The Prefix er- Explained – Part 2

Written By: Emanuel Updated: August 11, 2023

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day.
And today, it’s time for the second part of our look at the meaning of the prefix


In the first part, we learned that the core of er- is the broad idea of reaching a goal and it can be about getting something as well as also about reaching a state. We also learned that er- has a bit of an “epic” grand vibe and that er-verbs tend to not bother with mundane day to day grind.
And finally, we found out that er- has actually shot ge- at the yearly Non-Separable Prefixes Christmas dinner. And it wasn’t an accident because to death is also one of the ideas it carries and lends to verbs.
Yeah… if you haven’t read part one, you’re probably hellah confused now :).
So if you want to read it, you can find it here:

The Prefix “er-” Explained – Part  1

So what are we going to do today?
I mean… we know the general theme and we’ve seen how it expresses itself in various of the er-verbs.
But what we don’t know yet, though, is where the prefix actually comes from.
That’s what we’ll explore today.
And that’ll not only reveal some surprising connections and help us make sense of the er-verbs that didn’t really fit in so far (like erziehen or ergeben).  It’ll actually offer us a new perspective entirely, and we’ll see what er- REALLY is and how it’s kind of a metaphor for life itself.
So are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s go.

The origin of the prefix “er-“

And we’ll start our journey with the Indo-European root *uidh-. The idea of this root is  “outward, upward” and I think many of you have already guessed that it’s the origin of English out as well as German aus.
But those are just the most obvious offsprings.
The Germanic languages for a long time had plenty of variations and one that made it into modern German is the prefix ur-. It’s not what typically comes to mind, when we think of prefixes, but there’s actually a good lot of really nice words with it, that all revolve around outward in a sense of origin.
Like for instance der Urknall. A Knall is a bang and der Urknall is the big bang. The one that started it all. Or how about der Urmensch, which is a generic term of prehistoric human. So the humans that “started it all”. Oh, and for those who are more into the Bible version of creation, there’s the word die Ursünde. Which translates to original sin. The sin that “started it all”.
Now, not all ur-words have such an epic scale or course.
The Uroma (which you have to read with a STOP after Ur-) is not the absolute first grandmother ever. It’s “just” a great-grandmother, one level closer to the “origin“.
And with the noun die Ursache there isn’t even age involved because it simply means cause; in the sense of “thing that caused something“.

  • “Danke!”
    “Keine Ursache.”
  • “Thanks.”
    “No need./Not for that.”
    (lit.: “No cause.” you’re telling the person there’s nothing that would cause a “thank you”)

  • Thomas hat mit seinem Elektro-Roller fast einen Unfall verursacht.
  • Thomas almost caused an accident with his electric scooter.

The sense of originating is part of most of the ur-words though and I’ll add more of them to my epic dictionary, so you can keep digging.
But we’re actually here for er- today. And I am pretty sure most of you have at least a hunch as to why we spent so much time with ur-.
It’s because ur- and er- used to be the same thing.

Er- is basically the unstressed, washed out version of ur- . You see, in Germanic languages there tends to be a big differential between stressed syllables and unstressed syllables. So the stressed ones really stand out, while the not stressed ones get little attention and effort – particularly when they’re on the edges of a word. . So over time, they just kind of atrophy and either they disappear completely, like many English verb endings. Or they at least trend toward the laziest sounds we can make.
One of which is that weird “e” you get when you just open your mouth a little and make a sound. I know there’s an IPA symbol, but I don’t really care to search for it. If you know it, you know it and if you don’t it won’t help you at all. In English, a good example is the “e” in the. And in German it’s the in all the non-separable prefixes… ver, ent, ge, zer, beThey all used to be “more colorful” back in the day, but für- is harder to pronounce than ver- (as you all know ;) ). And so time and lazy Germanic speakers have stonewashed them because non-separable prefixes are all NOT stressed.
The ur- in the nouns I mentioned, however, ur- just happened to carry the main emphasis itself, so its colorful vowel was preserved.
And there’s actually the perfect showcase for this: the noun der Urlaub and the verb erlauben.
Erlauben is the German word for allow, der Urlaub means vacation. Seems like a bit of a stretch, but originally, Urlaub was simply the noun for the verb and had the general sense of permission. Today, that word is die Erlaubnis and Urlaub has shifted toward a specific permission… the permission to not come to work. Makes a whole lot of sense, once you know it.
And for these words, you can really hear the difference between the unstressed er- and the stressed ur-

  • UR-laub
  • er-LAU-ben

And when I try to say “urlauben” for the verb that’s actually kind of hard. I mean… not hard, but I can feel the effort :).

Anyway, er- and ur- are the same, so that means that the ultimate core idea of er- is a notion of outward , upward  with a vibe of emerging, creating, bringing out into the world.

The real core of the Prefix “er-“

Now you’re probably feeling a bit confused. Now I’m saying that the core idea is about “out, emerging” but last time I said the core idea was reaching a goal. And that actually worked pretty well.
So does that mean that the prefix has two core ideas?
Well, ultimately that’s up to you how you want to think of it. The way I see it, is that “out, emerging” is the real core and the notion of reaching a goal is just a shift in perspective.
You see, we can think of reaching a goal as a change from “not being there” to “being there”, right? And that’s also exactly what “out, emerging” is.
Thinking of er- in terms of “reaching a goal” is very practical and we can quickly make sense of a lot of er-verbs.
But the real core is what we’ve learned today, and it’s also very useful.
Thanks to it, we now know WHY er-verbs tend to have this grand, epic vibe that I kept mentioning in part one. It’s because there is often an “echo” of creation in them.
Also, thinking of er- in terms of “outward” makes it REALLY easy to tie in the er-verbs that are about death. And I don’t mean the philosophical stuff  about how every beginning has an end, and in every end, there’s a new beginning.
No, we can just think of erfrieren for instance and a grand “freezing out of this world”.
And thinking of er- as a more or less epic upward, outward is also the missing piece that’ll help us make sense of some really common er-verbs we wouldn’t really fit in well with the idea of reaching a goal.
I mean… it kind of works, but it’s a bit like an awkward date…
“Look… this wine is vegan.”
“OMG, so stupid, right? These veganistas are outta contr…”
“I’m vegan, actually.”
“Oh, I… that’s awesome. I mean, I really wish I could be a vegan, but I can’t because I need to build muscle.”
“Yeah… I can see that.”
Oh boy… that was an awful, awful evening.
Uh… anyways, let’s look at some more er-verbs.

Some more common verbs with “er-“

And the first one that comes to mind when I think about dates is of course erfinden. *cue sad piano
Finden by itself is is to find. And what do we get, if we add a grand notion of emerging, creation to it? The German verb for to invent.

  • Die Einhörner haben eine Zeitmaschine erfunden.
  • The unicorns invented a time machine.
  • Not macht erfinderisch.
  • Necessity is the mother of invention.
    (Lit.: “Emergency/hardship makes inventive.”)

Another really nice one is erziehen. If we take it literally, it means “pull outward” or “upward” and if we add this epic notion of emerging, it makes perfect sense that erziehen is the word for…  raising children.

  • Marias Schwester arbeitet als Erzieherin.
  • Maria’s sister is working as a nursery school teacher.
  • Maria und Thomas streiten viel über Erziehung – und sie haben noch nicht mal ein Kind.
  • Maria and Thomas argue a lot about how to raise children – and they don’t even have a child.
  • Thomas wurde antiautoritär erzogen.
  • Thomas was raised in a laissez-faire way.

Also an absolute must have is ergeben, which taken super literally means “to give out/up”. Mix in a pinch of creation and you get the German verb for the idea of “yielding a result”. And when you combine it with a self reference, it can either mean to  surrender (for people) or to turn out (for occasions).

  • Effekte, Explosionen und ein paar Stars ergeben noch keinen guten Film.
  • Effects, explosions and a few stars don’t yield/make a good movie.
  • Das Einhorn hat sich dem Spähtrupp der Eichhörnchen ergeben.
  • The unicorn surrendered/(yielded) to the reconnaissance party of the squirrels.
  • “Ich habe einen neuen Job!!!”
    “Wie? So schnell?”
    “Ja, hat sich irgendwie so ergeben.”
  • “I have a new job!!!”
    “What? That fast?!”
    “Yeah, it just kind of turned up/happened.”

And of course we also have to mention the noun das Ergebnis, which is the German word for result. The “outgive”, if you will.

  • Thomas kriegt Ausschlag, wenn er das Wort Wahlergebnis hört.
  • Thomas gets acne if he hears the word election results.

Pretty easy, right?
Now, not all are THAT intuitive of course. Take for instance erhalten, which can mean two things:  to receive and to hold up in a sense of maintaining.

  • Hast du meine E-Mail erhalten?
  • Have you received my email?
  • Kleine Geschenke erhalten die Freundschaft. (German saying)
  • Small presents preserve the friendship.

When I first looked at these meanings I was like “Where am I? What happened to my whisky?”
But when I looked at them sober the next morning I was like “Those actually make sense.”
Maintaining something is kind of “holding it up in the open” and receivingwell.. that kind of is about “getting into the state of holding” so it ties in with the theme of reaching a goal.
Honestly, the only er-verb I could think of that I feel like REALLY needs some mind yoga from us is one that we already mentioned … erlauben.
The laub-part is somehow related to lieben and love and so we could think of erlauben as “getting into the state of liking”. Which actually is kind of what it meant a thousand years ago. And from there, it’s not too big of a step to to allow. You ask the cute bartender if you can go behind the bar for your Insta-story and she’s like “No.” but then you flirt her into liking the idea and she allows it.
Oh my cute bartenders are the best… how long has it been that I’ve seen one. Feels like ages. But what does time even mean anymore? What day was yesterday? Was it Thursday? Or November?  And what happened to my whis…
But anyway… so yeah… I am sure there there’s a few er-verbs out there that really don’t make sense with our ideas of er-.
But by and large, I feel like er-verbs are actually surprisingly easy and consistent. At least much more than you’d suspect when you just look up a bunch of them in the dictionary.

Remember the “working” idea of reaching a goal and the underlying idea of “out, up” as well as this vibe of emerging .. they’re not always all at work, of course, but overall those should give you a good handle on most er-verbs.
And I don’t mean that you can know all the meanings just by looking at the word itself. That’s virtually impossible. The meanings of prefix verbs are just too random for that.
What I mean is that you have an idea, a feel of what direction the meaning is gonna go and once you do know it, it’ll intuitively make sense and it’ll be easy to remember and you’ll build a feel for the language more quickly.
That’s the goal, not that you can guess every single verb. And so it also doesn’t matter that you remember every single thing I said in these articles. What matters is that you have an idea of it, even if you can’t really verbalize it.

And speaking of verbalizing… I’m actually gonna stop verbalizing now because we’re done :).
This was our look at the German prefix er- and I really hope that it feels a little more familiar to you now.
As usual, I have a little quiz prepared for you, and in this one we’ll actually focus on going over some of the most common er-verbs again. #retentionintensifies
And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions about er- in general or a specific er-verb just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it, have a great start into the new year and see you next time.

4.8 33 votes
Article Rating

German in your inbox

Sign up to my epic newsletter and get notified whenever I post something new :)
(roughly once per week)

No Spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.