The meaning of “trennen”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: July 30, 2023

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day.
This time, we’ll take a look at the meaning of

trennen

And most if not all of you know this from the infamous German “trennbare Präfixverben”… which sounds incredibly German, by the way.
No wonder Rammstein has made a song about them…

 

The English Separable Prefix Verbs on the other hand is more like an Eminem song…

 

Anyways, so yeah… trennbar is separable and so trennen, or trennen (von) to be precise, of course means to separate (from).

  • Nur eine Minute trennt das Team vom Titel.
  • Only one minute separate the team from winning the title.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Können wir zahlen?”
    “Zusammen oder getrennt?”
  • “Can we pay?”
    “Together or separately?”
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  • Trennst du Müll?
  • Do you sort trash?
    (German says “separate trash” because we think of it as separating the types from one another)
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And it can also express the idea of parting or letting go or splitting up. Then, it’s used with a self reference in Accusative – sich trennen.

  • Die Hose ist echt alt, aber ich kann mich nicht von ihr trennen.
  • These pants are really old but I can’t let go of it/part with it.
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  • “Thomas und Maria haben sich getrennt.
    “Schon wieder?”
    “Ja, ist schon Februar.”
  • “Thomas and Maria split up.
    “AGAIN?”
    “Yeah, it’s already February.”
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So you kind of literally “separate yourself“.
Pretty intuitive so far, I’d say. And the direct relatives don’t need much explaining either.

  • Thomas hat seit der Trennung 5 Kilo zugenommen.
  • Thomas has gained 5 kilograms since the breakup.
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  • Der Paartherapeut befragt Thomas und Maria getrennt von einander.
  • The couple’s therapist questions Thomas and Maria separately (from one another).
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  • Das Präfix ver- ist untrennbar/nicht trennbar.
  • The prefix ver- is inseparable.
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  •  
  • Thomas und seine alte Hose sind unzertrennlich.
  • Thomas and his old pair of pants are inseparable.
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If you’re wondering about the last two examples… unzertrennlich is ONLY used on the context of personal relationships. That can be two people, or just one person and a pet or even a beloved object, but unzertrennlich does imply an emotional bond.

Cool.
So trennen and to separate seem to line up pretty well overall.
But there is one difference between them and that has to do with force.

You see, the verb to separate comes from a Latin verb that essentially meant something like to make, just like to prepare and to repair by the way. So to separate basically means “to make apart” or and there’s no implied “force”. That’s why to separate can also be used in contexts that are merely about making a distinction, which is basically about “setting apart”.

  1. It’s hard to separate facts from factoids.
  2. Taste ist what separates/distinguishes your soup from my soup.

In contexts like these, the better choice in German is unterscheiden.

  1. Es ist schwer, Fakten und Halbwahrheiten zu unterscheiden.
  2. Geschmack ist was deine Suppe von meiner Suppe unterscheidet.

trennen is not really wrong, and definitely understandable, but especially in the second example, it sounds odd, because trennen DOES imply somewhat of a force.
Like… there is a sense of severing a connection.
And that makes perfect sense once you know the English relative of trennen… which is to tear.

The family of “trennen”

The origin of the family is the mind-numbingly ancient Indo-European root *der-.  The core idea of this root was “flaying, tearing off” and it’s not only the origin of tear and trennen, but also of words like epidermis or dermatologist, which come from derma  – the old Greek word for skin and leather….

Uh… yeah, great, thanks Eminem.
For real though… pulling the skin off of animals was an integral part of life for many hunter gatherers, so the connection makes a lot of sense.

Anyway, trennen has gradually shifted toward the result of tearing and became about splitting and separation.
But it’s not the only German word in that family.
One of them is zerren which is basically rather forceful continued pulling.

  • Das Einhorn zerrt seine Beute in die Höhle.
  • The unicorn drags/pulls the prey into its cave.
    (VERY forceful)
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Now, even though it sounds somewhat similar, it’s not really a good match with to tear.  Reißen, which is more sudden than zerren, is usually the better match because it implies destruction, while zerren is more about the motion.
But at least if you do sports and you don’t warm up properly, you have a good chance of doing some zerren sooner or later.

  • “Welchen Muskel hast du dir beim Crossfit gezerrt?”
    “Alle!”
  • “Which muscle did you strain/pull at crossfit?”
    “All of them!”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Warum warst du gestern nicht beim Deutschkurs?”
    “Ich habe eine Gehirnzerrung…. wahrscheinlich von zu viel Training.”
    “Das Gehirn ist kein Musk…”
    “Dein Gehirn ist wie ein Muskel… hier steht auf meiner App”
  • “Why weren’t you at German class yesterday?”
    “I have a pulled/strained brain… too much exercise, probably.”
    “The brain is not a musc…”
    “The brain is like a muscle… here, it’s written on my app.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And you’ll most certainly see verzerren in some context, which is in essence about “pulling” something out of shape.

  • Mit verzerrtem Gesicht kostet Maria Chads Suppe.
  • With a distorted face, Maria tries Chad’s soup.
    (she pulls her face into a grimace because the soup is not very good. His abs though… these abs are something else.)
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  • Doping verzerrt den Wettbewerb.
  • Doping skews/distorts the competition.
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  • Die Medien geben oft Dinge verzerrt wieder.
  • The media often represents things in a skewed/twisted/distorted way.
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Another member of the family that you might see sooner or later is der Zorn, which means anger. Like… very similar to English torn when you think about it, just that you channel the suffering into anger. Or actually, let’s call it wrath, because it sounds a bit more momentous than die Wut.

  • Marias Zorn ist wie ein Sommergewitter – heftig aber schnell vorbei.
  • Maria’s wrath/anger is like a summer storm – intense but over quickly.
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Another word that might be related (though that is not entirely sure) is zart, which is German for tender.
And weirdly enough the word tender does itself come from a root that is about pulling and is connected to tendon and tension.
Just think of pulled pork, if you need a mental connection.

  • Das Fleisch ist sehr zart.
  • The meat is very tender.
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And that brings us right over to the weirdest member of the family… the verb zehren.
Because zehren means something like… to feed on, to consume nutrition.
The verb itself is SUPER rare and you pretty much only see it in a few fairly fixed figurative phrasings…

  • Gegen Ende des Winters zehre ich von meinen Gute-Laune-Reserven.
  • Toward the end of winter, I feed on my good mood reserves.
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  • “Wie gefällt dir die Oper?”
    “Es ist okay. Aber der Gesang zehrt an meinen Nerven.”
  • “How you like the opera?”
    “It’s okay, but the singing is “eating away at” my nerves.
    (some German use “zerrt” here, and that also makes sense… ripping on nerves)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But what you might hear is the verb verzehren, which is an overly technical term for eating and drinking.

  • Ich verzehre meine Pizza und gucke Netflix.
  • I eat my pizza and watch Netflix.
    (sounds funny/ironic… people only talk like that as a joke)
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And what you will definitely see sooner or later, at least if you’re in German and you read signs and labels, is the noun der Verzehr, which is the consumption of food and drinks. And German doesn’t really have another option for that, at least not one that covers both eating AND drinking.

  • Der Verzehr von mitgebrachten Speisen und Getränken ist nicht erlaubt.
  • The consumption of brought in food and drinks is not allowed.
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  • Der Rinde des Käses ist nicht für den Verzehr geeignet.
  • The rind of the cheese is not suited for consumption.
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And now the big question is of course… what does that have to do with any of the other words?
Well… just think of the tender pulled pork again, where you tear apart the meat to make it easier to eat. Or think of someone eating chicken wings… they’re literally tearing the meat from the bone.
Gee, that sounds quite savage actually.
But yeah… back a few thousand years, that was the normal way of eating and that’s how zehren got its meaning.

And I’m not sure if I feel hungry right now or not, but either way, that’s it for today :)
This was our look at the meaning of trennen and its surprising family members.
As usual, if you want to recap and test yourself, 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 see you next time.

** vocab **

trennen – to separate, to split
sich trennen von – to separate from, to split up with
die Trennung – the separation, the breakup
trennbar – separable
untrennbar – inseparable
unzertrennlich – inseparable (only for emotional bonds or similar connections)

zerren – to pull, to yank (implies a heavy object and a lot of force); to sprain (for muscles – “sich+Dat etwas zerren”)
die Zerrung – the sprained muscle
verzerren  – to distort, to skew, to deform
verzehren – to consume (A formal word for food and drinks only)
der Verzehr – the consumption (Sounds stiff but is practical because it covers food and drink in one word)
zart – tender, gentle
der Zorn – the anger, the wrath

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