The Prefix er- Explained – Part 2

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

er-

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 “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 “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 er-verbs

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.

*** vocab ***

Usually, there’s a list of vocabulary here, but I won’ tput that up manually anymore. And before you go like “Booooooh” let me tell you … it’ll be much cooler.
Because the list will actually be created from my dictionary database, so it’ll be more comprehensive and more interactive. Just need to finish the layout and functions … :)

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Nietzsche
Nietzsche
1 year ago

this was a really helpful and an informative post. Danke schön

Desdra
Desdra
1 year ago

What is the difference between keine Ursache and kein problem? I have always used kein problem but does keine Ursache have a subtle difference in meaning?

Ulrich_Gao
Ulrich_Gao
1 year ago

Hallo Emanuel, mir ist dieser Aufsatz ganz hilfreich. Aber kannst du mir erklären, wie man “Urteil und erteilen” verstehen kann. Leider kann ich dies mit dem “aus,empor” Gefühl nicht gut nachvollziehe. Dafür danke ich dir im Voraus und schöne Laune. :)

Ulrich_Gao
Ulrich_Gao
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Ach so, Vielen Dank! :-)

Zuckerbaby
Zuckerbaby
1 year ago

Ich habe neulich “Intuitive Vocabulary: German” von Azzan Yadin-Israel gekauft. Wirklich faszinierend. Danke für den Vorschlag.

jill
jill
1 year ago

Emanuel, such a fun post. Since you mention mind yoga: the Sanskrit word uddhiyana comes from the same Indo-European root *uidh-” that you mention here. the term refers the action of sucking your abdomen IN and UP during yoga breathing exercise … or when you go to the beach in a bikini. I love all these er-words! can you comment on ertragen? Vielen Dank!

Sinan
Sinan
1 year ago

Ich habe vor einigen Tagen eine E-Mail gesendet, um Unterstützung bei der Mitgliedschaft zu erhalten. Innerhalb weniger Tage haben sie mir sofort geantwortet und den Mitgliedsbeitrag übernommen. Vielen Dank dafür. Ich bin jetzt sehr glücklich. :)

petersonmj
petersonmj
1 year ago

Sehr interessant! So wie kommt erwischen (to catch e.g. a train) von er + wischen (to wipe)?

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago

I don´t know if anyone already said this, but the epicness that “er” lends to german verbs reminds me of some English examples with the prefix “a”,
“awaken” (which is grander than wake up)
“make alight” (which is grander than set on fire), etc

Zuckerbaby
Zuckerbaby
1 year ago

I see that what I posted is not here. I’ve been a member for almost a year, and I just received an email that says that I am not, so …?

Pia
Pia
1 year ago

Somehow I missed Part 1 but both articles are fantastic. I love learning the backgrounds to these horrible pesky little prefixes. They are almost as bad as prepositions. Hopefully, with your help they may stick in my brain better. The article has me wondering erlauben and to allow are phonetically similar, is this a coincidence? Why do we, as English speakers pronounce “allow” like we do? Oh, that’s right, English is stupid.
Also, only half of the world is grey and cold. Just saying.

Zuckerbaby
Zuckerbaby
1 year ago

Ich habe das Buch “Intuitive Vocabulary” von Azlan Radien-Israel gekauft. Es ist genau das was ich lesen mag. Danke für den Vorschlag.
As to your “… not too big OF a step …”: deep-six the preposition, which has no place here. Not too big a step is a bit of inversion of word order I suppose, and even if half of the world puts the preposition into the phrase, it has no function whatsoever.

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I wouldn’t call it “dead wrong.” But yeah, the “of” is really just a rhythm prop in spoken English – maybe only AE? Not sure. At any rate, it just helps you create a little triplet: “not too big-of-a step,” dum dum dumpity dum

DaveJeigh
DaveJeigh
1 year ago

Emanuel, I really love your teaching and these articles. They keep inspiring me to continue to improve my German – which has the by product of also helping me understand better my native tongue – English. Love the humor, but also the intellectual curiosity about the etymology. And, finally, I appreciate the various tactics used to help us learn, including the interactive quiz at the end. I will steal some of these ideas for content I need to build to help train/evolve my colleagues in consulting skills. I’m an American living in Switzerland, working for a huge German company (that has nothing to do with sailors) – and just love the work I do and want to continue to learn and improve.

chowb01
chowb01
1 year ago

Hilf mal, bitte! Super Artikeln über ‘er-‘, aber.. ‘Erschöpfen’ und die ‘Erschöpfung’ sind ganz unterschiedlich, ne? Erschöpfung wie “Creation” sollt ein ‘Ur’ verdienen! Und schöpfen heisst einfach “a scoop/ladle”? Mir fehlt irgendwie ein Verhältnis, glaub’ich..

pmccann
pmccann
1 year ago
Reply to  chowb01

Is it possible that you’re confusing “Erschöpfung” with “Erschaffung”? (Nach der Erschaffung des Mannes hat Gott gesagt: “Das kann ich besser!”)

(Desperately hoping that the creation of man is sufficiently “grand” to work with “Erschaffung” here, despite noticing that the first sentence of the German Bible uses the more prosaic “schuf”!)

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  pmccann

I can say that in my (frommen) circles, “Erschaffung” / “erschaffen” definitely shows up in that kind of context, certainly including the creation of man and woman.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago

Now that I think about it, “Urlaub machen” has a nice rhythm to it. Trying to say “urlauben” reminds me of the poem for learning the different metric feet in poetry. I always hated the line where you have to emphasize every syllable (“slow spondee stalks”).

I knew about “schöpfen” in the sense of create, but I didn’t know about scooping water. Erschöpft makes a lot more sense that way. Not so different than drained.

Is it new for the dictionary to show a list of related words when you click into a word? Maybe I just didn’t notice it before, but either way, neat feature. That plus the “based on” section really gives you a lot to work with.

Elizabeth K Hilprecht
Elizabeth K Hilprecht
1 year ago

I get confused between erziehen and the verb for “to move.”

Guillermo
Guillermo
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Even when you turn 35 and finally move out of your parents’?

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Dann bist du endlich mal auserzogen

Ahmad Mazaheri
Ahmad Mazaheri
1 year ago

Hallo lieber Emanuel ,
Ich wünsche dir und allen mitdeutschlehrnern hier, eines schönen gesunden Jahr 2021 .
Es ist eine Freude dich nochmal lesen . Ich habe den Quiz gut geschaft . Bald
Bis bald

Vorlaufer
Vorlaufer
1 year ago

Very good. I missed your articles.

Jake
Jake
1 year ago

Hella confusing? Am I back in the Bay Area? Ich dachte, ich müsste das nicht mehr über mich ergehen lassen. ;-)

Elsa
Elsa
1 year ago

Hallo,

I’m back! (and I’ll be starting to learn German again as of… now! and I’m going back to my classes with my teacher this Saturday!!!)

I’d like to wish you and all our friends here on this blog a 2021 that’s the polar opposite of 2020… and since 2020 started well and then turned into a big pile of c**p, my wish is still theoretically possible, as 2021 hasn’t had a good start, so let’s hope for a turn for the best!

And now it’s time for good ol’ typos:

er- is actually shot ge- (er- has actually shot ge- )
great grandmother (greatgrandmother); I know it’s just a little hyphen but it makes all the difference in the sense that a “great grandmother” is a grandmother who’s actually great ;)
stonewash is just one word
But what’s time even mean anymore? (But what does time even mean anymore?); good question though, wish I knew the answer…

I did great in the quiz and I love the new feature where you get the answer to each question straight away :)

Bis bald!

Dawson
Dawson
1 year ago
Reply to  Elsa

I actually would disagree with that last correction. “What’s” is a perfectly fine contraction for “what does…”

However I did notice another possible error in:

“Effekte, Explosionen und ein paar Stars ergeben noch keinen guten Film.
Effects, explosions and a few starts don’t yield/make a good movie.”

My guess is in the english translation you meant “a few stars” not “starts”?

Anyway thanks for the lesson, I think it’ll definitely help us make sense of more German words :)

Pia
Pia
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I thought it may be written with a space between the apostrophe. i.e. What ‘s he want? But now I am not sure myself….

pmccann
pmccann
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Yep, “what’s he want?” sounds perfectly natural to this fifty-something native speaker of English. Particularly when it’s the “he” that’s emphasised: “what’s he want?”

peterlobl
peterlobl
1 year ago

Always liked the prefix “Ur-“.. makes me think of the ancient city, perhaps the oldest? it’s gotta be related somehow, oder?
Can’t be too far from the town of “ummm-…”

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  peterlobl

I had this question at some point and if I remember right, the city was called Urim in Sumerian, which is apparently an isolated language. I think there used to be a theory that it was an Indo-European language, but that didn’t work out, so there probably isn’t any connection. But if nothing else, the idea of “old, cradle of civilization” helped me remember the meaning of ur-.

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ur

Helps to be bibelfest – Abra(ha)m started off in “Ur of the Chaldeans” in Genesis 11, although I think there’s been at least some debate as to whether the same Ur is meant. But yeah, that’s a long-standing donkey-bridge for me. :)

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Goals for 2021: use comment section to get Emanuel at least bibelflüssig