Word of the Day – “versprechen”

versprechenHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will have a look at the meaning of


And I am glad that we already have a call here because that gives me the chance to sprechen to someone right away… Charles from Edinburgh, how are you today?
„Hello Emanuel, I’m fine thank you…“
What can I do for you Charles?
„Don’t get me wrong, this show is really great and I do enjoy it most of the time… but I have to admit that I’d be lying if I said that today’s word sounds particularly intriguing.“
Uh… what do you mean exactly?
Well… the thing is… I think most of us know what it means.“
Ooooohhhhhhhh… do you?
„Yes, I think we do…“ 
Oh, very well then, if you know so much it certainly ain’t nooooooo problem for you to translate THIS: 

  • Ich spreche nicht gut Deutsch?

„As a matter of fact, it ”ain’t” no problem indeed. I said it a lot when I was in Hamburg. I means: I don’t speak German very well.“
… (muffled) I bet you don’t…
„Hey I heard that, no reason to be mean.“
I know I apologize… it’s just… what am I going to do now? Just pick a different word? All my research and preparation would be for nothing
„You could just slap a prefix at it, maybe…“
Hey, that is actually not a bad idea… let me think… how about ver?
“Sounds good….”
Cool….so… err… ladies and gentlemen, our Word of the Day

versprechen (pron.:  fair shpra shan)

We’ve already established that sprechen means to speak. It can also mean to talk at times but it is not worth it to look at the differences there. As always there are all kinds of words that come from the verb like for example die Sprache (the language), das Sprichwort (the idiom), der Spruch (the saying) and the word sprich which is something like that is orthat is to say or hence. Sprich is not the most common word ever, but I do like sprich a lot and I use it quite a bit and coming from a language student I am sure it is would be a real jaw dropper… so here is an example.

  • Ich habe kein Bargeld mehr, sprich, ich müsste mal zur Bank.
  • I am out of cash, so I’d need to go to a bank.

The ge-form is gesprochen and it used haben as a Hillary-verb…. I mean auxiliary.

  • Ich habe mit meinem Bruder gesprochen.
  • I spoke with my brother.

But now let’s get to versprechen. Right off the bat…versprechen has 2 meanings … to promise and to make a slip of the tongue or to misspeak. Hmmm… that is interesting… the same word for to promise and to misspeak.  There is some irony in that, I have to say.
Anyways, the combination does seem rather random but in fact it is not.
You see, there are basically 2 – 3 concepts or ideas ver can mean and versprechen is a good example for a word where 2 meanings coexist.

versprechen – to promise

This is really a straight forward translation. The overlap in meaning is as large as can be and the grammatical structure for both words identical, too.

  • Ich verspreche dir ein Pony.
  • I promise you a pony.
  • Ich habe dir versprochen, dass ich dir ein Pony kaufe.
  • I‘ve promised you that I will buy you a pony.
  • „Sorry, aber ich komme heute nicht mit ins Theater.“
    „Aber… aber… du hast es versprochen…“
  • „Sorry but I won’t go to the theater with you tonight.“
    „But … but… you promised

A thing that is a little bit tricky is a promise that you give to yourself. Why?  Because there are 2 ways to read such a phrase. The first one is the standard one.

  • Ich habe mir versprochen nie wieder zu rauchen.
  • I promised myself never to smoke again.

This is a literal promise being made.
Now, when you make a promise you’re essentially raising hope or expectations. This view helps to understand the second notion of self-promises.

  • Ich verspreche mir viel von der neuen Sekretärin.
  • I promise myself a lot from the new secretary (lit.)
  • I have high hopes for the new secretary.
  • Ich habe mir nicht viel von dem Film versprochen.
  • I didn’t promise myself much from that movie.
  • I didn’t expect much of that movie.

The structure for this versprechen… the expecting-one if you will… is always involving a mir, dir or sich and a von.

As for related words we have das Versprechen which is the promise.

  • Ich habe dir ein Versprechen gegeben.
  • I made you a promise.

As you can see, promises are given rather than made in German. But I’d say we prefer to use the verb most of the time anyway.

  • I make no promises.
  • Ich kann/will nichts versprechen. (I can’t / don’t want to promise anything. Lit.)

Another word worth knowing in German is promising. But just promising is not enough. Germans are apparently hard to impress so something promising has to be promising a lot in German to be promising… wait, without my mind-map this doesn’t make much sense… anyways, the example shall clarify.

  • Das sieht vielversprechend aus.
  • That looks promising.
  • Mark ist ein vielversprechender Fussballer.
  • Mark is an up-and-coming soccer player.

If you just said versprechend in such a context people wouldn’t even understand what you mean.
Alright … oh and just for completion here is an example with promised.

  • Ich bringe dir die versprochenen DVDS mit.
  • I’ll bring along the promised DVDs.

Now, how does ver change to speak into to promise? This is one of 2 or 3 concepts of ver… it kind of adds the notion of for good. Now, be careful not to take this too strict. When I say concept I mean a very very very vague idea. Sure, some prefixes have a rather clear cut meaning… like the English de… once you know what de does you can understand everything pretty much right away…. even this

  • Last night I was so drunk, I de-ate my pizza onto the rug.

A German example for a fixed meaning is miss- but for the most part the prefixes, at least the non separable ones, don’t have such a fleshed out idea. So when I say concept I mean more of a gist that can only be comprehended with intuition. As soon as you start applying logic to it for a number of words, it’ll fall apart. So, bottom line… don’t be to strict.
That said, let’s repeat the 1st concept of ver- : it means something like for good, so there is a notion of definiteness that ver adds to the word.
Sprechen is to speakto promise is to say something so that it is kind of like a contract. Like … you did but say it but you did say it … ( I am so clever)…
It has been said for real, for good. There is no unsaying it without doing some damage. I hope you get what I am going for here. The ver adds a notion of for real or for good to sprechen and  it does make sense that such a word could be used as to promise… at least to me. Now, if you say „Fine, I kind of get it but wouldn’t it be more logical if versagen were to promise?“, then I would say yes… .

verspra.. verpres… versprechen

This is the second concept that ver can add to a word and this one is rather clear cut… it basically adds the notion of wrong. Sprechen is to speak so versprechen is to speak wrong. And that is very close to the actual meaning to make a slip of the tongue.

  • Der Moderator verspricht sich.
  • The host makes a slip of the tongue.
  • Entschulding ich habe mich versprochen.
  • Sorry I misspoke.

You might have noticed in the examples, that this versprechen is self referential. I can’t really tell you why it is that way but without the self reference it will sound like the other versprechen.

  • Ich verspreche 4 mal in einem Satz.
  • I promise 4 times in one sentence
  • Ich verspreche mich 4 mal in einem Satz.
  • I misspoke 4 times in one sentence.

So the self reference is crucial.

  • Ich verspreche mich ..
  • Du versprichst dich
  • Er / sie / es verspricht sich ...

Now, you might remember the abstract meaning of the first versprechen… the one that was kind of like to expect. This was self referential, too but there, we the self reference is an indirect object... to myself. The tongue slip one is using a direct object. Can we mess around with this? Sure.

  • Ich verspreche mir viel…
  • I often promise  a lot to myself.(lit)
  • My hopes are high.
  • Ich verspreche mich viel….
  • I make a lot of slips of the tongue.

Note that these last example were a little contrived and maybe they are not 100 % high German (if you want to read more, check out the comment of Roland). However, I think in conversation both could occur if the context allows for it.
Now, what about the third person? I mean … himself, herself and itself are always sich regardless whether direct or indirect object. Shouldn’t there be a confusion? Well, yes there is.

  • Er verspricht sich viel.

This can mean either of the following things.

  • He often has high hopes.
  • He often misspeaks.

There is NO telling which one it is without context.
Anyways, these situations are rather rare and to be honest, the tongue slip versprechen is not a word you would need everyday. It is just good to know, that the meaning exists.

So… I think we’re pretty much done here. This was our German Word of the Day versprechen. It can mean to promise and, if the promise is made to oneself, it can also mean to expect or to hope. The other, less important meaning is to make a slip of the tongue. Each meaning is a good representative for one of the concepts that ver can add to a verb… one being something like for real or for good and the other being wrong.
If you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a… oh… I just realized we have an awful lot of calls right now… we don’t really have time left but I guess we can squeeze one in… hey you’re live on the show…
„Hi Emanuel, this is Amber from Quebec. Could you please please do a show on ver????”
“That would be like the most helpful thing ever….“
“Wow, I really had no idea that the prefixes were such an issue…
„Ha… I call BS on that …“
Hahaha… ok ok you got me there…
„Hahaha… I totally called you out… come on dude you just gotta do it…“
Hmm .. I don’t know… I’ll have to think about but hey times up for today, Amber thanks a lot for your call and to all of you out there, thanks for listening. I hope you liked it and see you next time.