and welcome to a new episode of our series German Prepositions Exposed – the series in which German prepositions will be exposed and cancelled.
Okay, of course we can’t cancel prepositions. I mean, they’re But we can definitely explain them and expose their secrets.
And today, we will have a look at the meaning of
And of course, we won’t just look at nach by itself. We’ll also explore nach as a prefix, learn lots of useful verbs and see how all the various uses of nach actually go back to one core idea.
So are you ready to jump in?
Then after me :)
I think many of you know that nach can mean to in the context of a destination…
- Ich fahre nach Berlin.
- I am going to Berlin.
And you’ve probably also heard nach as past in the context of time
- Es ist zehn nach 3.
- It is 10 past 3.
… or after, in the more broad sense of sequence.
- After 7 comes 8.
- Nach 7 kommt 8.
And if you’ve been really lucky, you might have even seen them in the same sentence…
- Erst nach Berlin und nach Berlin nach Oslo.
- First to Berlin and after Berlin to Oslo.
Isn’t German cute?
But all these uses actually go back to one single idea, captured by one of the English relatives of nach…. near.
The origin of “nach”
Today, the German word for near is nah, but a few centuries back, nach and nah were essentially one and the same word, just with different pronunciations and they both meant near.
Well, actually, they meant nigh, because originally, near was the more form of nigh. And while we’re at it… the most-form was another well known word: the word next. Makes a lot of sense, once you think about it. The next week is the week that is “nearest“. So just like good-better-best, a few hundred years ago, people used the triplet nigh-near-next.
But then at some point nigh was like: “Bros, you know what, I’ll retire.”
And next was like: “I wanna work on my side hustle full time.” and took on the meaning it has today.
And so people were like “Near, bro, you have to be the new baseline” and from then onward it was near-nearer-nearest.
Anyway, so back then, the German nach still expresses the idea of near. And in fact, we can still find some leftovers of that today, like for instance the German word for next, which is nächste.
Or the word for neighbor, which literally was something like “near-be-er”, and which in German is … Nachbar.
- Mein Nachbar ist sehr nett.
- My neighbor is very friendly. (neighbor come from “nigh bower”)
Now, German has always had a soft spot for having more words with more specific meanings. And so on a boring winter day some Germans in a pub in Schwarzwald had a few beers. And with those beers came ideas…
“Hey folks, we got these two variants nah 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 laughter louder than the ocean echoed through the forest.
But what were the distinct meanings?
Well, that’s where we once again run into one of the things German is most OCD about… speaking about location. Because nah(e) was (and still is) used to talk about a fixed location while nach is talking about a destination
- “Wo ist das Rathaus? ”
“Nahe der Kirche.”
- “Where’s the town hall”
“Near the church.”
- “Wohin gehst du?”
“Nach dem Markt.”
- “Where are you going?”
“Near the market.”
And I think you can already see the connection… going near a place really isn’t far from going to a place and soon nach was used in the sense of to that we know today.
- Ich fahre nach Berlin.
- I am going to Berlin.
“nach” – for locations
Now, this is actually one of the most common mistakes of beginners – use nach for all locations.
- Ich gehe nach die Kurs, dann gehe ich nach die Bibliothek und dann gehe ich nach die Kino.
And a few centuries back, that would actually have been correct. But like always, one day German was like “This isn’t even my final form, guahhh.” and started also using zu and in for destinations. Those two are the main words for everyday locations and if you had to pick one, I’d say zu is the best.
Nach itself was only left with three areas:
- spatial terms
The first one, spatial terms, are words like left ,right, bottom, top and so on. If you want to use those as a destination, you have to combine them with nach.
- 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, “geopoliticals” are things like countries, cities, city districts, states, continents and islands
- Ich fliege nach Berlin/ Frankreich/ Asien/ Manhatten/Hawai.
But there are some really random exceptions here, because… you know… fun. Specifically, nach does not work if the geopolitical “thing” 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 you can just pick up the exceptions over time. I wouldn’t spend time making a list of those.
But I don’t like lists to begin with.
Anyway, last but not least, we have nach Hause, which is means home as a destination in German, and you should pretty much learn that as a fixed phrase.
- Ich gehe nach Hause.
- I’m going home.
Now, I know you all want to know when to use zu and in in the context of location, but we’ll do a separate mini series on the location stuff at some point. And you can also find something about it in my article on zu ( I’ll post the link below).
Rule of thumb: if the location is not one of the three I mentioned here, nach sounds pretty damn bad, so rather go with zu.
Today, I want to focus on nach, though, and as we found in the beginning, it is also used in sense of time.
To clear up the connection there, let’s go back to the bunch of drunken Germans again…
“nach” – German’s top follower
A few hours and beers after their great idea to make nah and nach two distinct words and use nach only for destinations, they decided to call it a night and go home.
One of them, a fellow of the name Gunthar, went to his old horse. Or tottered, we should say, because he was quite shitfaced.
His horse, however, wasn’t up for the … ride. “Ugh.. I hate drunk riders”, it neighed, and started trotting homeward, Gunthar trailing a few meters behind it.
His buddies watched the scenery from the tavern. “What’s he doing?”, one of them asked. And using the newfound destination-nach , another one replied:
“Er geht nach sein Pferd.”
At this point you might be wondering where I am headed to with this story :).
Well, we’ve learned that nach came to be used as a word for a destination.
And now think about what happens if that destination is actually moving away from you, as you’re trying to reach it.
Well, then walking to it basically turns into a walking behind it. Or in other words, it turns into the idea of following.
- I run to my horse. (horse is still)
- I run after my horse. (horse is running away)
The idea of toward and the idea of following, coming after are actually REALLY close, even though the bare translations to and after
And there’s actually a lot you can do with this core idea.
One of the important uses is nach and the context of time, as a translation for past and after.
- Es ist 10 nach 3.
- It is 10 past 3.
- Nach der Arbeit gehe ich nach Hause.
- After work I go home.
- Nach einer Weile bin ich eingeschlafen.
- After a while I fell asleep.
We should note here, that nach is not the only translation for after. There are also danach, nachdem and nachher.
- After I have do my duty, I’ll eat a well deserved yogurt.
- Nachdem ich meine Pflicht getan habe, esse ich einen wohlverdienten Jogurt.
- Before and after.
- Davor und danach /vorher und nachher.
This is once again an example for German being painfully specific, because the difference between the words are different grammatical functions. Nach itself connects things, nachdem connects actions, and danach and nachher are standalone time statements.
But we’ve talked about this in detail in our mini series on time, so I’ll leave the link below and you can check it out later.
Now, the time-nach is the most prominent instance of the following-nach, but we can also find the core notion of following at the core of many of the common combinations of nach and verbs.
Some of them are about accordance or resemblance, which are the instances where nach is a translation or like.
- Es läuft alles nach Plan.
- All goes according to plan.
- Es schmeckt/riecht nach Gurke.
- It tastes/smells like cucumber.
- Es sieht nach Regen aus.
- It looks like ( it’s going to) rain.
Other verbs are about obedience and yearning...
- Ich richte mich nach dir. (obedience)
- I’ll follow you/You decide.
- Thomas sehnt sich nach Maria.
- Thomas aches for Maria.
And of course let’s not forget the ones that are about searching, like fragen nach and suchen nach.
- Ich suche nach der Wahrheit.
- I’m searching for the truth.
- Ich frage das Einhorn nach seinem Namen.
- I am asking the unicorn for its name.
And just for completion, here are a few common fixed expressions.
- Dem Anschein nach haben sich Thomas und Maria getrennt.
- On the face of it/Seems like Thomas and Maria have separated.
- Meiner Meinung nach ist Schach kein Sport.
- My opinion after chess is no sport. (lit.)
- In my opinion, chess is no sport.
- Ich verstehe nach und nach immer mehr aber nach wie vor noch nicht alles.
- Little by little I start understanding more and more but still not everything.
So… that was quite a range of examples, but they all share this underlying idea of following, going after that ties all this meanings together.
And that idea of following is also at the heart of nach as a prefix.
Nach – the prefix
For the prefix verbs with nach, we can identify three main groups. They all share the idea of following, but the each cover different aspects.
The first group, is about following in a local sense. Some of the verbs are very literal…
- Ich bin meinem Pferd nachgelaufen.
- I followed my horse.
- Geh schon mal vor, ich komme gleich nach. (nachkommen)
- Go ahead, I’ll come after you right away.
But there are also some that use the idea figuratively.
- Maria weint Thomas keine Träne nach. (nachweinen)
- Maria sheds no tear over Thomas.
- Maria cries no tear after Thomas.(lit.)
- Ich bin sehr nachtragend.
- I usually hold a grudge for quite long./ I am very resentful (although this is too strong, I feel like)
(mostly used in that form)
In these examples, there is no actual following taking place but this notion of going behind someone is pretty strong. I mean, just picture it… you forget the birthday of your partner and now he or she is carrying this after you for weeks :).
Now, the second group of nach-verbs revolves around the idea of a 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.
- Wenn meine Freundin kocht, muss ich immer nachsalzen.
… , I always have to after-salt. (lit.)
- When my girlfriend is cooking I always have to add more salt.
- Ich habe 4 meiner coolsten “Magic The Gathering“-Karten verloren. Mein Deck ist jetzt total schwach. Ich muss die unbedingt nachkaufen.
- I lost 4 of my coolest Magic The Gathering cards. My deck is all weak now. I totally have to buy them again.
- Das Feuer geht aus. Leg’ mal ein bisschen Holz nach.
- The fire’s going out. Put on a little more wood.
- Ganz genau weiß ich das nicht mehr. Da müsste ich noch mal nachlesen.
- I don’t remember exactly. I would have to read that up again.
And also kind of in this group is the very important verb nachgucken which means to look up or to check.
- Ich muss mal im Wörterbuch nachgucken.
- I have to check in a dictionary.
It doesn’t mean that we’ve looked up the stuff before, but if we take it as a 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 (separate article about nachdenken, link below :)
Now, so we had a local following and a notion of follow up.
The third big group is about following in the sense of following a model. The most iconic example is of course nachmachen
- Ich mach vor, du machst mich einfach nach, ok?
- I’ll show you and you just imitate me, okay?
- Maria kann total gut Miley Cyrus nachmachen.
- Maria can do/imitate Miley Cyrus really well.
But you can also use verbs that are a bit more specific than machen.
- Viel Spaß beim Nachkochen.
- Have fun cooking.
(TV chef after the show)
- Der Papagei spricht mir alles nach.
- The parrot repeats everything I say.
So those were the three big groups, and I think with the idea of following in mind, all the meanings we saw make a lot of sense.
Now, there are a few verbs that don’t really fit into these groups and for which I have a hard time seeing a connection.
Like is nachlassen which has like 25 different translations in a dictionary but the core theme of them is some notion of losing intensity.
- Der Regen lässt nach.
- The rain is easing up.
- Der kleine Nick hat in der Schule sehr nachgelassen.
- Little Nick’s performance in school has dropped significantly.
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 another common “weird” one is nachgeben which is to cede or to give in.
- Der Klügere gibt nach.
- The wiser head gives 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.
But hey, I don’t know about you, but I’m actually getting a bit tired now and my concentration lässt rapidly nach.
So I think we’ll call it a day here.
Yes, there are many more words with nach out there, but I think with what you’ve learned about the core idea of toward and following, you can make sense of them yourself. And if not, comment section is all yours :).
As usual, if you want to check how much you remember, recap a bit and add some more words, you can take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
And of course if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.
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- Question 1 of 11
Which of the following is NOT a translation for nach?
- Question 2 of 11
What’s the common theme that connects all the uses of nach?
- Question 3 of 11
In the context of time, nach is always a translation for after. Or is it?!
- Question 4 of 11
Which of the following destinations would NOT be expressed with nach? (multiple answers)
- Question 5 of 11
Which preposition do the following verbs need in German:
- to search for
- to smell like
- to ask for
- Question 6 of 11
Let’s double check :).
Match the nach with the right English translation.
- according to/in
- Mein Schweiß riecht nach Rosen.
- Ich komme nach der Arbeit zu dir.
- Maria fragt nach dem Weg.
- Meiner Meinung nach ist Bier besser als Wein.
- Ich fahre nach Berlin.
- Question 7 of 11
What’s the German counterpart for “in my opinion“?
- Question 8 of 11
Which of the following is NOT one of the themes of “nach” as a prefix?
- Question 9 of 11
Match the verbs with their translations.
- to check (for information)
- to immitate
- to give in
- to repeat after someone
- to ease of, to weaken
- to refill
- Question 10 of 11
Of course we didn’t cover ALL words in the post, so time for some informed guessing :)
Match the words with their translations.
- the dessert
- the descendent
- the family name
- in retrospect
- the afternoon
- der Nachtisch
- der Nachfahre
- der Nachname
- im Nachhinein
- der Nachmittag
- Question 11 of 11
And finally… what’s the plural of “nach“?