(As a preposition, so in phrasings like "going around the [x]".)
"over, down"
(As a separable prefix - the core idea is that you're somehow turning an entity.)
"around, avoiding"
(As a non-separable prefix - the core idea is that you place or move an entity around another one.)
(for the full hour in "street speak")
(Pretty much only used in the phrasing "um die + [Plural number]".)
(Specifically for giving the amount of a rotation, but also used for a few other changes of quantity.)

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Learn German Online - "Time part 2"

There are two main ways to tell the time in German, one more official, one more colloquial. Today, we'll learn how to use both of them and have some fun.

The German Prefix "um-" Explained

In this episode, we'll learn about the ideas of the German prefix "um-" and go over the most important prefix verbs together.


umgehen, umfahren, umstellen, umfallen, umziehen, umschreiben

Word Family tap to show/hide

Root: *ambhi-

This core idea of this root was:

around, from both sides

It’s probably based on the root *ant, which was about the side, the end.

The original idea is still quite visible in offspring like ambiance, amphitheater or ambiguous.
But there’s way more. There are plenty of words in English where the original idea is more or less obscured, like ambitious or embassy.

And the two syllables of ambhi actually also went their own separate ways. The first one is the origin of German um, which focused on the sense of around.
And the second part is the origin of by, bei and the German and English prefix be- which in a VERY abstract way is about direct impact (from all sides).

Here’s an incomplete list of English family members with a little idea how it could tie in with the origin:

  • ambiance (“all around around us”)
  • ambiguous (“two meanings”)
  • ambition, ambitious (“ambi” + “ire”, originally “going around”. Think of being busy.)
  • embassy, ambassador (“send out and around”)
  • but (“by+out”, originally introducing an exception)
  • about (“overview from the outside”)
  • by (“near, close to” from originally “around”)
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13 days ago

My english brain thinks ‘at 10 degrees…’ in never occured to me to think of the cirular degrees so now um make sense in that way.

So from what you say um never means: the precise position, as the English ‘at‘ does. EG at work, at the table, at one o’clock…?

13 days ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thanks, that helps me squeeze my little language brain a bit closer to understanding!! :)

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