German Prefixes Explained – “zer”

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… 

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
soon.

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
searching.
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
pending.

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- (pron.: tsair)

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 Ineed an example:

  • Die Butter zerfließt in der heißen Pfanne.
  • The butter is flowing apart in the hot pan…. ohhh…. maybe this
  • 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?

12 responses to “German Prefixes Explained – “zer”

  1. I wonder how big will be the posts about ein- and vor-.It’s actually quite scaring thinking about them…
    Thanks God zer- is simple(r) to understand! Übrigens, another good post!

    Like

    • hahaha… I know what you mean :D … but it really is just a question of how much into detail do you go, how long do you talk about the examples… and how much nonsense do you put in the post :) .. the ones that I am dreading are “ver” and “ent”… those are nasty

      Like

  2. Another great post! Vielen Dank! I’ve posted some links to your blog on Duolingo to clarify some phrases and people have commented how useful it is. Thanks for your regular posts and your creative approach! It makes learning more fun!

    Like

  3. vielen dank fur dich , jetzt fing ich an es besser zu verstehen

    Like

    • Danke :)…. l hope you don’t mind if I correct your sentences:

      Vielen Dank für dich.

      The thing that you say after “für” in combination with Dank or danken is the thing that you are grateful for.

      - Vielen Dank für die Blumen.
      - Thank you for the flowers.

      If you want to mention the person then you have to use the Dative:

      - Vielen Dank dir für…

      but this doesn’t sound so good. Dative sounds best with the verb.

      - Ich danke dir für ….

      A bit formal maybe but anyway….
      I think people tend to not mention the person. When you just say “danke für/vielen Dank für…” and you don’t specify a person then it is automatically the person you talk to and that is not unfreindly or sloppy. “Vielen Dank für…” totally works even in the most formal context imaginable… so when a waiter brings you your coffee ;)

      Jetzt fing ich an, es besser zu verstehen.

      This is almost perfect except for the tenses. Jetzt and past tense do not go well together. It can work but then you have to establish a past tense time frame first within which you can then use “jetzt”… but it is tricky. And “fing an” sounds very definite anyway…as if you are done with anfangen and possibly also with understanding. So… present tense is the best choice as your understanding is an ongoing process:

      Jetzt fang’ ich an, es besser zu verstehen.

      You could also say

      Jetzt habe ich angefangen es besser zu verstehen.

      This pretty much means the same but it sounds stilted and more complicated than it needs to be. And as we all know… German is not complicated at all in absolutely no regard whatsoever ;)

      Like

  4. Wow ich mag deine prefix-specials. Wirklich sehr schön :) Ich hatte übrigens auch schon gedacht dass du Jurassic Park irgendwie magst als ich “dr.Grant” gelesen habe :) Hast du zufällig letztens auch die “neue” 3D version geguckt?

    Like

    • hehe… Dr. Grant :)… ja, ich mag den Film, aber die 3D-Version hab’ ich nich’ gesehen. Erstens kenn’ den Film ja schon (ich glaub’, ich hab’ den 2 mal gesehen) und zweitens find’ ich 3D irgendwie komisch. Ich hab’ bisher nur Avatar in 3D gesehen und da war mir durch die Brille das Bild viel zu dunkel. Das hat mich schon sehr gestört und seitdem bin ich suuuuuuuperskeptisch. Ich guck’ mir dann in 10 Jahren die Version an, die mit Elektroden direkt ins Gehirn gesendet wird :D

      Like

  5. “Irgendein Idiot has meinen neuen Mercedes zerkratzt.”
    spot the English intruder

    Like

  6. You`ve warned us about getting creative with this prefix, but I want to give it a try nonetheless:

    A neighbor who is not fond of graffiti says: “Diejenigen, die meine Wand zermalt haben, werden bestimmt bestraft.”
    Geht das so? (I got inspired by your Mercedes example above)

    PS: Diese Webseite habe ich neulich durch eine Empfehlung auf Duolingo entdeckt, und ich finde sie schon großartig.

    Like

    • Works :)… es ist ein bisschen komisch, da “zer” im Kontext von “Wand” doch sehr destruktiv klingt und “malen” nicht destruktiv genug. Man würde wohl sagen “vollgemalt” oder besser noch “vollgeschmiert” aber trotzdem… ich kann mir vorstellen, dass jemand deinen Satz sagt und insofern bekommt das Wort das Prädikat : 100% native compatible :)

      Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s