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
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.
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, 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 inflicting 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.. ?”
“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)
- 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.
- 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 idea of 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.
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:
- German Prefixes Explained – “um-“
- German Prefixes Explained – “zer-” … coming soon
|beäugen||Auge (s) – eye||
||look at sth (from all sides), mostly in books|
|belagern||Lager (s) – camp (and others)||
||inflict camps :), lay siege, besiege|
|begrenzen||Grenze (e) – border||
|bemuttern||Mutter (e) – mother||
||to pamper / inflict mother on so.|
|benebeln||Nebel (r) – fog||
||to daze, to befog, mostly used as adjective|
|bedecken||Decke (e) – cover||
||to cover (physically)|
|benachteiligen||Nachteil (r) – disadvantage||
|beeinlussen||Einfluss (r) – influence||
|bemitleiden||Mitleid (s) – compassion, pity||
|beneiden||Neid (r) – envy||
||to envy… I think beneiden can sound less strong|
|begießen||gießen – to pour||
||to celebrate by drinking alcohol|
|besuchen||suchen -to search||
||to visit… that’s an abstract one :)|
|betäuben||taub – deaf, numb||
||to anesthetize, to benumb|
|befreien||frei – free||
|berichtigen||richtig – correct||