The meaning of “warten” – and its Prefix Version

wartenHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. And today, we’ll do a Prefix Special on



What’s a Prefix Special, you ask?
Well, in a prefix special we take one German verb, look at its meanings and then add all prefixes possible and look at those meanings too. For warten that won’t be that hard because there are only four.

That is nothing compared with gehen where you can add LITERALLY 1652 different prefixes.
And by literally I mean of course: hyperbolically speaking. Because thing have to sound EXCITING!!!
But yeah, warten has only four that matter, and today, we’ll find out about them.
Here are the quick links so you can jump around.

  1. The Origin of warten
  2. The meaning and use of warten
  3. erwarten
  4. abwarten
  5. aufwarten


And now let’s jump right in and start with warten itself in all its beauty – pure, untarnished, utterly seraphic and just timeless…  warten. 

The Origin of “warten”

Warten has been around for quite a while in its current “form” but as so many other words it had  a meaning before that.
The origin is the unforgettably ancient old Indo-European root  u̯er(e)-.
The theme of this root was rather vague and different sources mention different things but I think a good consensus was something like to pay respect or heed, which then later also shifted toward directing one’s gaze at something or more simple to look at something.
We can find children of this root all over Europe and  in English those relatives are the words warn, ward, guard to an extend beware and finally also wart.
Yes, wart has the same root which as a noun could also mean “some place that is higher then the surroundings from where you can see well“. So maybe a wart is actually just a skin warden, warning us of some spiritual danger. I’ll have to ask my Shaman about that next time I do a plant medicine session. Which is probably tonight after work. At the bar. Because my plant medicine is called BEER! That’s right Ayahuasca, you’re not as special as you think.  That’s just your ego talking.

But anyway, you might have noticed that the verb to wait, which is of course the translation of warten, was NOT among the related words I mentioned.
That’s because it’s actually not related.
It was a surprise for me too but to wait has a different origin and actually related to to wake and to watch. The core theme here was being awake and alert, and we can still see that in to wait as in to wait tables. I was always wondering why it’s called waiter and waitress but now I know – it is actually “watcher” and  “watchress”. They’re watching tables.
Quite a weird word, actually.

The waiter was waiting on us, and we were waiting on the waiter.

But enough with the history lesson, 50% of the class are already asleep, so it’s about time to actually dive into the meanings.

The meaning and use of “warten”

So, the meaning of warten is of course to wait and this is a pretty one-to-one translation I would say.

  • Ich warte auf den Bus.
  • I’m waiting for the bus.
  • Wart’ mal kurz!
  • Hold on/wait a second!
  • Thomas musste 2 Wochen auf sein Testergebnis warten.
  • Thomas had to wait two weeks for his test results.
  • Die Warterei hat mir schlechte Laune gemacht.
  • All the waiting put me in a bad mood.
  • Hast du “Warten auf Godot.” gelesen?
  • Have you read “Waiting for Godot”?
  • Ich habe eine Stunde gewartet und dann bin ich gegangen.
  • I waited an hour and then I left.
  • “Du wolltest mich, also komm und hol mich“, schrie Bella und wartete lässig in der Mitte des Kreises.
  • “You wanted me, so come and get me,” Bella yelled and nonchalantly waited in the center of the circle.

But there are some differences, too.
First of, the preposition.
In English, we say to wait FOR and in German we say warten AUF.
Well… why not!
These prepositions often DON’T line up, so you cannot really “translate” them. There are some trends and logic which I talk about in my articles about prepositions, but for the most part, these combinations are something you should just “learn”.
So yeah, the preposition that goes with warten is auf  and the case you need is accusative.

  • Ich warte auf deinen Anruf.
  • I’m waiting for your call.
  • Ich warte darauf, dass es endlich Frühling wird.
  • I’m waiting for it to finally get spring.

And then there are also a couple of differences in meaning.
For one thing, German warten is NOT a translation for to wait in the sense of waiting tables. That’d be bedienen or kellnern, depending on the context.
And then – and I’m sure this is a suprise for many of you – warten actually has a second meaning, as well: to maintain or to service.
Seems random at first but once we remember warten used to mean something like to gaze at this makes sense... in order to maintain something you need to take a look at it.
This meaning is definitely not that important in daily life so we’ll be really brief with this.

  • Der Motor müsste mal wieder gewartet werden.
  • The engine should probably be maintained (again) lit.

However, there are a few words that you might see in Germany with the maintain-warten in them.

  • Wartungsarbeiten ( maintenance work)
  • Wartungsintervall (maintenance interval)
  • Hauswart (house keeper)
  • Torwart (goal keeper)

So that’s pretty much all there is to know about warten itself.
Here’s one more fairly common expression with warten.

  • Da kannst du lange warten. / Da kannst du warten, bis du schwarz wirst.
  • You can wait till kingdom come (translation from

And now, let’s go right over to the prefix versions.
I know you can’t wait :)

The meaning of “erwarten”

The er– prefix. Oh my. In the post on aufwachen I mentioned that er often makes things sound less mundane, even a bit divine if you will. While this works for many verbs, it doesn’t really work here.  I’ll do a post on er as a prefix anyway. So, let me just tell you flat out that erwarten can mean to expect and to await. Expecting definitely has some warten in it so that isn’t too much of a stretch and to await is quite obvious. Let’s start with to expect.

  • Ich habe dich erwartet.
  • I’ve been expecting you.
  • Ich erwarte Besuch aus Paris.
  • I am expecting/waiting for visitors from Paris.
  • Ich habe mehr erwartet.
  • I expected more.
  • “Der Film war totaler Mist”
    “Was hast du erwartet?
  • “The movie was complete garbage.”
    “What did you expect?”
  • Marie erwartet ein Kind.
  • Marie is expecting a child.

As you can see, erwarten and to expect are quite similar and are often used in the same situations. But there are some minor differences that deserve being mentioned. First of, I think erwarten sounds a little bit more demanding…. mainly due to the fact that erwarten doesn’t work very well with assumptions.   So erwarten is NOT a good translations for expect in sense think.

  • I expect that you are hungry.
  • Ich erwarte, dass du Hunger hast….

When said the wrong way, this could sound like you’re ordering the person to be hungry… like… “If you come to my place I expect you to be hungry… so be hungry now! Be it!”
For those think-assume-expects you should go with annehmen or davon ausgehen

  • Ich nehme an, du hast Hunger.
  • Ich geh’ mal davon aus, dass du Hunger hast.

Another difference between erwarten and expect has to do with the direct object.

  • I expected you to do something.
  • I’m expecting a call

Those are kind of 2 different meanings… one is demanding and one is just waiting… and only the second exists in that same form in German.

  • Ich erwarte einen Anruf.

If you add a direct object to erwarten, that always expresses that you await that object. So the following sentence is nonsense:

  • Ich erwarte dich, to do something…

“Ich erwarte dich” means “I await you”.
So if you expect someone to do something, THIS is how to say it in German:

  • Ich erwarte von dir, dass du…… … … …… ….. ….. ….. ………. ……. verb.

And just to make sure… you can cannot use a zu-construction. A few more examples:

  • Ich erwarte von dir, dass du deine Hausaufgaben machst.
  • I expect you to do your homework.
  • Ich erwarte, dass du die Präsentation morgen fertig hast.
  • I expect you to have finished the presentation by tomorrow.
  • Ich habe nicht erwartet, dass die Bar so voll ist.
  • I didn’t expect the bar to be that crowded.

Now, sometimes people add a mir to their phrase but that doesn’t really change much. It makes it sound a little less demanding maybe.

  • Ich erwarte mir viel von dem Film.
  • I expect a lot from the movie / I have high hopes for the movie.

All right. Now here are one example with to await:

  • Zuhause erwartet dich ein warmes Bett, eine heiße Schokolade mit Sahne und eine Massage.
  • At home, a warm bed, a hot chocolate with whipped cream and a massage await you..

There are some words based on erwarten that are pretty useful. The first one is die Erwartung which is… as expected I may say… the expectation.

  • Du hast meine Erwartungen erfüllt/übertroffen/enttäuscht.
  • You lived up to my expectations.

Then, there is the word unerwartet which means… unexpected(ly).

  • Meine Eltern sind unerwartet zu Besuch gekommen.
    My parents came visiting unexpectedly. (lit.)
  • My parent came for a surprise visit.
  • Erwarte das Unerwartete.
  • Expect the unexpected.

Another useful word is erwartungsgemäß… yeah, pretty long but useful non the less. Depending on context there are a number of similar translations in English but the essence is best captured with as expected.

  • Thomas kommt erwartungsgemäß zu spät.
  • As expected, Thomas is going to be late.

There is also the phrase wie erwartet, which is similar in meaning but it sounds more casual and is what people would probably say.

  • Thomas ist mal wieder wie erwartet zu spät.
  • Thomas is late again… of course.

And last but not least there is erwartungsvoll which literally means full of expectations and which has a really nice vibe to it. If you expect negative things you wouldn’t call that erwartungsvoll. So the better translation is possibly in happy anticipation.

  • Erwartungsvoll blickte sie ihn an, aber wir werden nie erfahren, wie es weiterging.
  • Full of expectation, she looked at him, but we shall never know how it continued.

If you’re confused at the forms of the verbs I used here… it is real past and I used it because this sentence just sounds like a novel.
All right… and that’s it for erwarten, now onto the last warten… well almost.

The meaning of “abwarten”

Abwarten is a little tricky because it also translates to to wait for the most part. But there is a clear difference between warten and abwarten and seldom may they be interchanged.
The thing is warten is just pure waiting…. waiting for stuff that hasn’t happened yet. Abwarten looks like waiting but it is actually more of not doing something till the situation changes…  maybe the situation sucks.

  • Ich will abwarten, bis es aufhört zu regnen.
  • I want to wait, till it stops raining.

Or maybe you simply can’t decide what to do yet so you have to wait for more information.

  • Ich warte lieber ab, wie sich die Situation entwickelt, bevor ich entscheide, was ich mache.
  • I rather wait and see how the situation will evolve, before I decide, what I’ll do.

Both examples could work with just warten, too I suppose but it doesn’t sound so good to me. Abwarten is kind of being on stand by. Let’s look at some examples to clarify this:

  • Ich warte auf den Bus.
  • I am waiting for the bus.
  • Ich warte den Bus ab.
  • I wait till the bus has passed (before I do whatever)

So, abwarten can take a direct object but it then means that you wait for this to be over or passed or completed.

  • Warte mal!
  • Wait a second!

This tells the listener to wait a bit because you are not done yet. Maybe your friend is already leaving the bar and you haven’t even payed yet.

  • Wart mal ab!
  • Oh you just wait!

Here, you are not asking for the person to really wait for you, but rather wait for whatever is going to happen before jumping to conclusions.

  • “Wie willst du denn in 2 Wochen eine Bachelorarbeit schreiben?” (subtext: NOOO WAYYY)
    Wart’s mal ab..”
  • “How on earth are you planning to write your BA final paper thingy in just 2 weeks?”
    “You’ll see.” (thanks to Joe for the colloquial response in English)

All right. I hope that you could wrap your mind around the difference between warten and abwarten a bit. There are no words based on abwarten but there is one nice idiom:

  • Abwarten und Tee trinken.

The translation I found is:

  • Wait and see.

But that could actually also just be the translation or abwarten. The Tee trinken adds an extra emphasis on “chill, no need to be active right now”. So if anyone knows of some similar idiom in English or any other language for that matter… go ahead and share it with us :).
All right… no onto the last word.

The meaning of “aufwarten”

The translation of aufwarten is something like

Verb I NEVER use in daily life and that only occurs in newspapers and books.

Hope that helps… ok, seriously though… Leo suggest as a translation to come up with, the translations of are pretty much wrong and Pons offers to serve, to come up with and to offer… but all this is really misleading. Aufwarten is not something you need in every day talk and for all who are interested anyway…here it is in real life action at  … the best match there is actually to provide.

Anyway…. we’re done for today. This was our German Word of the Day Prefix special on warten and I really ho… wait… we have a call… gotta check with Nick if we have time for that… Nick is nodding… so…, Oleg from Poland,hi Oleg, welcome to the show….
“Hey Emanuel, great to talk to you and nice show today. However, I have to say that I am a bit disappointed.
Oh but why…
“You call that a prefix special?”
Uh, yes…
“But it had only 3 prefixes in it.”
Uh… yeah, warten can only take those 3 er, ab and auf
“3 is nothing…  we want more…”
But… I thought you guys would be glad it’s only 3…
“It’s fine… but not for a prefix special… don’t spare us! Give us the real stuff man, we can handle it…”
Oh… so… uh… what do you want me to do…
“Do all prefixes of gehen!
In one post… uh ..I mean show? NEVER!!
“Then do stellen.
NO WAY, that would take a whole freaking book!
How about geben.”
Hmmm… but don’t complain, if it ends up loooooong.
“Haha… I won’t, I promise…”
All right, so geben it is for the next prefix special…
“Awesome, Emanuel… I can’t wait… hey, uh… what would that be in German actually?
Oh… you mean, you can’t wait?
That would be:

  • Ich kann’s kaum erwarten.

Doesn’t really tie in with what I told you about erwarten but hey… there are always exceptions,right?
“Hahahah…. true, thanks and bye”
Thank you too, and greetings to Poland. All right, and we’re done here for today. If you have any question or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Further reading:

fallen – All  prefix versions with examples


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