The meaning of “werden”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German word of the Day. Summer is over. Finally!
It is autumn. Or as I liked to call it Awesumn.
Because I love it.
Days are becoming shorter and it is getting cold and rainy. Which is great by itself already, but there’s another great aspect of autumn, captured perfectly in the poem “Autumn” by Goethe**:

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 explanations are usually pretty good.
And today, we’ll talk about something that really could use a good explanation.
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…

  • How can I become fluent in just a matter of days? (the answer: you can’t unless you’re a snowman)
  • Wie kann ich in wenigen Tagen fließend werden?
    (not the most idiomatic German sentence ever)
  • Maria explains why she became a vegetarian.
  • Maria erklärt, warum sie Vegetarierin wurde.
  • Thomas becomes more and more arrogant.
  • Thomas wird immer arroganter.

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

  • Maria is getting tired.
  • Maria wird müde.
  • Sarah becomes/turns 24 this November.
  • Sarah wird diesen November 24.
  • Man, you’ve grown tall.
  • Man, bist du groß geworden.
  • Thomas is going crazy.
  • Thomas wird verrückt.

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, vertical, warp, versus,
    worth, 
    ergonomic or worm

and in German…

  • Wert (worth, value), werfen (throw),
    werden
    ,
     Werft (shipyard) and many many more…

What does werden have to do with turning then?
Well, it is actually not that big of a distance. 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.

  • Ich werde morgen ins Ballet gehen… Spaß, natürlich nicht.
  • I will go to a ballet tomorrow… kidding, of course not.
  • Ich frage mich ob die Menschen in der Zukunft mal auf dem Mars leben werden.
  • I ask myself whether people will be living on Mars in the future.

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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Harvey Wachtel
Harvey Wachtel
21 days ago

That “Goethe” verse is insufficiently German in its soul. For a true appreciation of Autumn, find Klaus Groth’s “Ernst ist der Herbst” and Brahms’s gorgeous setting of it, “Im Herbst”.

On that somber note, I appreciated the possibly unintended depth of your “on vacation” joke. It reminded me of Mark Twain’s remark, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Foysal sheikh
Foysal sheikh
5 months ago

Thanks

jordan s
jordan s
7 months ago

Super job – thank you!

Foysal sheikh
Foysal sheikh
5 months ago
Reply to  jordan s

Thanks

pietrodmk
10 months ago

Hi, Emmanuel, the article is great as always, but I got confused with the etymology part…
I couldn’t grasp the relation between “weave” and the “werden”-family. I’ll explain why, but It’ possible that I just misunderstood those paragraphs, so please tell me if it is so.
Since you didn’t mention “weave” among the words derived from the common PIE root, I was trying to understand how it fitted as a related word to “werden”. I mean, with a little mind bending I can understand that when one weaves, one “turns” the threads within each other. But to be sure I went to the only (sadly, only) source I know for Germanic etymology, which is Wiktionary – which I know is not 100% secure, and this is why I’m asking. It says there that the root for “weave” is PIE “webh” (meaning exactly “to weave, to braid”), while the root for “werden” is PIE “wert” (meaning “to turn”). I’ll add the links below. So, according to Wiktionary, they would be different roots… but they are still very similar words for me, “webh” and “wert”. Please keep in mind that I’m doubting Wiktionary, not you, at this point. Could you enlighten this matter a bit? In your research, did you find a common root for “webh” and “wert”, or “weave” and wert-derived words?

Thanks a lot! Your blog is a blessing for my German studies.

weave: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/weave#Etymology_1
webh: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/webʰ-
werden: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/werden#Etymology
werþaną: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/werþaną#Etymology
wert: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/wert-

EM C
EM C
1 year ago

Hi Emanuel, can you please kindly explain the Unterschied between “werden” and “werden zu”? That´s really confusing! Im voraus vielen Dank!

Roger
Roger
2 years ago

Hi –

Ein weiteres interessantes Thema. Danke für das Teilen.

Es scheint, dass “bekommen” auch die Vorstellung haben kann, „to get something done“?

Zum Beispiel im folgenden Satz:

Andere wurden jedoch sehr sparsam erzogen und werden Probleme haben, den Krug leer zu bekommen. Deshalb gibt es die Regel, dass der Krug leer sein muss.

Wenn dies zutrifft, ist diese Konstruktion die bevorzugte Ausdrucksweise, um “etwas zu bekommen” auszudrücken.

Vielen Dank!!

Pax
Pax
3 years ago

Hallo, Emmanuel.
Meine Frage betrifft nicht das Hauptthema, sondern einen Beispielsatz und zwar: “Maria erklärt, warum sie Vegetarierin wurde.”
Nach meinem Verständniss (oder nach dem, was jeder Deutschlehrer sagt) braucht man vor “Vegetarierin” einen Artikel. Neulich habe ich jedoch einen ähnlichen Satz gehört (“Er ist Gast hier”), also auch ohne Artikel. Deshalb meine Frage: Was mit der eisernen Regel, dass man vor zälbaren Nomen einen Artikel braucht? Gibt es mindestens eine Daumenregel, die lässt beim Sprechen auf den Artikel verzichten?

erina
erina
6 years ago

Hello, i have below two sentences and want to know the difference between the two. Which one is correct when and when its used ?

Ich wurde Arztin. und Ich bin arztin geworden.

Nabil
Nabil
6 years ago

Hello there, just asking if there is a meaning for the structure ,, werde gesollt,, and the structure ,, werde sollen,,

Soooooo thankful to you.

hybrid00eyes
6 years ago

Great explanation. Loved the imaginary dialog!

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Can you please simplify this, without all the stories at the beginning? Just present the structures, and let’s get on with it!

berlingrabers
7 years ago

Yeah, I think “go/went” and “be/was” are the only examples in English. I learned about “went” in Greek class – there are a few more of those in Greek (at least New Testament Koine Greek). The verb for “carry” is “phero” but its past (aorist, if that means anything to you) form is “ēnengka,” obviously from another older verb.

I guess that “get” in Genesis probably is basically “receive/acquire,” though as I recall the verb it translates (“qanah,” presented as the etymology for the son’s name, Cain or in Hebrew “Qayin”) can either mean “get” in that normal sense, usually applied to livestock or slaves, or “create” (some more contemporary translations reflect the latter meaning). Luther translated it with “gewinnen.” But then there’s also “beget” with the reproductive meaning…

berlingrabers
7 years ago

There’s also English “worship,” which didn’t originally mean “anbeten/Anbetung” but was a noun meaning “honor/dignity/renown.” That’s why some officials still have “worshipful” or “Your Worship” as titles; classically it just meant “honorable.” I guess the “wer-/were-” in “werewolf” comes from that “turn” root too? And “weird.” Would make sense.

Apparently “went” as past tense for “go” actually came from “wenden”/”wend”; somehow “go” poached the past tense from “wend,” which still exists, usually to describe a river (“The Mississippi wends its way through the heart of the North American continent…”) but now, I’m fairly sure, has “wended” as its past form.

Also, yet another fun use for “get” can be found in Genesis (1. Mose) 4:1 in the good ol’ King James translation. (Hope my HTML works right…)

“Get” really is the best verb of all the verbs.

André Rhine-Davis
André Rhine-Davis
8 years ago

“Sarah wird diesen November 24.”
Is “diesen November” in the accusative case? That’s the only way I can see it fitting with “diesen”, but I don’t see how that makes any sense :S

Also, as a noun and adjective, Old English “weorþ” does still exist, as English “worth” (c.f. German Wert/wert). The verb “weorðan” survived into Middle English as “to worth”, and although it is effectively dead and gone now, there are still some archaic frozen phrases that apparently still exist (although I’ve never personally heard anyone say them) such as “Woe worth the day” (with “worth” in the present subjunctive and “the day” in the dative) i.e. “may woe happen to the day”.

“For, adds our erudite Friend, the Saxon weorthan equivalent to the German werden, means to grow, to become; traces of which old vocable are still found in the North-country dialects, as, ‘What is word of him?’ meaning ‘What is become of him?’ and the like. Nay we in modern English still say, ‘Woe worth the hour.’ {Woe befall the hour}”
– Thomas Carlyle, “Past and Present” (1843)

Adriano Marcato
Adriano Marcato
8 years ago

I don’t know if the exposed chronology is right, but if “werden” came to be used for future, what would they use before? something like “will” or maybe the portuguese future conjugation?

Adriano Marcato
Adriano Marcato
8 years ago

ok, it was already answered in part 2, sorry

iyz
iyz
8 years ago

hi
stimme means voice or sound
and the be- prefix with a verb means to inflict something on another something
so bestimmen means to inflict sound on something as I understood from your be- article
how on earth could bestimmen means to accertain or to be right as in ( Das bestimmt= That’s right)
please explain
and thanks in advance

Andrew
Andrew
8 years ago

Hi Emanuel,

I was just wondering if you knew why the conjugation of werden changed from the more regular “werden wirst ward geworfen”, like the verbs helfen and werfen, to changing the simple past to “wurde” which is irregular? I thought it was interesting cos people seem to like to form verbs by analogy to other verbs (like when people use bring brang and brung in English). :)

Andrew
Andrew
8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

That makes a lot of sense to me, and it’s interesting the way Icelandic kept the archaic declination patterns. Ich fand den Schreibstil des Antwortenden nebenbei sehr wortgewandt, seine Sprache hat so eine Genauigkeit, die nett zu lesen war. Das ist was ich am meisten an Deutsch mag, glaube ich :) Das Wort “wurde” war also vielleicht wirklich eine Anologie, aber zu Hilfsverben und nicht dem Ablautmuster. Irgendwie wie das Wort “Antwort” weiblich ist obwohl “Wort” sächlich ist. Ich dachte vielleicht das liegt daran, dass die meisten Nomen, die mit einem T enden und aus Verben geformt sind, weiblich sind. Aber ich weiß nicht ob das wahr ist oder nicht, aber es ergibt Sinn möglicherweise :)

Danke für die Antwort :)

From Casinos to Castles

So glad I found your blog! I think you will give me some of the missing puzzle pieces I have to learning German!

yz
yz
8 years ago

Thanks very much for the efforts you exert to make us understand the Deutschesprache which sometime in the past ( es hat gesheint vollig unlogisch zu sein) appears as if it is completely unlogical language
thanks again
and may I ask you to recommend to me some resources about the german lanaguage in order to understand its prefixes and the nuances of meaning between many verbs that means one verb in the english language

looking forward to seeing part 2 of the verb werden
thanks again and in advance
your sincerely