The German Prefix “er-” explained

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German word of the Day. And today, we’ll do something really special, because today, we’ll have a look at the meaning of the non-separable prefix

er-

 

And out of all prefixes, er- is definitely the most distinguished one.
Like… imagine the non-separable prefixes meet for Christmas dinner, in this old family mansion. Be- is the nerdy hacker type, with a light form of Asperger’s. Ent- is kind of the emo teen who doesn’t eat anything but the salad and only opens their mouth to challenge or better yet shatter one of the others’ views on something.
Ver- is the young urban professional, involved in a lot of projects and with the millennial penchant for sarcasm and nihilism. And zer-… well zer- is the black sheep of the family who shows up drunk, provokes fights and interrupts interesting conversations about wine or philosophy. The kind of conversations er- would be leading.
Er-, who holds several Master’s degrees in philosophy, literature and anthropology, is friendly, intelligent, hard-working and a true wine connoisseur. And so no one suspected er- when they found the dead body of ge- at midnight in the hallway. Little did they know that there wa….
“Uhm… Emanuel, is that what your explanation is gonna look like? Because if so, then I’ll go check out some othe…”
Nah, don’t worry. I just liked the image and wanted to give you a “feel” for the prefixes.
But of course we’ll do a real explanation.
So are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s go.

er- is definitely one of the harder ones to grasp.If we were to collect the most common er-verbs and their translations we’d get a Pollock painting of meanings – wild splashes of meaning-paint without any order to them. What we need to do is to step further away. Because then we’ll see that Pollock’s seemingly wild splashes of color are ACTUALLY in a museum, and we understand that they’re core idea is actually: art.
Okay, that comparison is a bit silly. But there is some truth to it. The individual translations of er-verbs look random. But when we step away we can start that they zigzag around a grander theme.
And that theme is… drumroll…

“reaching an endpoint”

Going for a destination or goal AND reaching it. And in fact, there’s one er-verb that actually embodies that core theme – erreichen.

Erreichen is the er-version of reichen, which is the German brother of to reach. It’s quite an interesting family, and we’ve talked about it in a separate article, so I’ll leave the link below if you’re interested.
What matters today is that erreichen means to reach, but while reaching can also be about the attempt to reach something, erreichen really means that you reach it.
Or in other words: reaching for the stars would NOT be erreichen, actually reaching them would be.

This sense of reaching a goal is what er- adds to verbs. It shifts them from”doing the activity” to “reaching a goal by doing the activity“. It adds success to process, if you will.
Think of erreichen as the generic version. And the various er-verbs basically just specify HOW you reach a goal. And what that goal is, of course.
One possible goal of an activity is the goal of getting stuff.
And that’s a really great one to start with…

The Goal of Getting Stuff

Adding er- to a verb can change it from doing the activity, to getting something through doing the activity. And, because er- has a slight penchant for grandeur, there’s usually an implication of long or intense effort.
What makes this really great for learners is that this idea is actually one where er- is what linguists would call highly productive.
That means that the idea is so clearly fleshed out and ingrained to a native speaker’s brain, that you can make up new words that’ll immediately feel natural to other native speakers.
Case in point: ertwittern. The verb twittern, which as you might guess is the German version of to tweet, has been around no longer than the company Twitter. And yet, everyone who knows Twitter will immediately understand, or I should say “feel”, that ertwittern means getting something through a process of sending tweets.

That is an actual newspaper headline from 2009, 3 years after the company was founded. And they didn’t even use quotes for it. That’s how idiomatic it feels.
Here’s a couple more examples…

Those two are also “made up”. I’m sure someone somewhere has used them before,  and every German speaker will immediately understand them, but you won’t find them in a dictionary.
But inventing words only works because there are many established er-verbs out there that follow the same principle.

Those are pretty clear, I think, but of course not all examples are as straightforward. Erkaufen for instance. Just like kaufen it means to buy, and kaufen by itself already implies “getting something”. So here, the er- can’t really add any meaning. What it does add, though, is this vibe of grandeur that I mentioned earlier. Kaufen is for normal buying with money. Erkaufen is for the more metaphorical kaufen, and it fits well for epic scenarios … like the war for the magical forest for instance.

Another less strict example is erwarten which literally should mean “get something through waiting”, but which can mean both to await and to expect. And while there is definitely waiting involved in expectations, there is not guarantee that we actually get it. So the er- is taking some “liberty” here.

And then, there are of course examples that have had one of those infamous “meaning shifts” that obscure the underlying logic.
Like erfahren for example.
Taken literally, it means “to get through driving”. And indeed, cyclists at the Tour de France can “erfahren” themselves a win.
But the normal meaning is a different one. Fahren is a brother of to fare and back a few hundred years, it had a more general sense of travelling. And erfahren would just mean “getting/reaching something by travelling“.
One of the things you get through travelling, besides one bazillion of photos, are… experiences.
And that’s exactly what erfahren focused on. Well, actually, the verb itself has shifted more toward the idea of learning in the sense of hearing some new information. But the related words like still focused on experience.

And while we’re at it, let’s also mention erleben and das Erlebnis which also mean experience and which come from the idea of “getting something through living”.

Cool.
Now of course we could go through more examples, but I actually think that we’re pretty comfy with this idea now. And getting stuff really isn’t all that fulfilling a goal after a while.
So let’s move on to a “higher” or “deeper” kind of goal – the goal of reaching a state.

The Goal of Reaching a State

The idea is pretty clear, I think and so we’ll start right with one most important verbs for German learners… the verb erklären. Which of course means to explain.

I don’t think we need an Erklärung (explanation) here. “getting into a state of being clear” – that’s exactly what explaining is all about.  And we can also see a bit of this er-“grandeur” here. German also has the verb klären but klären is quite pragmatic. There’s a misunderstanding or a doubt and klären clears that up. Like… I’m confused as to who needs to clean the bathroom today.
Erklären is more cerebral and goes for this moment of insight. Like… I’m confused as to why we need to clean the bathroom today.

Meh, not sure if it’s clear what I mean, actually. But I have a much better example: the pair aufwachen and erwachen. Both options are about getting into the state of being awake, but only aufwachen is a good fit for the waking up we do every day, with the grumpiness and the stiffness, bad breath and morning face. That’s not noble enough for erwachen.  That one are for more poetic awakening. Like nature after a long winter. Or a princess after a long sleep.

I guess it’s the same in English with to wake up and to awaken, by the way. And speaking of awakening… that’s a cue for another nice example: erleuchten and beleuchten.
Leuchten, which is related to the English word light, is about emitting light and erleuchten and beleuchten are both about “making something lit/bright”. But because of this “grand” or “epic” vibe of er- it doesn’t fit for all contexts.
Technically, the light in our fridge does erleuchten the chaos fridge but you wouldn’t say it that way because it sounds a little … too grand. Erleuchten fits well for candles poetically lighting a room or stars lighting the sky.
Or for a thought enlightening someone.

Not all verbs are THAT epic, of course. Erhöhen and erwärmen for example mean what they look like: to heat up and to make higher. And then there are some that are a little more on the abstract side. Like erkennen for example, which means to recognize.

Actually, it’s not THAT twisted. Recognizing something is to get into the state of knowing what it is.
And overall, I’d say verbs in this group are easy to make sense of.
You have to be somewhat careful though, when it comes to guessing.
Because this idea of er- is NOT productive anymore.
Erschönen would make perfect sense as “to make beautiful”. But it just doesn’t FEEL right to a native speaker, and might not even understand it.
The pool of verbs for this idea is “fixed” and they have their fixed assigned meanings, and often there’s a tiny twist that makes perfect sense in context but that’s hard to guess from the outside.
Like… while erwärmen does mean to heat up, erkälten does NOT mean to cool down, but instead to catch a cold.

And if a price is to high for us and we were to erniedrigen it, it would sound something like this:

“Price! You’re too high you loser!! Pull down your pants!”
“But… but… here, in front of everybody?!?!?”
“Yes, down with them. And then jump up and down.”

Because erniedrigen is not about literally lowering something, but about the figurative version of making someone small.
So as I said, it’s usually not a problem to get the meaning when you see it in context, but don’t try to invent er-verbs that are about reaching a state. It’s most likely not gonna work.
All right.
Now… again, we could go over more example, but I think you got an idea of this use of er-, and we still have a lot to explore.
There’s actually a third type of goal we need to mention. A final one.

Final Destination

A rather dark goal, actually.
Because do you remember the mystery from the beginning? The murder of ge- at the traditional Christmas dinner of the prefixes. Everyone suspected zer- but ent- finally discovered who really did it… it was er-.

“How could you do that???” the other prefixes asked, shocked by the reveal.
But er- replied with a stoic face “It’s in my nature.”
The other prefixes looked baffled. But it is true.The idea of death is indeed part of the core of er- and there are many er-verbs that are either about dying or killing.

  • erschlagen (beat to death)
  • erstechen (stab to death)
  • erdrücken (squeeze to death)
  • ertrinken (drown by yourself)
  • ersticken (suffocate by yourself)
  • erfrieren (freeze to death)

The list goes on.
And it makes perfect sense, because death is in some way a destination.
Schießen by itself just is to shoot, erschießen is shoot “all the way”. And frieren is just to be freezing. Erfrieren is to freeze “all the way”. This vibe of “reaching the goal” is still the same. It just seems different because it’s a different goal this time.
Actually, if you think about it, the ideas of  er- are kind of a metaphor for life. While we move toward the final destination, we get stuff and we reach states and and maybe we even get enlightened for a bit.
Well, okay… what’s missing is the idea of beginning, which er- doesn’t express.
Or does it? Have we really seen all there is to see?
And where does it er- itself actually come from? How did it get its idea.
And also … what about words like erfinden or ergeben or der Erfolg that don’t really fit in with what we’ve learned today.

All that is what we’ll talk about in part two :).
Yeah, boohoo. I know. But come on, everything is a mini-series these days.
And for today, we’ve really done enough :).
As usual, I have whipped up a little quiz for recap, but I didn’t really know what to ask, so I kept it brief.
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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