Word of the Day – “nach”

nach-pictureHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. And today, finally, we will have a look at the meaning of




Not noch… yet. Today it’s just nach.  But actually… there is nothing “just” about it. It is not “just” nach, it is  n to the freakin’ ach, maaaan. Naaaaach. You know… THAT nach. The really cool one. It is soooo useful, my goodness.  It has a local meaning and it has a temporal meaning and both are causing trouble. And then it has a core meaning which is super many-sided and of course it is also a prefix… and a very productive one at that. So today we’ll learn where nach comes from, what it means, how to use it and when not to use it. Sounds good? Cool.

So…most of you probably know two faces of nach from phrases like these:

Past or after and to. Here they are in a double feature …

German®. Confusingest shit for 1400 years.
Now, after and to... that seems random but we’ll see that they actually do have something in common once we take a look at the origin of nach helps. I’ve got the old almanac from our library right here, hold on…. pffffffft…  so dusty, but I like that old paper… nnanach, there we go. Oh… oh wow, this is really fascinating. Listen to this.  Nach is related to the English translation near but near actually once used to be the more-form of nigh. And you know what the most-form used to be? Next. So back a few hundred centuries it was

  • nigh – near – next

just like it is

  • good  – better -best

But the one day nigh was like “You know what, I’ll retire.” and next was like “I kind of wanna do my own thing.” So people asked near to do the job and they invented new forms –  nearer and nearest. That’s a pretty cool story actually. I’ll have to remember that for the next party or date. Word history… always a home run.

  • “Hey, I think I’m gonna go home now.”

Wait. That’s not how I imagined it…
Any’s way, so the great grandfather of nach, used to mean what near means today. But soon the word split up into two versions… nah and nach. probably just because people would pronounce it in different way. And there are still left overs of this old nach...

Now, German has always had a soft spot for being annoyingly specific when it comes to talking about location. So on a boring winter day some Germans in a pub in Schwarzwald had a few beers and then an idea…

“Hey folks, we got these two variants nahe and nach… how about we make them mean different things?”
“Hooray, specificity… but oh. Oh no, we shouldn’t. That would make it harder to learn.”
” * ”
” * “

And then a shepherd in Denmark saw a flock of bird suddenly flying up from a tree…
you know…because the laughter was so loud that it carried all the way up to Denmark and frightened the bir… meh… I guess it would work better on film. Anyway… from that day on nah(e) was (and still is) used to talk about a fixed location while nach is talking about a destination

  • Wohin gehst du?”
    Nach dem Markt.”
  • Where are you going?”
    Near the market.”

And from that second “near” the market it is really only a small step “to” the market… physically and in meaning :).
And so going near a place became going to a place

And then, a couple of centuries later, it “unbecame” that… at least for most locations. Germans just liked zu and in much better and started using those much more.
This is actually one of the most common mistakes of beginners .. they use nach for everything. Probably because it’s the first destination word they learn..

  • Ich gehe nach die Kurs, dann gehe ich nach die Bibliothek und dann gehe ich nach die Kino.

This is understandable… but it’s wrong. And not the cute, elegant “Oops, I guess you can tell I’m not a native speaker”-wrong, like saying “die” all the time. No, it are “in your face”-wrong. Like what I just did ;).
A simple “Ich gehe jetzt  nach die Bar” after a flawlessly monologuing in German for 20 minutes about what reality is and baaam… all ruined. Most everyday locations work with either zu or in… or auf or an … German is very annoying when it comes to talking about location….but if you don’t know what to use for a destination, don’t use nach… use zu. It’s much better.
So … what is nach used for? There are 3 fields. Firstly, nach is used for all those kind of vague spatial coordinates … like left ,right, bottom, top and so on.

  • Ich gehe nach [oben/unten/links            /rechts          /hinten       /vorne].
  • I am going           up /down/ to the left          /to the right/to the rear/forward.

The second field for nach is countries, cities, city districts, states, continents and islands

  • Ich fliege nach Berlin/ Frankreich/ Asien/ Manhatten/Hawai.

And since no rule goes without an exception, nach does not work if the country has an article other than the generic “das”

  • Ich fahre nach die Schweiz/die Bronx/den Iran/die USA… WRONG
  • Ich fahre in die Schweiz/die Bronx/den Iran/die USA… correct

Most countries are das though, so this is not that much to learn.
All right. The final use of nach for a destination is of course nach Hause.

And as common as it is… it is really just a remnant of the olden days when people were using nach for every location. Now, we’ll do a whole mini series on location and there we’ll deal with when to use zu and in and all that so we won’t go into more on that here. Let’s instead go back to the bunch of drunken Germans …

“nach” – Germans number 1 follower

A few hours after their great idea to use nach only for destinations they decided to call it a night and go home. And so Gunthar went to his old horse.Or better… he tottered to his horse. And the horse was just like “Ugh.. I hate drunk riders” and started trotting home, Gunthar a few meters behind it.

“What’s he doing?”
“He is following his horse, of course.”
“No no… wait wait… he’s going nach his horse… just… that the horse is moving.”

And then, in Denmark, a shepherd woke to the la.. okay, I’ll stop being stupid. But think about it. What happens if our destination is moving? Our going to turns into a going behind, going after… a  following.

  • I run to my horse.
  • I run after my horse.

People started using nach that way and soon this whole idea of following came to be the new soul of nach. The local meaning to is really kind of old school.
Now, you can do a LOT with this following-core and one of the most important uses is the temporal nach.

Now, the word after is actually very broad in that it can have different grammatical roles. In the examples we had just now, it is a preposition so it connects a “thing”. But it can also connect an activity , then it has the role of a conjunction and it can even stand alone, as an adverb.

  • After I have do my duty, I’ll eat a well deserved yogurt.
  • Before and after

I bet you already guessed how it is with nach... it can’t do any of that. It can only connect things… nach something. That’s all it does. And for the other grammatical roles German has different words… because that’s how Sushi rolls… oh uhm… I mean German rolls.

I’ll just leave it at those two examples, but if you want to know more you can check out the mini series on time that we did a while ago… you’ll find it on the “online-course” page.
Now, there are 2 pretty expression about time with this nach which I think we should mention… nach und nach and nach wie vor.

Those are really useful and common and I’m sure you’ll see them sooner or later. But let’s leave it at that with the temporal use because nach has much more to offer. The temporal after-idea was really just an aspect of the following-heart of  nach. And there are many more aspects of following… all those -ances like accordance or resemblance

or obedience, inspiratiance and yearnance…

Haven’t heard much of those two lately by the way…. but anyway… finally there are phrasing in which nach itself is actually following.

Linguists call that a post-position. So it is like a preposition, just that it comes … well… nach the thing. It is not that common but at least the following phrasing is one you should learn… your teachers will love you for it… you know… those “Redemittel” ;)

So… that was quite a range of examples. It cannot really be generalized though. So there are probably plenty of situation in which one could think it’s nach but then it isn’t. But I am sure you will always understand it. And if you like playing around with the language and trying out things… well then you will LOVE the prefix nach.

Nach – the prefix

Just like so many prepositions, auf, aus, zu and so on, nach is also used as a separable prefix. We’ve already learned that the core idea of nach is following, and that’s also the meaning it adds to verbs. Now, we’ve already seen how broadly the idea of following can be applied. And nach , the prefix,  has 3 main poles… just like that table dance ba… uhm .. I mean earth, just like earth… (phew, that was close).
The first pole is a local following… or kind of local following.

In the last example no one is following anybody physically but still there is this whole “someone is gone”- thing in it. Another verb like that would be nachtragen. 

Just picture it… you forget the birthday of your partner and now he or she is carrying this after you for weeks :)… at least to me it makes a lot of sense.
All right. The second pole the prefix-nach has is the idea of follow up … like… something has been done already and then you do it again  or more of it because the first time wasn’t enough.

A very important verb similar to nachlesen is nachgucken which simply means to look up or to check.

The idea of follow up is not very strong. So nachgucken does not imply that you’ve looked it up before. But we can see it as a kind of follow up to the search we did in our brain. And there are other verbs with this idea of deeper inquiry… like nachforschen (do more research), nachfragen (ask/ask again) and I think even nachdenken kind of fits in here.

The last major pole is following in the sense of following a model… the most prominent word here is of course nachmachen

But of course machen isn’t the only verb…

A TV chef could say that at the end of the show… wishing you fun cooking what he or she has showed you.

Now, looking at all those nuances can be a bit overwhelming I guess… but as with many other prefixes all the diversity is really just one thing looked at from different perspectives… and with nach it is the idea of following. There is a local perspective, a “follow up” or more-perspective and a  “follow the idea”-perspective but if you don’t take it all literally you can see it.

Now… besides those 3 main poles there are a few other nach-prefixes… one is the temporal-nach but the only verb I can think of right now is nachbereiten. It is the opposite of vorbereiten which means to prepare and it is what you do AFTER a day at school…no… not getting drunk or playing x-box… it is reading over the stuff again… postpare if you want.

And then, finally there are a few verbs where I can’t really grasp why they mean what they mean… one is nachlassen which has 25 translations on Leo and I don’t know which one to pick… the idea is to lose intensity.

I could maybe fit it in with the following-idea when I imagine it as a kind of “falling back”… and then you’re behind and hence following. But I don’t know if that’s how it came about.
And then, there is nachgeben which is to cede or to give in.

The only way this makes sense to me is to think of it as literally giving more than the other person. Like… you give more way or something … I don’t know. I am actually quite tired now and my concentration lässt rapidly nach.
There are thousands of compounds with nach out there but I guess I’ll mention one… Nachteil. The opposite of it would be der Vorteil and the meaning is …(dis)advantage.Like… the first part, the in front part,  is the good stuff… the after-part (Nachteil) is not so great anymore :). Makes sense, to me anyway…  but I think with what we’ve learned today you can figure out most of the words with nach that you’ll come across. All right.
Super quick recap: nach used to mean near, but then people started using it only for destinations. That’s where it’s got the local meaning to from but that only works for a comparablahbly small set of locations. And then people started also using it for moving “destinations” and there nach picked up the core idea it has to day… the idea of following. One important use of that is the temporal after-nach but there are all kinds of others out there. And then there is of course the prefix … and as all of those, it is can be your worst enemy but also your best friend. All you need is to do a little mind yoga :).
I am done for today. If you have any questions or suggestions or if there are words with nach that are unclear or some that you find really handy just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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