Word of the Day – “werden”

werden-pictureHello everyone,

and welcome to our German word of the Day. Summer is over. Finally!
It is autumn. Or as I liked to call it Awesotumn.
Days are getting short and it is getting cold and rainy. Which is something we all like.
But there’s another great aspect of autumn
This poem by Goehte captures it perfectly**:

Colds will be caught,
Jackets will be worn,
Sheep will be shorn.
German will be taught.

(**might not actually be by Goethe)

Fall is awesome and it is the season in which we tackle the BIG things. No more humpdy dumpty like in summer.
Fall is the time to step up the game. It’s simple math:   fall + game = stepped up.
And for my enginneeer out there:   f ( fall ) = stepped up (game).
And for my computer science people out there:
if (season==fall)
{while (game<stepped_up)
{game++;}
}  

Yeah… if you’re new here on this site, you’re probably pretty confused now. But the exanations are usually pretty good.
And today, we’ll talk about something that really could use a good exanation. We’ll take a look at the meanings and functions of 

werden


And there’s actually three of them.  First of, werden is the German word for to become.
But it’s also used as a helper to build the future tense. And as if that wasn’t enough, it’s also used to build the passive voice.
In this article, we’ll of course look at the grammar a bit. But our main focus will be exploring WHY German uses werden for those three things.
Like… why does it mean to become and what happened to the German bekommen?  Why does German use werden for future? And why do we use it for passive when so many other languages use to be? 
So… are you ready to dive in? Coooooool.

“werden” and “bekommen”

So, we already mentioned, that werden is the German word for to become.
And for many learners, that raises the question, what about bekommen? So let’s talk about that first.
Obviously, become and bekommen are brothers. But the translation of bekommen is to receive. Something clearly went wrong there. I mean, the translations clearly have nothing to do with one another.
Or do they?
When we look a little closer, we’ll find that the idea of receiving and the one of becoming are actually that crazy a pair. In fact, English has a word that expresses both: to get.

  • I got an e-mail…. you receive something
  • I got tired…. you become tired.

What those two share is an underlying notion of reaching. The only difference is the direction. The email reaches you.. you receive it. You reach the state of tired.. then you become. But in both instances, you and something move “toward” each other until you “meet”.
Back in the old Indo-European language, this phenomenon of bidirectional verbs was quite common. And there are still some verbs like this around. We already mentioned to get, which can mean to obtain, but also to become and even to reach places (get home). But there’s also to make. You can make a salad or you can make a bus. Same sentence structure, just a different object. And boom, the meanings are completely different. When you make a salad, you “bring” the salad toward you. When you make the bus, you move toward the bus.
Now, the ancestor of to become/bekommen is the Germanic *bikweman, and that used to be bidirectional verbs, too. But then, this happened…

“Fellow English men, we have this word bikweman
and it means two things… that is confusing. Let’s pick one.”

“Yay!”
“Which one should we pick then.”
“We have to get for to receive..”
To get kicks ASS… best word ever.”
“But we also have weorðan for the other mea…”
“Whatever. weorðan sucks anyway. Let’s use bikweman instead.”
“Okay…so from now on bikweman shall be our new word
for
 weorðan.”
“I have a question… can we use to get for that too? Pleeeaase???”
“Uhg… fine.”

Shortly after that, in Germany…

“Fellow Germans. We have this bikweman and it means two
things. Brits just picked one. Let’s pick one, too.”

“Jaaaa.”
Brits picked to become. Should we do the same?”
“No way! We’ll look like weak copycats!!
“And we have werden and werden is awesome… best word ever. WE can NOT replace that.”
“So, the from now on we shall use bekommen only for to receive.”

“Hooray!

Well… not really sure if that’s how it went down. I wasn’t there at the time because I was on vacation.
Anyway, so both languages used their version of to become for different things, and to us now they seem completely different.
And while English git rid of its version of werden, German kept it and uses it as to become to this day.
Time for example…

Now, English actually has a whole bunch of words for the idea of development. But they are all translated with werden.

So, whenever the core is self development or changing from one state to another state…  werden is probably the word you need because the concept is the very core of that verb. But where did it actually get that idea? Where does the verb actually come from?
Well, let’s find out. Because that’ll be the key to the other uses of the verb. 

The origin of “werden”

Werden comes from the implausably ancient Indo-European a root that meant to turn, to wind. Looks like a rather specific activity… but man oh man… there are a LOT of words coming from that root.
Here are some examples from English…

  • vortex, work,to wind, vertical, warp, versus,
    worth, 
    ergonomic or worm

and in German we can find even more

  • Wert (worth, value), wirken(have an effect, seem), werfen (throw),
    werden
    Wand (wall), wenden (turn), winden (to wind)

    Windel (diaper), Werft (shipyard) and many many more…

When I first read that in the draft that my interns gave me… uhm … I mean during my research of course, I was really really surprised. Like… how? What does work have to do with turning or bending, for example?
But they all make sense, once you bend your mind a bit. The connection between Wand (wall) for instance is related to winding because back in the days you’d “weave” your walls and fences from bast fibers or straw. And that is also how work ties in there. Originally, working referred to the act construct stuff by weaving. Or take the German werfen (to throw). That makes sense as soon as you realize that is is simply a description of your arm movement… you turn your arm in a way.

And what about werden? Well, it is actually not that big of a distance either. If you want to become something you kind of have to turn/bend your life in that direction. In fact, the verb to turn is actually often used in a sense of evolving. 

  • In fall the leaves turn red and yellow.

We could also use to become here. To turn is used with that exact meaning.  And that is exactly what happened with werden. The only difference is that werden lost all connection to bending and turning while to turn still has it.

Cool.
So now that we know what werden means and where it comes from, let’s look at its other two function and see if those uses actually make sense.

werden – the future

In English, there are a couple of ways to express that something is in the future. But the main one is using the verb will. German, especially in spoken, doesn’t always bother with the future, but when it does, then it uses werden.

Now, that’s kind of weird. German and English are really close when it comes to helper verbs usually. So why would they use different words to build the future, to begin with? The answer to that is that …oh wait… Steve, my producer, wants something… … … what?… I….. I don’t understand, what do you mean “out of time?!”…  … but… but… I can’t just stop here. We just started intensive-season man! How intensive is it to just stop right when we got going… ….. oh… … … oh yeah? well tell the network executives to go hang themselves off a cliff if that is so cool… … … … fine.

So guys… as it seems we have to stop here, because the network thinks the show is “too long”. I know it sucks but so does Kanye West.
That didn’t even make sense.
So… if you have any questions about werden so far or you want to complain about the sudden stop, just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

If you’re curious you continue with part two right away here:

  .

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