German Prefixes Explained – “be-”

german-prefix-beHello everyone, and welcome to our German Word of the Day, or more precisely welcome to our very very first episode of

German Prefixes Explained.

Prefixes are one of the numerous Banes of a beginner… you know… Bane, because they are so hard to understand… . Prefixes are those little “words” that can be added to basic verbs like machen, stellen or schlafen. The meaning of the basic verb then changes… sometimes a bit, sometimes quite a bit and sometimes quite super entirely … a bit. This wouldn’t be too bad if there were only 3 or 4 prefixes. But there are more like… 40… oh…  don’t worry, only 20 or so are really important.
So now the beginner is like “Okay fine… so I guess I have to deal with about 20 prefixes that, if they work with a basic verb, will either slightly alter or completely shift its meaning…but that’s it right? ” Uhm… nope. There’s more. Many of the prefixes are separable. That means that, in the dictionary, they are at the beginning of a verb but in real speech they are not. They are somewhere else. Sometimes somewhere very very else. Sometimes not even in the same
Long story short, prefixes are a big part of German. But the good news is once you got the hang of them, it’s great because you can invent all kinds of verbs or infer meaning of combinations you have never seen before (trust me, German never runs out of those). So over the coming decade… uh I mean months we’ll take on the prefixes one by one and really look at what they do and how they alter the meaning of the basic verb and today we’ll start with the very common non separable prefix
paragraph.

be- (pron.: beh)

Now, if you feel uncertain about the whole separable vs non-separable thing… I won’t be talking about the grammar and sentence structure of verbs with prefixes here but you can find all you need to know in these 2 articles:

You can read this one, without having read those ones. All right. Now, what’s great about be is that is has a pretty easy to capture and consistent meaning… at least compared with ver. And here it is:

  • be-something basically means to inflict that something on something or someone

 And something doesn’t have to be a basic verb. It can also be a noun and sometimes even an adjective. Of course this definition won’t make all be-words immediately obvious but I think it is a good common ground for all of them. But just in case the definition is a little to dry… here is a visual image. Picture a baby that has an cell-phone and now the baby touches things and turns it around and bites on it and then pushes buttons… now, that is NOT the meaning of be but it maybe helps capture the vibe a bit. What we’ll do now is look at many examples of be-words to kind of get a sense of what we can do with this definition. We’ll start with very clear and straight forward examples and then slowly get more and more abstract until we end up doing real mind yoga. So are you ready? Great.

 Obvious examples

Here is a very obvious one. Take the word malen. It means to paint. Now, based on our definition bemalen should mean to inflict painting on something or someone. And it does.

  • Ich male meine Katze.
  • I paint my cat.

This means that I paint a picture of my cat.

  • Ich bemale meine Katze.
  • I paint my cat.

This means that I put color on my cat. I inflict painting on my cat. Now, let’s take kleben.

  • Ich klebe meine Vase, denn sie war kaputt.
  • I glue my vase, cause it was broken.
  • Ich beklebe meine Vase, denn sie ist hässlich.
  • I put stickers or stuff on my vase using glue, because it is ugly.

So I inflict gluing on my vase. Here is another example… let’s take the word… oh wait… I see we have a call here. Ajisth from India, hi Ajisth did I pronounce that correctly? Hey Emanuel, no it is Ajisth… Oh… let me try again… Ajisth… “hahaha… sort of … So, what can I do for you, man? Yeah, so I have a question about this inflict idea…  So, the cat example was clear but the glue one confuses me because if I glue my vase because it is broken then I could just as well say that I am inflicting gluing on my vase. I do something to it. At least to me it would make sense too. So my question is… how can I know what kind of inflict the be-word does? Does it always have to do something with putting stuff ON something maybe? Wow, now that is a really great question… let me think… uh… so … what the be does is kind of changing direct objects. You see, many resources often say that be- changes a verb that does NOT have a direct object into one that does. “You mean like with antworten and beantworten.. ?” Exactly… “Yeah, I read your post on that, that was very helpful...” Cool thanks, so another example like that would be werben which is advertise. That doesn’t have an object in German. You can’t say

  • Ich werbe eine Cola. (is wrong)

for

  • I advertise a coke.

That doesn’t work. You would need a preposition for example.

  • Ich werbe für eine Cola.

Now, when we make that bewerben, I CAN have a direct object… in fact, I must have a direct object.

  • Ich bewerbe eine Cola.
  • I advertise a coke.

My god, I just understood why bewerben means to apply for a job… you advertise yourself…. ich bewerbe mich… wow” Haha exactly… so… using be- turns a thing that was connected by a preposition into a direct object. And now comes the crucial part. This also works when the basic verb itself already HAS a direct object. What happens then could be called object switch… so stuff that was connected via preposition becomes the direct object and the direct object now needs a preposition. Here is what I mean. Kleben (to glue) can take a direct object and also stuff connected with a preposition.

  • Ich klebe ein paar Aufkleber auf meine Vase.
  • I glue/put some stickers on my vase.
  • Ich beklebe meine Vase mit ein paar Stickern.
  • I “cover” my vase with some stickers.

ohhhhhh I see…. so if the basic verb already has a direct object, then be-version will have a different one… like… the basic one has the most obvious one and then the be-version kind of shifts focus.” Yeah, I mean not always…  sometimes the objects are the same like with zahlen and bezahlen, but most of the time this works. “Do you have another example?” Yeah sure… so let’s take legen and belegen. Based on our definition belegen means to inflict lying on something but technically that could also mean to lie down… I lie down my book thus inflicting lying on book. But belegen means something else.

  • Ich lege Käse auf meine Pizza.
  • I put cheese on my pizza.
  • Ich belege meine Pizza mit Käse.
  • I top my pizza with cheese.

Also, think back to the baby visual. If you belegen your pizza, that is certainly something more than just putting it down. “Hmmm… I don’t know about the baby example, but I think I got it now… thanks a lot and sorry for interrupting...” Oh don’t worry, I’m glad you called, because this object switch was an important part of what be does and I totally would have missed out on that, so thanks a lot and enjoy the rest of the show… “hahaha… I will… (hangs up)” All right… wew. That was tough I bet… but there will be no more grammar from now on, I promise… just examples. How about some with nouns. Der Neid is the envy. So beneiden should be to inflict envy, right? And it is.

  • Ich beneide  dich.
  • I envy you.

Or here is one of my favorites. Der Spaß in German is the fun… so bespaßen means to inflict fun one someone.

  • Ich musste die letzten 3 Tage meine Eltern bespaßen. Die waren zu Besuch.
  • I had to entertain my parents the last 3 days. They were visiting.

What’s so great about bespaßen is that it has a slight negative touch to it. It is not simply to entertain. It is more to entertain with a subtext of that it is exhausting and hard work for you to do that. But anyway… here is another one. Die Eile is the German word for the hurry. So sich beeilen is inflicting hurry on oneself… or simply… to hurry.

  • Ich muss mich beeilen.
  • I have to hurry.

And let’s do one more before we venture out into the wild… . betonen. Der Ton means the tone and the sound. So betonen is to inflict sound. And while not totally obvious, it makes a lot of sense that betonen means … to emphasize.

  • Ich betone die erste Silbe.
  • I put a stress on the first syllable.
  • Der Politiker betont, dass er keine Steuererhöhungen mitmacht.
  • The politician emphasizes that he won’t be agree on a tax increase.

So… I think you got the idea by now and you are definitely ready for some more abstract examples.

Less obvious Examples

There are SOOOO many verbs with be as a prefix that are somewhat abstract but still totally work with our idea… I had problems to decide which ones to cover :). But I think you will recognize many of them … So… the first example for a more abstract word is begeistern. It comes from the word Geist which can mean either ghost or spirit in German. So what does to inflict ghost or spirit mean? Does it mean to haunt? Well… no.. the best translation I found was to wow someone … we could maybe say to really positively impress and inspire someone. You inflict spirit on that person :). Begeistern is more often used as an adjective so here you go:

  • Ich bin begeistert.
  • I am excited /enthusiastic/amazed.

Here is a very famous one… begreifen. Greifen alone means to grab something so begreifen means to inflict grabbing on something. Now, babies tend to touch a lot of things and turn them around and basically grab ‘em all over… because they want to explore. With this in mind it is shouldn’t seem too far fetched that begreifen means … to comprehend or to grasp or any other similar word…

  • Ich begreife nicht, wieso du dir schon wieder ein neues Auto gekauft hast.
  • I really don’t understand, why you got yourself a new car once again.

The first one is sich beschweren. Sich beschweren means to complain. Now how does that make any sense? Well, at the core of beschweren there is the word schwer, which means heavy. So beschweren is to inflict heavy on something or someone. There is actually an object in the world which serves this very purpose.

  • Briefbeschwerer.
  • Inflicter of heavy for letters.

I’m talking of course about a paper weight :). But back to sich beschweren. See, when you inflict heavy on yourself you could say you burden yourself with something. And one step more abstract, you make something a burden for yourself… after all we usually do complain about rather small issues compared to the big problems of life… you complain, that the coffee at work sucks or that your neighbor listens to shitty music, you don’t complain that a tornado blew away your house… so you make things a burden for you kind of and this is what sich beschweren used to mean before it slowly shifted towards telling other people about that burden of yours.

  • Deutsche beschweren sich immer über das Wetter.
  • Germans ALWAYS complain about the weather.

Then, another nice one, which came to my mind just today when I was walking home, is… bewegen. Bewegen means to move. Hmmm… moving isn’t really something where something is “inflicted” … well, so it would seem but it German it is… the core of bewegen is der Weg (the way, path) so bewegen is to inflict way on something or someone… and if you think that is stupid and contrived… well, this actually does help understanding the grammar. You see, bewegen in German ALWAYS needs an object. You cannot say.

  • Ich bewege. (is wrong)

as you could say

  • I move.

in English. Because in German you need to move SOMETHING.

  • Ich bewege meinen Kopf.
  • I move my head.

You’re inflicting way so you need a target for that . And you yourself move, then you are inflicting way on yourself… I find that kind of funny :)

  • Ich bewege mich  ein bisschen.
  • I am moving a little.

The next great example is behalten. Halten alone means to hold, so behalten means to inflict holding or in real English… to keep. Tadaaah… hey come on, we’re in the less obvious section.

  • Das Buch kannst du behalten.
  • You can keep the book.

Now, behalten is somewhat more limited in meaning in that it really means keeping for oneself… so “Keep doing this” is translated using behalten but I don’t want to get in too much detail… we’ve got 1 more example to look at: besitzen. Now sitzen by itself means to sit. Wasn’t that setzen, you ask? Well, yes and no… setzen is the action of sitting down, while sitzen is the result. So you can sitzen for 3 hours but if you tried that for setzen… that would be some kind of super-slo-mo… you would probably just fall over at some point. By the way, did you know that slo-mo means Zeitlupe in German? Like… a magnifying glass for time, that a really nice word I think. But back to besitzen. So it means to inflict sitting on something so… we’re all trained in abstract thinking by now so I doubt that we will be surprised about the meaning… so what does besitzen translate to…. town. Oh wait, I meant to own of course.

  • Ich besitze kein Auto.
  • I don’t own a car.

And again, that is kind of funny when you visualize it…. like Germans are all greedy dragons sitting on their treasure and don’t you dare touch it. In reality though besitzen is not used that much in everyday talk… people use either haben or gehören (please don’t ask). There is also the word besetzen, which again is to inflict sitting but this time, actively sitting down…. among other things besetzen means to occupy and in context of houses it means to squat. And this leads to a very very very very deep insight on the relativity of things and ownership…

  • Hausbesitzer und Hausbesetzer sind sich ähnlicher als man denkt.
  • Land lord and squatter are have more in common than one would think.

Really really abstract ones

So… now that we all feel comfortable with the be-prefix and we think that we have a good ideaof what it means.. it is time to challenge that.And by challenge I mean challenge… wait… I …I guess I should emphasize the second challenge… so… CHALLENGE… there you go. Let’s start with bestellen. Stellen means something to put or to set and so bestellen logically means… to order?! How does that make any sense? I admit it is really weird but before the age of pizza service and amazon there was a time when bestellen mainly meant to cultivate your field…or something like that. Bestellen meant doing all the stuff you need to do to grow corn or whatever, and especially the planting or seeding… and now it start to work… you inflict putting on your field, you put stuff on your field so that some months later you will get to harvest something. Like today… you place your pizza order so that you can eat later. Sounds crazy but that probably the shift that happened. Of course it happened gradually but nowadays many people don’t even know about the original bestellen anymore. It is to order, full stop.

  • Was für eine Pizza hast du dir bestellt?
  • What pizza have you ordered?

So… bestellen turned out to work with our be-definition but how about sich benehmen? Sich benehmen means to… uh… behave, to comport

  • Du benimmst dich wie ein Urmensch.
  • You act like a Neanderthal.
  • In diesem Restaurant muss man sich benehmen.
  • In this restaurant one has to comport oneself.

So… let’s see… nehmen means to take so sich benehmen should be to inflict taking on oneself… hmmm… and on the other end, to behave (good) means for most of us that we don’t do certain things in public that we do at home.. like… burping or eating with fingers… hypothetically, that is…uh… so … when we behave, we deprive ourself of some freedom in a way, we take something away from ourselves… yeah, that kind of makes sense. Quick, must get to the next example before doubt can rise. The next one is the word bekommen, which means to receive.

  • Marie hat eine E-Mail bekommen.

Wow, this one is really tough… so… when I inflict coming on something, that could mean that I come to the thing. But since we’re being abstract here, it could also mean that I make that thing come toward me… sort of… kind of like a magnet. Of course we don’t always want all the things we get but we could take the spiritual route here and say “you got that spam email because that was your karma, you attracted it”… or we could simply say that the active part of bekommen just got lost over time. But bekommen is actually one of the rare cases that are easier to understand without the while inflict-idea… bekommen has relatives in many Germanic languages, although with pretty divers meanings. Just think of bekommen vs. become. The original meaning of all those words however was … to come by. And hey, from there it is not that far to to receive.

  • Ich habe zum Geburtstag ein Buch bekommen.
  • I have come by a book for my birthday … lit.
  • I got a book…

Either way, for bekommen it is hard to see why it means what it means and we might as well say that the inflict-rule fails here. But works for most verbs, including the last one… and this might be a surprise… bleiben. Yes, bleiben used to be beleiben and the e disappeared over time. Now the core of that is the word Leib, which means body, so beleiben  means to inflict body on something… which is OBVIOUSLY to stay ;).

  • Ich bleibe 3 Wochen in Paris.
  • I inflict body on Paris for 3 weeks.
  • I am going to stay in Paris for 3 weeks.

Okay, if we want to nitpick a bit we could say, that the grammar is different here, because unlike all other be-verbs, bleiben has no direct object here but hey who cares… it just proves my next headline.

German – sometimes it just plain sucks

So, I hope you have a good idea by now of what the be-prefix does with verbs. So… time to add more prefixes. That’s right. I case you didn’t know, you can take a verb that already has a prefix and add another one…

  • Ich bestelle meine Karten ab.

This sentence does NOT mean that you order things… it means that you un-order things… because the verb is abbestellen.

  • I cancel my ticket reservation.

Here are some more examples.

  • Ich behalte meine Schuhe an.
  • anbehalten – keep wearing.
  • I don’t take off my shoes.
  • Ich bereite mein Referat vor.
  • vorbereiten = vor (in advance) + be (inflict) + reit (old German brother of ready)-en = to inflict ready on something in advance
  • I prepare my presentation.
  • Ich benenne mich um.
  • umbenennen - um (something with change) + be (inflict) + nennen (call, name)
  • I change my name.

What was that? Did someone just weep? Oh… uh… would you… would you rather have the be in front?

  • Das beeindruckt mich sehr.
  • be (inflict) + ein (in) + druck (pressure) – inflict imprint/impression
  • That impresses me a lot.

Still weeping? Crying even? Questioning your learning German? Are you even questioning …. everything? Like this other famous guy from that one story by Shakespeare … you know…  this one here

to Be or not to be ?

Ohhhhh that translation was soooooooooooo bad. I am seriously sorry, but I just couldn’t resist. So… we’re close to wrapping this up but I am sure that many of you are asking “So, can I just slap be to random words? Would that work?” And the answer is… well, yes and no. You can do it with nouns. Most people would probably understand bekäsen or bewaschmaschinen.

  • Ich bekäse meine Pizza.
  • I “put” cheese my pizza.
  • Ich habe heute meine Wohnung bewaschmaschint.
  • I got a washing machine for my flat today.

So with nouns it is ok. You can play around and invent all kinds of things there. It is fun and certainly a good conversation starter to get you “be-partnered” :). But don’t try it for verbs. Not because it doesn’t work. I think it does work for most of them. But the verb will most likely not mean what you think it means. Betrinken... yes it has a meaning but it is not just inflict drinking… it is to inflict alcohol or in other words… to get drunk. There is no logical reason for that. It could just as well have meant to drink until the thirst is gone or to drink until you have a hiccup. But it doesn’t. So… for most basic German verbs, there likely is a be-version and I am certain that you can deduce the meaning using the inflict-idea AND the context but don’t try to make up your own stuff… or do try but I think it won’t work very well. Oh and the Latin based verb, so the verbs with -ieren … they NEVER take be… it doesn’t work and I think the problem is mainly rhythm. But I digress. So… playing around with be and verbs is a tricky thing to do, and it is almost impossible for adjectives. It does work for some adjectives…  like beschönigen (whitewash), berichtigen (to correct), bekräftigen (to reinforce, to affirm) or even begrünen (plant green things somewhere) but it absolutely does not make any sense for others… there is no beschnellen or beleckeren. Logically those would make perfect sense but it just doesn’t work because language is a free spirit and grows the way it wants to grow.

Wrap up

So… I guess that was a whole load to digest but I hope that it has helped a bit clearing up the big be. The concept it adds can be described “as to inflict something on something”. It doesn’t always work and sometimes you really have to bend your mind a bit but it is a fine guideline, I hope. Grammatically, it often turns something, be it an abject or a place or a person that would be connected using a preposition for the basic verb into a direct object. So it can switch the focus on objects if you will…

  • Ich werfe den Ball auf dich.
  • Ich bewerfe dich (mit dem Ball).

But there are also examples where it basically does nothing at all.

  • Ich zahle meinen Kaffee.
  • Ich bezahle meinen Kaffee.

In either version meinen Kaffee is the direct object and both sentences mean exactly the same… at least to me. So… of course I couldn’t cover all be-verbs here…not even close. I have listed some more in this table below, but still I’m sure there are many interesting ones missing… so now it’s up to you guys….
If you can think of some cool be-words, go right ahead and post them as a comment…. if you dare, give us an explanation and an example :). And of course if you have a be-verb that you can’t still make sense of… just post it and I’ll try make it work with the inflict concept. I will collect all the verbs, put them in a list and then eventually upload a pdf right here for you to download. And lastly, if you have any questions or suggestions, of course you can leave me a comment to… go ahead – becomment me ;) I hope you liked it and see you next time.

If you want more prefixes:

beäugen Auge (s) – eye
  • Verwundert beäugte Thomas den Topf. War der wirklich 1000 € wert?
  • Puzzled, Thomas examined the pot. Was it  really worth 1200 $?
look at sth (from all sides), mostly in books
belagern Lager (s) – camp (and others)
  • Die Armee belagert die Stadt.
  • The army lays siege to the town.
inflict camps :), lay siege, besiege
begrenzen Grenze (e) – border
  • Das Budget ist begrenzt..
  • The budget is limited.
to limit
bemuttern Mutter (e) – mother
  • Psychotest: bemuttern sie ihren Partner?
  • Personality test : are you being a mother for your partner?
to pamper / inflict mother on so.
benebeln Nebel (r) – fog
  • Ich bin noch ein bisschen benebelt.
  • I’m still a little dazed.
to daze, to befog, mostly used as adjective
bedecken Decke (e) – cover
  • Bedecke dein Gesicht mit einer Maske.
  • Cover your face with a mask.
to cover (physically)
benachteiligen Nachteil (r) – disadvantage
  • Frauen werden in der Wirtschaft oft benachteiligt.
  • Women often being disadvantaged in economy.
to disadvantage
beeinlussen Einfluss (r) – influence
  • Das Buch hat mich sehr beeinflusst.
  • That book has a great influence on me.
to influence
bemitleiden Mitleid (s) – compassion, pity
  • Du musst aufhören, dich zu bemitleiden.
  • You have to stop pitying yourself.
to pity
beneiden Neid (r) – envy
  • Ich beneide meinen Nachbarn um seinen schönen Apfelbaum.
  • I envy my neighbor for his pretty apple tree.
to envy… I think beneiden can sound less strong
begießen gießen – to pour
  • Wir müssen meinen Studienabschluss begießen.
  • We have to drink on the successful end of my studies.
to celebrate by drinking alcohol
besuchen suchen -to search
  • Ich besuche meine Eltern.
  • I inflict searching on my parents.
  • I visit my parents.
to visit… that’s an abstract one :)
betäuben taub – deaf, numb
  • Der Arzt betäubt mein Knie.
  • The doctor anesthetizes my knee.
to anesthetize, to benumb
befreien frei – free
  • Die Polizei befreit die Geiseln.
  • The police frees the hostages.
to free
berichtigen richtig – correct
  • Ich muss einen Rechtschreibfehler berichtigen.
  • I have to correct a typo.
to correct

42 responses to “German Prefixes Explained – “be-”

  1. You are in love with this thing you have been doing and as being a guy interested in languages i highly appreciate it.

    Thank you so so much.

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  2. Wow was für eine super Artikel! Sehr hilfreich! Man kann bestimmt sehen dass es dich ziemlich viel Zeit gekostet hast um sowas zu schreiben! Wie gesagt habe ich die letzte Zeit auch darüber nachgedacht also hier sind noch mehr Wörter:

    beabsichtigen - Absicht(r) – Intension - to intend
    beachten - achten (auf) – to mind - to mind/regard something
    bearbeiten - arbeiten – to work – to edit
    bedanken - danken – to thank someone -to thank yourself by someone
    bedienen - dienen – to serve – to serve someone
    beenden - enden – to end – to end something
    befinden - finden – to find - to be located
    befragen - fragen – to ask – to interview
    befürchten – fürchten – to fear – to apprehend
    begeben - geben – to give – to resort
    begehen - gehen – to go – to commit
    begleiten - gleiten – to slide - to supervise / guide
    begründen - Grund (r) – reason – to justify
    begrüßen - Gruß – greeting - to greet
    behandeln - handeln – to act/handle - to treat
    beherrschen - herrschen – to rule - to control / master something
    bemerken - merken – notice - to notice

    Manche Wörter sind etwas schwierig zu erklären wie zum Beispiel danken/bedanken und bemerken/merken weil es da doch ein bisschen unterschied zwischen die Wörter gibt und das mehr ist als nur mit präposition / direktes Objekt.

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    • Oh da ist leider etwas schief gegangen mit der Aufmachung! So habe ich das nicht eingegeben. Entschuldigung!

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      • Kein Problem, da sind viele gute dabei, und auch einige, die fast garnicht mit “to inflict” funtionieren.. begehen kann auch heißen “inflict walking on”… es gibt zum Beispiel eine Wohnungsbegehung… aber ich mach das alles dann im pdf mit Beispielen :)

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  3. Is “be” used as a prefix for many verbs where the rest of the word isn’t a word by itself? The example I have in mind is “begegnen” which from my understanding translates to meet. I can’t find a meaning for gegnen anywhere, so I am wondering if there are words where be- isn’t necessarily a prefix.

    Danke!

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    • Good question… there are some verbs where the basic verb alone doesn’t make sense… for instance “beginnen”… ginnen alone doesn’t exist. It used probably existed really far back in time but little is known for fact abut this word.
      Anyway… be is definitely a prefix for those verbs too… at least to me… because there is no ge- for the past and also it just totally feels like a be-prefix verb based on sounds and rhythm. That the basic verb doesn’t mean anything doesn’t change that feeling.
      As for begegnen, this actually comes from the preposition gegen. It used to be begegenen and then one e was dropped…

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  4. Emmanuel
    Du bist unglaublich toll bei diesem Blog! So so sehr erleuchtend ist es, dieses zu lesen.
    Danke schön!

    Chandrasekaran

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  5. Von deinen Artikeln bin ich völlig begeistert.

    Danke!

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  6. Exactly what I need, some way to “feel” what the prefixes mean. Way to go, dude!

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  7. Thanks! I can’t wait for the next installment:)

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  8. Great blog post, I’ve been trying to work out the effects of various prefixes for a while and this is SO interesting and really makes sense :D thanks!

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    • Cool, great to hear that :). And thanks for reblogging. This stuff definitely is geeky but it was also fascinating for me to think about this and find out how all these bestellens and bekommens kind of have a common ground.

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  9. Reblogged this on Conjugating thought and commented:
    A ridiculously helpful blog post on prefixes which I read and was enthralled by! I’ve been wondering about various prefixes for a while now, and I find this so geekily interesting :) I really recommend you read it all the way through…

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  10. Really useful article. Thank you!

    I have one be-verb for your list: beachten. I can see that it and achten are related, but I haven’t worked out the inflicting :-(

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    • Nice one… both beachten and just achten come from a noun (die Acht)…. this is often used with geben.

      - Gib Acht, dass du nicht kleckerst!
      - Pay attention not to make a mess (kleckern is somewhat more precise though :)

      So beachten is pretty much to “inflict” attention or heed.

      - Ich muss die Ampeln beachten.
      - I have to pay attention to the traffic lights.

      Achten without be is similar grammatically…. but it means more to respect or to esteem.

      - Ich achte ihn sehr.
      - I respect him a lot.

      And then, when in combination with auf, achten is also to pay attention. Unlike beachten it can have a longer range in time

      - Ich achte auf meine Gesundheit.
      - I look after/take care of my health.

      or it can mean something like “to wait for”

      - Ich achte auf dein Zeichen.
      - I’ll be paying attention to your sign.

      whereas the beachten is more shifted toward being compliant with the rule…

      - Ich beachte dein Zeichen.
      - I do whatever I am supposed to do based on your sign

      I hope that makes sense… if not, keep on asking :)

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  11. Best explanation ever!
    Added to favourites. I am going to come back and read it through again and again :D

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  12. This is brilliant, all of it. This blog is SO helpful at a time when I ‘ve started to learn German again. This be/inflicting idea is also in use in English, eg bejewel, bedeck, bedazzle though not to this extent. I’ve occasionally found myself adding ‘be’ to English words for that same effect just in conversation. A friend once said “work have be-iphoned me” – possibly a bit clumsy but I knew that his employers had given him an iphone!

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    • Be-Iphoned… hahaha… yeah, that is totally how the German one works. You could totally say “be-Iphonet” in German (in spoken that is). I was aware that English had some left overs of this be- but the only ones I could think of was “bestow”, “behold” and “beloved” and I didn’t think that it was fleshed out enough to play with it like that :)… realizing this parallel certainly makes it a lot easier for native speakers of English to understand the be-prefix… thanks a lot for adding that and for the nice words :)

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  13. Wow, das war ein toller Artikel, tolle Erklärung.

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  14. Thank you so much for this explanation! I hardly know any German, so apologies if this is a stupid question, but does this apply to nouns with be-prefixes as well? Like Begründung, would that to be inflict grounds upon something?

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    • Those nouns are usually just based on the verb… especially with endings like -ung, keit, heit, nis and so on. “Begründung” comes from “begründen” and it is “the inflicting of ground on something” or simply… the reason. Or actually it is more like “expalnatory statement” or “rationale” … so eine Begründung is always given by someone verbally or in writing :)
      Nouns made up from verbs with prefixes are super common and they make up a large part of the German b2/c1 level vocabulary. But instead of checking the noun… check the verb first and see if you can infer the “noun”-sense ;)

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  15. Wow, that was awesome ! :D
    I found your blog by chance, when I was looking for the meaning of prefixes in German, and I’m so glad I did !
    It looks like I have a lot to read, but I love your writing, it’s as if I had a good teacher in front of me; please, keep writing those good articles, I’ll come here regularly ! =)
    I thought learning German was soooo hard, because there is so many new words to learn by heart, but this might become easier with your teaching ! ;)

    Greetings from a French student ! ;)

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  16. I think a good translation of besitzen would be “to possess”, I think it’s probably used in the same frequency as besitzen in German in the sense of “to own something” :)

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  17. What about nutzen and benutzen? Thanks!

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    • Those two are really quite close but “benutzen” is more using as in really using it with an implied outwearing… “nutzen” is maybe more like “to benefit from” or “to employ”…

      Ich nutze die U-Bahn.
      I use the subway.

      I couldn’t use “benutzen” here, because I am not really using the entire thing. I am just taking a seat.

      Du hast mich nur benutzt.
      You have only used me.

      Here, “nutzen” wouldn’t work because it lacks the negative consumption-idea. If something looks “used” then it looks “benutzt” and not “genutzt” because “nutzen” doesn’t really leave traces. “Useful” is quite positive sounding and that is “nützlich” in German, whereas “benutzbar” again has this wearing down tone to it… it translates to “(still) useable”

      “The use” if you mean the “purpose/benefit of a thing” is “der Nutzen”. The “use” as in “the activity of using it” is “Benutzung”… you can find that on public toilets a lot

      Benutzung: 50 Cent

      So… “benutzen” as “to inflict usage” is just stronger, more direct and has a bigger impact on the tool. That certainly doesn’t explain every single use case but I hope it is “nützlich”

      by the way… in daily life I don’t use “nutzen” that much.If it isn’t “benutzen” I think I say “nehmen” quite a lot. For instance for the metro.

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  18. Hi!!!! i love it!!! it seems to be so perfect. Would u mind to explain betreffen, to inflict treffen on smth, meaning when speaking of , or when we come across it, when meeting smth? can see no sense so far(((

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    • The way I see it it is “to inflict hitting on something”. “Betreffen” means “to regard” or “to concern” or “to pertain”… all in a very neutral sense of “to be about or related to that”

      Das betrifft mich nicht.
      That doesn’t concern me.
      Das Problem betreffend muss ich sagen,dass…
      With regards to the problem I have to say that…

      So if something “betreffen” something or someone it inflicts hitting on the target. That means on the one hand, that it was directed in that way (which is kind of like “to regard”) and that it had an effect (which is kind of like “to concern”).
      Now, the difference to “treffen” is that that would be more literal… like really hitting. “betreffen” is more abstract. Maybe it helps to think of the target as a dot and of the verb as arrows around it pointing towards the dot… like “etw. oder jemanden betreffen” = “—–>etwas/jemanden<——… I hope this makes sense :)

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  19. I was researching the word “beeinträchtigt”, an adjective from the verb “beeinträchtigen”, which means “to impair, obstruct, interfere with, etc.” Negative connotation, basically…and per your logic and with some luck, I could trace (or imagine) it to mean inflicting “der Eintracht” on someone/something…der Eintracht, which might have come from der Eintrag, which Jakob und Wilhelm Grimm say means “damnum, injuria, impedimentum” in Latin….and they define “eintrag thun” (note the older style spelling for “tun”!) as “schaden thun”…..so, our original word “beeinträchtigt” might mean in an abstract sense “disturbed”…am I right? Esp. in usage like “meine Ruhe war beeinträchtight, und deshalb bin ich ausgegangen”? Thanks, and a fantastic blog!!!

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  20. very helpful and informative blog, ta.

    what would you say about befehlen?

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    • Very good one… it doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. But the “fehlen” in “befehlen” is NOT related to the word “fehlen” (to be missing). It comes from a different verb, that meant something like “to trust something tp someone, to burry” and it is related to the English “to feal”

      http://etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=f%C4%93olan&searchmode=none

      The basic form of this verb does not exist in German anymore but it lives on in “befehlen” and “empfehlen”.
      So… we could think of “befehlen” as “to inflict things with trust on someone” if that makes any sense… and from

      I trust you with taking care of the dishes.

      to

      I want you to do my dishes/ Do my dishes.

      it is just a small step in meaning :)

      Hope that helps.

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  21. Pingback: German Vocabulary for Near Eastern Studies, Part 2 | Lughaman

  22. bedeuten?
    deuten = interpret
    bedeuten = to inflict, to cause interpretation
    That is, if X does bedeuten to a person, that person does deuten to X. That person interprets X. So X means something to that person.
    So, bedeuten = to mean
    Am I right?
    Beginner learner of German and etymology enthusiast, keenly awaiting your praise and validation.

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    • Amazing thinking (is that praise enough :D ?) and you totally arrived at the right conclusion.
      However, if I understood correctly, you assume that “be-” does a role reversal from subject to object… that is not so. It does make a indirect/prepositional object into a prepositional object but that isn’t of much help in this case.
      “Deuten”‘s main meaning is not so much about interpreting. That came later. Originally it was to clarify something for the common folk. “Deuten” is related to “Deutsch” by the way. One aspect of that clearing things up was to simply point.

      - Ich deute zur Tür.

      That means that I make a pointing gesture toward the door.
      And this is how I see “bedeuten”… it’s to inflict clarity, to inflict pointing; and on an abstract level, a word is but a pointer to what it stands for. “Baum” bedeutet “tree”. The word points at the thing.
      There is a side meaning of “bedeuten” which backs that up.

      - Er bedeutet ihm zu schweigen.
      - He signals him to be quiet.

      So signalling, signifying… and that is not far from “meaning”. Does that make sense?
      I mean, I don’t know how exactly the current meaning evolved but “bedeuten” feels very pointing to me :)

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      • I do not know a lot of German. I checked a dictionary and saw many meanings next to “deuten”. Then I picked up the one I managed to relate to “to mean”. Thinking of “deuten” as “pointing” clears the fog a bit more. Alas, the fog is always there. You know, because these words have evolved, they weren’t designed.
        Even though your explanations can’t quite help me guess what a word means the first time I see it, they make it very easy to retain the words I have learned. Like mnemonics.
        Thank you very much. Oh, and thank you for the praise :) Now I’ll go to bed and I can sleep soundly.
        And I must also add that I let out an involuntary exclamation when I saw the relation between “deuten” and “Deutsch”. All those words, “eindeutig”, “deutlich”, “bedeuten”, were actually my old friend “Deutsch”, disguised.

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        • Hah… indeed the fog is always there. A native speaker just knows where to go because he or she grew up there. And yes… the more common the word with the prefix is the harder it is to guess it because it has been molded for centuries. That’s why I usually try to look at the edges first if I want to get to the core and I just invent a new word and see what th prefix does…

          - “Ich bebüchere mein Regal”,
          - “Ich verbüchere meinen Blog”,
          - “Ich umBÜCHern meine Kaffeetasse”

          all those make sense to me and I am sure any German would understand them… and the prefix is left naked :)

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