb hidden in plain sight – it’s a combination of the prefix de- and the Latin verb pendere and literally it meant “to hang off of”. That makes sense. If you’re climbing, for example, and you fall, your life literally hangs on the the rope.
And German does have its own version of that: abhängen von. But that’s just one possible translation for to depend. The other one is ankommen auf.
And even though that might seem a bit random at first glance, it makes a lot of sense once you think of the English phrasing

“It comes down to…”

That, too, does express a kind of dependency, it’s just not this notion of dangling, hanging.
And that’s actually kind of the main difference between abhängen von and ankommen auf – they’re equally common and often they’re interchangeable but ankommen auf does NOT cover dependencies that are really about “needing” something…. like drugs or a partner or whatever.
Let’s look at a few examples to get feelings for it… I mean get a feeling.

 Now, some of you might be like “Hmm, can I just pick one of the two and only learn that?”
But in this case, I’d actually say no. You need abhängen von for the real dependency stuff. And also, all the related words like dependent, independent (unabhängig) or dependency (die Abhängigkeit) are based on abhängen.  But you also need ankommen auf for at least one phrasing:

Which is German for

  • It depends. 

Anhängen does NOT work for that.

And there are two other nice and often used expressions with ankommen auf. The first one is “Wenn es drauf ankommt….” which can mean any of the following:

  • When the chips are down…
  • When shit hits the fan…
  • At crunch time…

And the second one is the phrase es auf etwas ankommen lassen.
Seeing it in a sentence is probably better :)

Literally this would be “I’ll let it depend.”and the real meaning is

  • “I will risk that./I’ll take my chances.”

Imagine you tell your friend a plan you are convinced of and he tells you possible negative consequences. If you are willing to take the risk, this expression is what you can answer.
Now, before we move on to the next meaning, a quick note on the grammar – in order to mean to depend, ankommen MUST come in combination with auf (or darauf). Without it, it will NOT be understood as to depend.

And since auf is one of those prepositions that can come with Dative AND Accusative – for the depend-ankommen you NEED Accusative.
Otherwise, it will sound like to arrive at.

The first sentence means “He arrives at the station”, the second means “It depends on the station.” 
So, it kommt auf the case an :).
If you want to learn more about this stuff, you can check out my article about two-way prepositions. I’ll leave the link below.
But now, let’s go on to the third idea of ankommen

ankommen bei – “to make an impression”

Imagine you go to visit your family. They wait for you at the airport and when you finally arrive, you get a warm welcome.
And if I then asked you how your arrival was, you’d say you’ve arrived well.
That’s kind of the logic behind the third idea of ankommen, which is NOT about act of arriving, but the way in which you are welcomed or received.
And that has broadened to a more general sense of how people react to things they are introduced to.

If you want to include the person, then you do that using the preposition bei. And yes… that opens up some room for confusion.

This can mean that he is arriving safely at her place but also that she likes him. But I think in context it’s usually not a problem to tell.
This use of ankommen is nowhere near as common as the other two, but still it’s worth remembering.
Cool.
So we have to arrive, to depend and to be received. They look completely disconnected but we’ve seen that they all tie in well with the idea of coming to a place. And now we’ve actually all we need to understand the sentence from the beginning.
Here it is again…

And here’s the solution :)

  • Whether Thomas will make a good impression on Maria depends on whether he will arrive in time.

Seems like punctuality is VERY important for Maria so let’s hope for Thomas that his train is on time.
And speaking of on time, our show today is almost up, but there’s one more meaning we need to mention.

ankommen gegen – yeah… well uh…

And this one is actually kind of hard to translate.
But imagine you have to walk against a very strong wind. If you can do it, then you “arrive against the wind”. The wind has met a match in you.  That’s kind of what ankommen gegen means. It’s not necessarily about  victory, but it means that you can hold your own against some challenge.

This ankommen is not something people say everyday and you don’t need to use it actively, but it is not old fashioned so having heard of it could save you from some confusion.
All right.
Now, we’re almost done, I swear. Just a few quick words about the grammar. Specifically, the past tense.

Grammar note and wrap up

So technically, ankommen always builds its spoken past with sein, not with haben.
However, ankommen is actually one of the verbs where you need both, spoken past and written past (preterit) in spoken German.

If you use the arrivingankommen, then the spoken past is the idiomatic choice.
For all others, especially the dependankommen, the written past sounds more idiomatic –
kam an.
So here are the meanings again, with an example in past tense… 

 

 

But I wouldn’t stress about this too much. The arrive-ankommen is kind of the only one I regularly use in past tense, anyway.
So…  that’s it for today, for real this time :).
This was our look at the meanings of ankommen.
As always, if you want to recap the most important points and see how much you remember, you can 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 see you next time.

further reading:

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