German Prefixes Explained – “zer”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: March 23, 2022

german-zer-pictureHello everyone,

and welcome to another rendition of German Prefixes Explained. 2 months ago our interdisciplinary team of a journalist, a zoologist, a botanist, a sexist, a camera man, a survival expert and a comic relief packed up their equipment and ventured out into the wild lands where the verbs begin to observe prefixes in their natural habitat – how they live, what they eat, where they come from and what they do other than suck and confuse travelers.
Now, after weeks of strain they are back in civilization. And they did not come empty-handed. They brought with them more 100 hours of exclusive material  (shot entirely in IMAX) on one of Germans prefixes, namely… oh… oh I see we have a call, hold on… Hunter from Green Ridge, Missouri, welcome to the show…
“Hey Emanuel,  I have a question…”
 Sure, go right ahead…
“Why was there a sexist on the team? What purpose did he serve? I mean… what’s next? A Nazi?
Uh… I…
“This show has really reached a new low today, a sexist… come on!”
I knooooooow… we all do. When he showed up for the first prep meeting, we were all like WHAAAT… thing is this: we had asked for a gender expert, you know… for German…
“… yeah that would have made a lot more sense…
Yeah… but those are popular and expansive nowadays so I think some network executive was just like just ‘bah, whatever… a sexist costs one figure less so that’ll have to do it’… so yeah, that’s why … so Hunter, you’re gonna stay with us for the rest of the show or what?
“Sure will :).”
Cool. So without any further ado let’s dive right in… 

The discovery of “zer-“

Ferbruary 23rd:
After a long days hike, we’ve finally arrived in the area that,
according to Dr. Grant ( that is the Zoologist),  looks, as he
so put it, “Prefixy”.
The evening went by setting up a camp site and making plan
for the next day. We’re all really worn out and will go to bed

February, 30th:
After 1 week in the wilderness and still no sign of a prefix.
The team is still motivated and optimistic and we’ll keep
I am still not seeing the reason for Mr. Malcolm being part
of this team considering that he has no related qualification.
This morning, he spent almost an hour trying to explain to
us why Mrs. Ellie Settler (the biologist) and I were as he so
put it “predestined” to do the dishes. In vain. Cleaning is still

February 36th:
We all woke up to a fowl stench wafting over our camp site.
But this stench also lead us to what instantly dispelled all
our doubts – a large pile of feces.
Although were not able to determine which one, we do know
that what we’ve found are definitely prefix-droppings.

March 2nd:
Success. We have finally found one. Next to a little creek,
sitting on some mossy stones there it was… a German prefix.
A zer-. Here’s a quick pencil drawing I made:

  • zer

It didn’t seem to have noticed us behind our bush so we
watched it for a while. It soon got up from the stone and
went over to a sunny spot on the meadow where
a few exceptionally gorgeous flowers grew.  Zer- picked
one up and gazed at it for a while. An adorable image.
Then, it ripped the flower to shreds. ….

And so the team spent the following weeks observing zer and it turns the ripping of the flower was not a weird behavior but rather the normal routine of zer-. Zer- is a non separable prefix and a very destructive one. No matter what the basic … zer- will always add a notion of destruction or at least “apart-ness”to it. And that becomes clear once we look at the family tree…
Zers origins are the old German prefixes zi/za/zu and those, just as the German word for 2 zwei, come from the super-mega-turbo-ancient Indo European root *du̯is which also carried the idea of 2. Also the English word two and the Roman prefixes dis- and de-. Those 2 however have shifted in meaning toward a more general idea of just negating something and the idea of 2 parts is not very visible anymore.
Now, where did the German zer get the r from? Well, it got it from another German prefix… er-. There is another expedition out there at the moment trying to study er– but they haven’t returned yet so I can’t tell you much about it. All I know is that back in the day, er– carried an idea of completion. So… zi was used to add the idea of apart and er was added to express the idea of for real or completely and the combination is zer… yeah, I know, I found that confusing too but the Dr. Stevenson, the linguist of the team, has this great example:

So, almost a millennium ago, they would have the basic verb fallen which is to fall. Well, actually it was more like fellen. So… they had this basic verb fellen and then they would add er– because maybe they  wanted to emphasize the result of the fall instead of the mere fall itself. That gave them erfellen which, I should add, is not a real word nowadays. But anyway, then they wanted to add the idea of apart to this and so they would  add the prefix zi and the result was zi-erfellen. Zi and er then were fused into one word and today we have the German word zerfallen which means to fall apart, decompose, decay and a bunch of similar words.

So… the newly invented zer soon spread and evolved into what is maybe the most consistent of all German prefixes. There is no ambiguity. In essence it always carries the idea of into pieces or apart. And now let’s look what we can do with that.

Conan – the destroyer

We’ll start with the really straight forward examples and the basic verb reißen, Without a prefix it can mean to rip or to tear or wrench.

  • Meine Hose reißt.
  • My pants are getting torn.

Adding zer will seal the deal.

  • Ich zerreisse meine Hose.
  • I tear my pants.

So in the first example maybe it was just one little hole but after zerreissen it would need needle, thread and patience to make my pants wearable again.
Let’s do another one. This time with schlagen which means to punch or to beat.

  • Ich schlage die Flasche.
  • I beat/punch the bottle.

Bad bottle. Empty so fast, are ya’… I will teach you respe.. oh ops, that’s the beer talking :)… now… what will we wind up with when we work with zer … (an alliteration… now it’s  the wine talking)?
Right… we’ll wind up with broken glass.

  • Ich zerschlage die Flasche.
  • I shatter/break the bottle.

Another nice one is zerstören

  • Stört es dich, wenn ich rauche?
  • Does it bother you if I smoke?
  • Bitte nicht stören!
  • Please do not disturb!

So stören alone means to disturb or to bother. Now, continuously being disturbed at work can be somewhat destructive eventually so it is not too far fetched what the zerstören means… to destroy. My first example for this was about how Berlin looked after the war but my adolescent self pushed for a different one, so here you are:

  • Der Furz hat die ganze Stimmung zerstört.
  • The fart destroyed all the atmosphere.

Which, in a way, is true if we think of cows … but I digest, .. uh I mean digrass… digress, yeah digress, that’s what I do. Must focus…
All rightSo far all the basic verbs were kind of destructive in themselves and the zer just added the into pieces- idea.
But it zer also works with other verbs like for instance… reden. Reden alone is to talk so zerreden should be to talk apart, right? And it is… zerreden is what happens to plans in Germany very often – in politics but also in normal life. Imagine you have a cool plan and you’re all hyped up about it. Then, you start talking to friends and coworkers and all you’ll get is a nice… no pun intended… reBUTtal. They are always like “Hmmm… yeah, but kinda unrealistic….” “Hmmm sounds nice in theory but have you considered…”, “Nice idea, but it won’t work because ….”. Okay… it is not always only negative. These are more aaproving comments: “Nice idea, but you will have to modify it….”, “Sounds … uhm…servicable but you should…”. So … everyone talks about it and finds a flaw here and a little problem there and eventually you start to see only problems yourself, or feel discouraged or simply don’t care anymore. Or in politics what seemed to be a great plan ends up as a patch work compromise that no one cares for because people kept talking and talking and talking….talking it into little tiny shreds of the once great idea… and that is zerreden.

  • Das Reformprojekt wurde zerredet.
  • The reform project has been talked to death.

I don’t like the mind-set but I do like the word :). Now the next one is not going to be very useful but it is also quite a nice word because it expresses soooo much with just a prefix…. there is the verb siedeln which means to settle in sense of founding a village our building a house. A pretty positive thing. Well, not with zer, it’s not :). Setting up settlements and infrastructure everywhere without any plan and with no regard for the environment….that is zersiedeln and I do not know if there is a word for that in English.
Anyway… in some occasions zer can even be used for other words than verbs. One example is zerkleinern. Klein means tiny, little or small. Zerkleinern could be translated as make into small pieces. You can for example do it with meat  if you want to make a stew. Oh and speaking of meat:
zer does also work with nouns… Fleisch means meat and flesh and zerfleischen… well a translation could be to maul and if you don’t know that… it’s what the T-Rex does with the lawyer in this one recent Spielberg movie that is called like this one band …”Lincoln Park”… badum tish…
Anyway, so… I hope you got an good idea of the apart-idea that zer always adds to the word… except when it doesn’t of course :)

Conan – the Tamed destroyer

Don’t worry… we won’t have to deal with a whole new meaning here. It is just that zer doesn’t ALWAYS imply into pieces. Sometimes it can also just imply damage or even just apart-ness. One example is zerkratzen. Kratzen  means to scratch.

  • Mein Mückenstich juckt. Ich muss mich die ganze Zeit kratzen.
  • My mosquito bite is itching. I have to scratch myself all the time.

Now what do we do with this:

  • Irgendein Idiot hat meinen neuen Mercedes zerkratzt.

Did someone really scratch my Mercedes to pieces? Wouldn’t that take countless hours of scratching? So.. here the zer only adds the idea of some damage. The car will still drive… it just has a long scratch now.

  • Some idiot scratched my new Mercedes.

A similar example zerbeulen (to dent quite a bit). If you do that with your pot it is still a pot… just with bumps and dents.

And then in some contexts the notion of zer is just the apart-thing. An example is the verb zerstreuen. Streuen has quite a few possible translations (to dust, to disperse, to strew) but just thing of salt. The thing you use to salt your food is called Salzstreuer… now, what about zerstreuen then? It basically means that whatever it is you are dispersing … you dispersing it at various locations so that the particles are really apart after. Wow… that sounds abstract doesn’t it :).  Let’s make our example abstract too then shall we

  • Heute bin ich total zerstreut. Ich kann mich auf nichts konzentrieren.
  • Today I am totally scatterbrained. I can’t concentrate on anything.

My thoughts are really all over the place… not like salt… that is just all over the plate… ha   ha    ha   … (god, I need better jokes)…
Anyway…  when you see a verb with zer and the destructive idea doesn’t really make sense with the basic verb then try damage or just being apart in a way and you should be able to guess the meaning correctly. Now… all the verbs we have looked at so far were things I can do with something… I zerstöre, zerstreue, zerschlage, zerrede something. But there are also things you just do without specifically doing them to something or someone. In grammar jargon those are called intrinsic… uhm… instravtili.. uh instru… in grammar jargon they are called something and in Chinese something else (    不及物动词的 ) and one example for those verbs is to jump.

Zer yourself

The question is “Can we add zer to verbs like to jump or to go, which are called  不及物动词的  in Chinese?”
The answer is yes.
Now the question is “Okay, what does zer do then?”
The answer is… it keeps the notion or apart/into pieces … just that you do it by yourself.

  • Als die Sängerin in der Arie das hohe C gesungen hat, ist meine Brille zersprungen.

Literally this is:

  • When the singer in the opera sang to top, my glasses jumped/sprang apart.

And that is not so far from the actual meaning of zerspringento shatter. Another, less destructive example is zerfließen. Fließen is to flow. Now we add zer… hmmm… flow apart… I think I need an example:

  • Die Butter zerfließt in der heißen Pfanne.
  • The butter is flowing apart in the hot pan.(lit.)
  • The butter is melting apart in the hot pan.

Zerfließen doesn’t really have a good translation. The English to melt is more focused on the melting while zerfließen tells the story of the molten butter… molten butter, having hated its life as a cube all along,  flows to all sides… at long last she is free. Never shall she be wrapped up again… hey… speaking of wrapping up… I think, we’re about to wrap up too. But before we do, I’d like to say 2 things about the usage.

zer – user manual

In the beginning we learned that zer is related with the English dis- or de-. They all basically come from the same root as does the word “two”. Now we could be like… “Sweet, so I’ll just translate all dis-s and de-s to zer in German.” But that almost never works. If you have a verb with dis/de, I think you chance of it being a zer-word in German is actually below 20 %. Dis and de feel like brothers of the English prefixes in- and un– … at least to me. You can do something and then you can “de-do” it. Zer does not have this aspect of just reversing things. Zer in itself is a constructive prefix. It creates something new in a way…  just in more than one part :). Take bauen which is to build or to construct. You can deconstruct something and that is just un-doing the constructing that has been done. Zerbauen is not a word. But if it were it would be that you build something, thereby destroying something else. Just think back to zersiedeln. You are still settling, but you are destroying landscape by doing so. So…

  • do not think of zer as the German dis/de.

The other thing I want to mention is about how much you can do with zer. Some prefixes are very productive… just take be-. You can invent all kinds of words using be– and people will probably understand. That does not work well with zer. That is kind of a surprise considering that zer has a pretty clear and consistent meaning. The problem is exactly that. Zer has a limited range. It is not flexible and if you come up with something creative… well, people will probably not understand because it doesn’t make sense to them. Take Tisch which means table… you can invent the verb betischen as an equivalent to the existing verb bestuhlen. People would understand betischen as furnish with lots of tables. Now, if you picture a nicely designed living room and then we put 3 ugly tables in it… why not call that zertischen. As much as I would like this… it doesn’t really work. Most people wouldn’t really understand what you are going for or it would take them too long. So… zer is an easy prefix in that you can guess pretty much any meaning as soon as you know the basic verb but:

  • zer is not the best word to be creative with… if the word you invent doesn’t exist, chances are that people will not understand.

So… now I think it’s enough for today. This was our German Prefix special on zer. Just think of apart or if you are a visual person… think of a cute little bunny ripping a flower to shreds.
If you have any questions or suggestions or if you come across zer-verbs that don’t seem to fit with my explanation then leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and as for the gorgeous visually breathtaking  IMAX footage the .. I’ll… uh… I’ll show you next time.

Want to know more prefixes?

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