Thinking about Non-Separable Prefixes

Cartoon about Reaching fluency in GermanHello everyone,

and welcome to the third and final part of our general look at prefix verbs.
In part one (which you can find here) we found out that the concept of adding a syllable to the beginning of a verb goes all the way back to Indo-European and we’ve learned that the grand theme of prefixes across most European languages is adding a sense of goal or destination.
In the second part (which you can find here), we then talked about the infamous German separable prefix verbs and learned about their close relations to English phrasal verbs.
And today, we’ll focus on

Non-Separable Prefixes

In part two, we actually already mentioned a few non-separable prefix verbs like understand, overcome or bypass, where the prefix is basically a preopistion that got stuck to the verb.
But unless you’re a complete beginner in German, you’ll know that there’s another kind of prefixes, which we could call pure prefixes. I’m talking of course about ver- and be- and the like; the ones that are not a word on their own.
That’s where we’ll start our journey today.
And just to make sure… it’s really a journey. Because as usual in this series, it’s meant as a nice little stroll through the fascinating world of language in general. We’ll get off the path here and there and enjoy the (in)sights.
It’s not a straight to the point practical prefix survival guide. Just felt like mentioning that so you don’t have wrong expectations :).
Anyway, so let’s start our journey with the German “pure prefixes” and their big secret, which is…

… hold on… let me put in a headline real quick.

German Inseparable Prefixes

German inseparable prefixes actually were words on their own once.
Yeah, many of you probably suspected this :).
Those prefixes were words, too, but generations of speakers have washed over them like water over a rock and smoothed them out.
That’s a natural process in language.
You see, speaking is actually quite complex and exhausting. We have all felt it when drunk or while trying to say something in a foreign language. The amount of muscle coordination in mouth and throat is pretty insane actually. We’re really really trained in out mother tongue, but still we try to make it as efficient as possible and whenever we can get away with halfassing it we’ll do it.
This happens in every language, but it’s especially strong in languages that have a strong difference between stressed and unstressed syllables.
Each word has a “main” syllable that carries the main stress. This emphasis can be achieved by pitch, loudness or length or a combination of them.
And what matters is that the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables, especially within a word, is pretty strong in German and English. Much stronger than in Spanish or Italian for instance.
I don’t have any data on this but my guess would be that the stressed syllables account for like two thirds of the recognition with context pitching in another 10-15%. The unstressed syllables really don’t matter all that much and often their contribution is rhythm.

  • I ate a baNAna.

Go ahead and try to say bunanor instead of banana. As long as the na-part has the main emphasis, you will most likely be understood.
And because in languages with a strong word accent, the unstressed syllables don’t matter all that much, speakers can save a LOT of effort on those – be it by slight modifications that make them easier to pronounce.
That’s how English got rid of most of the verb and case endings it once had, and we can actually kind of observe the same in German.

  • Ich habe einen Kaffee getrunken. (how it’s spelled)
  • Ich hab’ ein’n Kaffee getrunk’ng. (how I say it)

And now we get right back to non-separable prefixes. If you look at verbs like overcome or understand, you can see that the main emphasis is NOT on the prefix. And thus, it’s exposed to the same “force of lazy” as the endings. And the perfect example in English is the verb to forgive.
It is spelled with an “o”, and if someone enunciates really clearly, it does sound like an “o”, too. But in normal everyday speech it trends more toward this “ə” sound (like in men for example)because that’s just easier to say. For “o” we’d have to get off the couch and actually round our lips, while for “ə” we just have to open our mouth enough to put some more chips inside.
And that’s pretty much how ver-, be-, ent-, zer- and er- came about.
They’ve been fixed prefixes for a looong time and they got smoothed so much that they’re not recognizable anymore.
Here’s a little overview with there non-modified counterparts/origins

  • ver- : vor, für, pro, per
  • ent- : anti, in
  • be-   : bei
  • er-   : ur (which relates to out)
  • zer- : zwei+ur

Old English actually had a few of those, too, but it did away with them, just as it did with most of its endings. English is efficient like that. One of them has survived though:  be-. It’s by far not as common as the German version, but there are plenty of examples to be found, among them several really common ones like behave, begin, behold or become.
Now, looking at these four examples, it’s almost impossible to find a common theme for the prefix or connect it to its origin by. That’s simply because those prefix verbs have been around for a LONG time and the meanings have drifted.
And it’s no different in German. If you look at various verbs for ver- for instance, there seems to be no consistency, no theme to them.
Yet, there is. If you look at the little overview again, you can see that they all carry a directional quality – forth/forward, inward, against/toward, by/around, outward and … well… “in two”-ward.
The key is to understand in what abstract way(s) that this vague directional idea got twisted. Which is what we’ll do in separate articles and in the book I am working on. Because yes, we need to do quite an intense amount of mind yoga for some of the verbs.
But if you think these German prefixes are the pinnacle of twisted and difficult, then you’re wrong.
There’s worse.

Prefixes in Slavic languages

Slavic languages like Russian, Bulgarian or Polish also belong to the Indo-European family, and like all members they do have prefixes.
Russian has 16 to be exact. They’re different from the German ones and they look a bit more divers. There’s na- and po- and iz- and raz- and ob-, for instance. But they’re all non-separable and about 10 of them are  “pure prefixes”, meaning that they’re NOT also a word on their own.
And what do they express?
Well, they fit right in with the grand theme of prefixes. They all lend a sense of direction or goal to the verb and that can be super literal but it can also be super twisted and abstract.
Let’s look at a couple examples, actually. I’m gonna use Bulgarian here, because I know that a little better than Russian. Which isn’t saying much… I mean… I’m really a beginner.
Anyway.. take the noun izhod for example. It’s the word for der Ausgang, the exit. The prefix iz- expresses a notion of outward, leaving and the stem -hod means going. Perfectly literal, makes perfect sense.
The verb izhoshdam however, actually means to assume, to presume. Which makes NO sense to an English speaker. But it might make sense to a German learner because German has ausgehen von.
There’s a figurative point from which you go on your mental adventure, if you will.
Or take kazvam, which means to say.
Combined with the raz-prefix, which expresses the idea of “in various directions“, we get the verb razkazvam, which means to tell a story.
This one doesn’t have a direct German counterpart, but I hope you can see that in essence you’re dealing with the exact same stuff. You have a base verb, modified by a prefix and that modification can be super logical or super twisted.
And it’s actually worse in Slavic languages, because many of them really care about a thing called aspect.
Do you remember the distinction we talked about in part one, between actions that have an inherent end-point and actions that don’t?
Well, aspect is kind of sort of about that. And Slavic verbs often come in pairs.
I just told you that the verb kazvam means to say in Bulgarian. But that’s only half of the pair. The other half is kazha and it depends on what you’re saying.

  • I say something.               – (Az) kazvam neshto.
  • I want to say something. – (Az) iskam da kazha neshto.

The first one is perfective, so it has a built-in end, the second one is imperfective and just refers to the action in general.
If you don’t really understand that, don’t worry. I don’t fully get it either, because German doesn’t care much about aspect.
The reason I brought it up is that Bulgarian and other Slavic languages often use certain prefixes to create these pairs. The perfect example is pravjanapravja which mean to make. And the prefix na- here means… nothing. It’s just a grammar thing that you have to add in certain contexts.
Na- is not the only prefix used that way, so there’s more confusion.
And in other combos, na- CAN actually mean something, which makes for even more confusion.
And there is even more more more confusion because there are verbs like pischa (to write) where the na-version napisvam (which also means to write) is NOT just the perfective counter to pischa, but instead has its own counter  napischaWhich also means to write.


So yeah, in comparison to this German prefixes are actually not that bad.
I’m actually curious how speakers of Slavic languages feel about the German prefix verbs. Do you find them particularly difficult or are they rather familiar, just with different notions. Please leave a comment below, I’d really love to hear your thoughts.
Now, we’ve talked about prefixes in German and also about prefixes in Slavic languages.
What we haven’t talked about yet are prefixes in the other big important branch of the languages of Europe – the languages that are based on Latin. And we don’t have to look at Spanish or French to do that.
We can turn right to English.

Inseparable prefixes in English

We’ve already seen some examples for English prefix verbs like to understand, to overcome or to behave.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
English is at its core a Germanic language. But what’s now England and Wales was once part of the Roman empire. And a thousand years later, it was ruled by French dukes and counts for hundreds of years. And so a lot of its vocabulary is based on Latin. Latin was a HUGE fan of prefix verbs and many of them are an integral part of everyday English.
Here are some examples…

  • induce, produce, conduct, reduce, abduct, obduct, deduce, seduce
  • inject, subject, object, eject, rejectproject
  • insist, desist, assist, persist, exist, consist

There are many more such examples. And it’s not just verbs either.

  • envious, obvious, pervious, previous, devious

Have you ever though of those as prefix versions of one base? I bet, you haven’t.
The reason why prefixes don’t really seem to be a thing in English or Spanish or French is the simple fact that we don’t recognize a base anymore.
You see, in German we have stellen, which has a meaning, and then we see bestellen and verstellen and ausstellen and all the others with all their various meanings and we’re like “What is going on with these verbs and these prefixes… it’s so confusing?”

But that doesn’t happen in English.  ject or duce or sist mean nothing to us and we can’t connect them to anything. And so even if we notice the similarity between subject and project, we don’t think much about it.
But as soon as you know the meaning of the base, you realize that these are EXACTLY like German non-separable prefix verbs. A base verb with a prefix that adds a sense of direction… and then twisted beyond belief.
It’s actually quite fun to do that, so let’s do one example together. We’ll take the base ject.
Ject comes from the Latin verb iacere which meant to throw.
And now let’s see what we can do if we don’t get too hung up on the whole and think of it as placing/put instead:

  • inject    – “place inward” a liquid/substance
  • reject    – “place back” something that’s offered
  • project  – “place forth” an idea
  • object   – “place near” a verb, a beholder
  • subject – “place below” a debate or paper or king

Now you might be like “Dude, these barely make any sense.” but that’s exactly my point.
We have to do just as much mind yoga for those, as we have to do for, say, bestellen, verstellen, anstellen and abstellen because in essence it’s just like Buddha said:

It’s all the same stuff!

And that was kind of the main purpose of this mini-series. I wanted to show you that prefix verbs are more familiar to you than you think. I wanted to show you, that they all work the same, more or less – a base verb  with a directional idea, in all levels of twisted.
And there’s actually a great power in them that you can harness. If you put in the work to build a good, BLURRY idea of the directional quality a prefix has and how it’s being bent, you can create a mental image for many of the meanings you’ll encounter.
Take to reject. If you were to learn English, you could think of someone throwing a present back at someone else.

Often, books and teachers tell you that for many prefix verbs you just have to learn them, because there’s no logic. Or they give you a list of four or five things that a prefix can express. But if you actually put in the time and effort to understand what’s at the core of these four or five things, to understand the directional quality that’s at the core and how it got modified, then you’ll slowly become able to sort of “swim” within prefix verbs with ease.
No, you won’t always be able to guess them and no, not every verb will make sense. But you won’t feel lost and confused.

And that’s pretty much it. This was out little mini series on prefix verbs in general and I really hope you enjoyed our little tour through the languages of Europe. If you’re pumped now, and you want to find out more about German prefixes, you can read one of the articles I’ll link below. Or you wait, till I finish the book about them. This mini series will be part of the introduction (with edits of course) and not only will we discuss all pure prefixes in detail, we’ll also go over like 300 of the most important verbs and words with them and see if there is some logic.
I don’t know how long it’ll take but as you can see here… I am working on it :). I really want this finished, it’s more than time.
Anyway, I really hope you liked this series.  Let me know all your feedback and questions in the comments. Has your perspective on prefixes changed now? Are they a little less intimidating? Can’t wait to read your thoughts.
Have a great week and bis zum nächsten Mal.

further reading:

German Prefixes Explained – “ver-“
German Prefixes Explained – “be-“
German Prefixes Explained – “um-“

German Prepositions Explained – “auf”
German Prepositions Explained – “vor”

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