Infinitive is among the more common grammar terms and it’s one that you pretty much can’t avoid if you start learning a new language.
Textbooks, courses and teachers throw around the term as if it’s as self explanatory as the flush button on a toilet, and most people kind of have an idea, but I’m almost sure that it’s not as clear or obvious as the teaching scene thinks, not least because the term infinitive isn’t very intuitive at all.
That’s actually why I usually refer to it as:
Sure, it’s not as Latin cocktail party fancy, but at least it gives you an idea of what it does.
The infinitive is kind of the “idle” form of the verb. In our article on conjugation, we have thought of conjugating as dressing the verb up for various occasions, and the infinitive is how the verb looks in its free time, when it doesn’t have to dress up in any special way.
Well okay, in German and English and many other languages, we do use infinitives in sentences, so the verb is kind of “at work”.
- I want to drink a coffee.
- Ich will einen Kaffee trinken.
Here, the infinitive doesn’t have carry anything except its meaning. So it’s kind of in its jogging pants without any special markers for the person or the tense or whatever.
And this “lack” of “dress code” is actually kind of how it got its name. The term infinitive comes from Latin verb “finire” – which is also where to finish comes from. The core idea of the family is “limit, end“, and the idea of infinitive is not that it’s infinite, like it sounds… it’s simply that it is not “limited” to a person or number or tense or whatever. “free-ative”, if you will.
Do all languages have infinitives?
Now, we just learned that the infinitive is the basic, idle form of a verb. So of course all languages have that, right?
Well… for a long time, I thought so, but the answer is actually no. NOT all languages have infinitives.
Because even if it’s the “idle” form… it is still A form.
And in German and English, it actually does kind of have its own “dress code”.
- to drink
The core of the verb is “trink/drink“. That’s enough to understand it and neither the “to” nor the “-en” add anything. Well, except of course a specific rhythm, that each language “vibes with”.
Anyway, so there are languages that do not have an infinitive and one example is Bulgarian.
And it’s not like Bulgarian has a lack of forms.
Language God: “So… how many verb forms do you want?”
It has all kinds of crazy forms. But it loved using its forms so much, that it also used them where other European languages use their infinitive.
Here’s how English and German would look if they used Bulgarian grammar.
- I want to eat.
Ich will esse.
- He wants to eats.
Er will isst.
Bulgarian also has plenty of prefix verbs, by the way, so if German is too easy… look no further for a challenge :).
Anyway, so the infinitive was completely neglected and it eventually disappeared… use it or lose it.
And for the dictionary… well… for the dictionary, Bulgarian just uses the “I” form.
Which is a good argument for why my calling the whole thing dictionary form actually is not just me hating on official grammar terms (which I do do). The name dictionary form actually makes sense!
Because not every language has an infinitive… but all have a dictionary form ;).
Infinitive in German
As we already mentioned, the infinitive in German does have it’s own “dress convention”. The standard ending is “-en”, but there’s also a good amount of verbs that end in “-eln” and “-ern“, like for example “lächeln” (smile) or “wandern” (to wander)
Those endings are actually shortened version of “-elen” and “-eren” and the origin of those is a “repetitive” variant of the verb. klingen for example is to sound, klingeln is to ring, which back when there were still bells, meant to repeatedly make the sound.
And let’s also mention the “-ieren”, which is the standard German ending for all kind of Latin based verbs like fotografieren and so on. Though technically, those are the standard -en, added to the Latin base
Anyway, that’s it with our look at the infinitive aka the dictionary form and I really hope you got some nice insights. If you have any questions just let me know in the comments and we’ll clear it up there.
And also, share with us how it works in your language, so over time we can collect a good overview :).
Have a good one!