and welcome to another episode of German Prefixes Explained. A few weeks ago I asked you which prefix you want to talk about next. The results were no surprise. And so today we’ll talk about what is maybe the most confusing and yet most common one of them all, the prefix to end all prefixes, the chosen ONE, the last verb-bender, the Higgs-prefix itself…
A prefix so elusive, you cannot ever get a hold of it… you have to just accept. Let it flow. So let’s take a minute, shall we. Get into comfortable position. Turn on some stereotypical new age cra.. uh …meditation music HERE … yeah. So soothing. Let’s just relax. Why explain, what can be best experienced. Breathe innnn… hhhhhhhhhhhh. Breeeeeeeathe …. out. Pfffffffffffffffff. Goooood. We’re relaxed now. All our stress, all our language anxiety …hhhhhhhhhhhh….. we exhale it….. pfffffffffffffffffff…. and it is gone. We’re deeply relaxed now. Our mind is open now… German is our friennnnd. Prefixes… they are our friennnnnnnnnnnnnnnnDs. Ver …. is our very very bestest friend. It is beautiful. Let’s now marvel at it …
- verkaufen – to sell
- verstehen – to understand
- verführen – to seduce
- verlieben – to fall in love
- verlassen – to leave
- verbrennen - to burn
- vergrößern – to enlarge
Ver is… pun comin’ up… extremely VER-satile. So when you look it up online you can find lists of up to 10 different meanings it can add to the verb.
But 10 is quite many. Too many. We at German is Easy we like things simple. One cup, one coffee. One steak, one salad. One prefix, one meaning. It is really hard to do that with ver but I can tell you now that we will be able to reduce it to 2 and a halfling… I mean men… uh … I mean ideas… oh my, we haven’t even started yet, and I am already verwirrt (confused) :).
So… today we’ll go on a journey into the heart of the jungle of ver. We’ve got 4000 hostile words a head of us. It won’t be easy. It won’t be comfortable. It won’t be save. I’ll be frank. Not all of us will make it. But it will be worth it. So pack your bag, put on your tropical hat and bring some rations. We won’t be home for dinner.
The history of ver
When you search for the reason why ver is such an incredible mess you’ll soon find out that it is actually 3 prefixes, which just fused into one because people mumbled too much. The 3 existed in Latin, in old Germanic languages and in ancient Greek. And they still exist today. In English there are 4 now: per, pre, pro and for(e). And sometimes, only sometimes… the connection between all those and ver actually shows… . Vergessen means to forget. Verschreiben means to prescribe. Verlängern means to prolong.
But for the most part the knowing about this relation is totally worthless because, in fact, the 3 English prefixes are very messy too. They do not by any means represent clear cut fleshed out concepts. Take prolong, prohibit and product… whatever the pro adds here… it certainly doesn’t add the same idea to both verbs. Or what about prescribe and proscribe. Why do the words mean what they mean? Why not the other way around? And it is not only like that in English. I believe that also in the Roman languages those prefixes are a little blurry.
The reason for all this is that all those prefixes go back to one single Indo-European root … the root *per.
This one root is the base for all of them… pre, per, pro, for(e), ver, some instances of pri (prime, price or principle,.. ) and also the German word für and vor.
Wow. So this root was really incredibly productive and all kinds of concrete and abstract meanings were derived from it. The original idea however is rather basic: beyond some sort of boundaries.
In the post on Erfahrung we’ve already encountered that idea. We said that the word experience which has the idea of leaving your village in it. You exit your perimeter. This is one application for the basic idea of the root… the going beyond boundaries. Seems like this concept is an integral part of what humans do or how the see the world. At least this would be an explanation why this one tiny root could make such a career. It was adopted, altered, shifted and interpreted in all kinds of ways. I mean… just think about how many different words you know that have this root in them. It is crazy.
Anyway… so this original idea is actually incredibly helpful for ver. But we have to see it as a very abstract concept and words might not be the best way to frame that, because they’re too limited. So instead of words let’s try with an image. This is basically my interpretation of the Indo-European root … I’ll call it
“the essence of ver”.
We are still relaxed… We will not think “WTF?”… hhhhhhhhhhhh… pfffffffffffffffff…. the image our friennnnnnnnnnnnnnd :).
Seriously though. We can use this image to make sense of almost all ver-verbs that are out there…
But before we get to the meat, I want to first talk about a certain sub group which is pretty clear, consistent and easy to use. The wrong-vers.
Ver as in wrong
The prefix ver can add the notion of wrong or miss to a verb. Probably best example is verlaufen.
- Ich habe mich verlaufen.
- I have “miswalked” myself in the woods (lit.)
- I got lost in the woods.
What’s with the blue mich stuff you ask? We’ll get to that in a minute. Try to accept it for now. Relax. Breathe. The blue mich stuff is your frien… okay, enough.
The same idea of loosing your path can be added to pretty much any word of movement…. like verfahren, verfliegen or verschwimmen… and even spazieren (to go for a walk).
- Ich habe mich im Park verspaziert.
- I “miswent for a walk” myself in the park. (lit.)
- I got lost in the park while going for a walk.
Now… the word verspazieren does not really exist. But this meaning of the ver-prefix is so consistent and clear, especially in combination with words for travel, that any German will immediately understand it and probably find it witty (they won’t show it though).
Anywho… this wrong-concept of ver is not limited to movement. Whichever activity you can do in a wrong way… in theory you can express that by adding ver.
- Ich habe mich verschrieben.
- I have miswritten myself (lit.)
- I made a typo.
- “45 Euro für 3 Bier und eine Schälchen Nachos??? Ich habe mich wohl verhört…. Sie müssen sich verrechnet haben.”
“Nein, die Preise stehen so in der Karte…. 1 Bier 10 Euro und Nachos 15″
“Was? Das steht da nicht.”
“Doch, das steht da… vielleicht haben Sie sich verguckt.”
- “45 Euro for 3 beers and a tiny bowl of nachos??? I didn’t hear that correctly I suppose… You must have miscalculated“
“No, those are the prices that are written in the menu… 1 beer 10 Euro and nachos 15.”
“What? It does NOT say that.”
“Yes it does. Maybe you have “mislooked”/misread.”
- Ich habe mich verlegen.
- I have mislayed myself (lit.)
- I have been laying in a wrong way (and now my neck hurts).
So… is all I have to do adding a ver? Like… kochen is to cook then verkochen should be to “miscook”. Well, no… you have to add something else… the blue self reference that we’ve seen everywhere. In jargon it is an accusative reflexive pronoun… yeah… but we’ll call it blue self reference. If you want to create the word “miscook” then you have to add one.
- Ich koche Nudeln.
- I cook pasta.
- Ich verkoche mich.
- I miscook myself. (lit.)
- I make a mistake at cooking.
The big question we all have now is why. It doesn’t really make sense when you translate it and to be frank… it also doesn’t make sense in German. Unless we change our way of thinking…. let’s take sich verlaufen as a prototype… to “miswalk“(to get lost). Now, let’s try to see it as more of a misguiding. The verb to guide needs someone who is being guided… and that is yourself. That is the blue self reference. You guide your walking and you misguide yourself… you verlaufen yourself. We can take the idea of misguidance as the basis for most of the verbs with the wrong-ver…
- sich verschreiben (make a typo) - you misguide your writing
- sich verrechnen (miscalculate) – you misguide your doing math
- sich verlesen (misread) – you misguide your reading
- sich verliegen (getting achy limbs by lying the wrong way) – you misguide your lying … what a word :)
- sich vermalen (mispaint) – you misguide your hand while painting
- sich verwählen (misdial) – you misguide yourself while choosing the numbers
This way of thinking also helps to remembering that all those verbs, most of the wrong-vers, do NOT take an object. You can kochen pasta but you cannot “verkochen” it. You can just misguide your cooking…. you can dich verkochen.
Sure… as always there are exceptions. There are wrong-vers that do take an object.
- Mein Opa hat seine Brille verlegt.
- My grandpa mislayed/mispalced his glasses.
The reason for this might be that this ver can be interpreted as a different ver… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For the most part, the wrong-vers do work with a sich, mich, dich, or so.
Now… there is one questions we need to talk about that will also help us understand the wrong-ver even better.
- Can verbs with the wrong-ver also have a different ver-meaning, too? Can verschreiben also mean something else?
The answer is YES! And “can” is actually an understatement. I’d say ALL of them have other meanings that have little in common with the wrong-idea.
Verschreiben can mean to make a typo (then it comes with a pretty blue self reference :) and to prescribe. Even our fictional verspazieren does have another meaning… we’ll get to it later… but it is actually the more common one and you can find it on Google. Isn’t that why we love German?
German™! Because even words that don't exist have 2 meanings.
And the one thing that usually gives away the wrong-ver is in fact the self reference.
- Der Arzt verschreibt eine Tablette
- The doctor prescribes a pill.
- Die Ärztin verschreibt sich.
- The doctor makes a typo/misspells something.
Now… the reason why the sentences mean what they mean is NOT grammar… it is pure convention. I can interpret the second sentence in a different way.
- The doctor prescribes hermself (… as a remedy.)
I mean… why not?
- “Will I be ok, Dr. Grey?”
“Oh yes, I prescribe you: myself…. 3 times a day.”
“Awesome… best illness ever.“
But in the real world the other option makes way more sense so this is what my brain understands first. Similarly I could understand the first sentence differently.
- Der Arzt verschreibt eine Tablette.
- The doctor misspells a pill.
Like… he writes… “Aspiran”… the other meaning, the prescribe-one is just soooooo much more likely that I automatically interpret it that way.
So… the fact that verbs with the wrong-ver mostly come with a self reference is actually NOT there because grammar wants it. It is there because the other version, the one with an object, usually means something different or is interpreted in a different way. But there is ample room for puns.
Let’s do one more example. Verschlucken means to swallow (as does schlucken but we’ll get to that later)
- Ich verschlucke den Bissen.
- I swallow the bite.
- Ich verschlucke mich.
- I choke.
Literally, we’re saying “I swallow myself”. But unless a self eating fairy tale creature says that, this meaning just doesn’t make much sense. And so we interpret it in the other pattern we have in our heads… the misguiding way. That’s why it means to choke. Okay… actually, sich verschlucken is what you do BEFORE you choke… just remember… you misguide yourself with the swallowing and bam… down the trachea goes the bite.
Now… there is one really really important thing to realize… not every self reference is a sign for a wrong-ver. There are many many verbs with ver that have a normal self reference. Just because you see sich or mich or dich or so and ver in a sentence doesn’t mean that the verb means something with wrong. Just keep the wrong-idea in mind… and if you see a verb with ver… try it out and see if it makes sense in a certain context.
All right. So… ver can add the idea of wrong or mis to a verb. It will almost always contain a self reference and take no other object. That’s why the English translations of such words often have a different grammar. The ver and the self reference kind of expresses the idea of misguiding yourself with the doing.
If you add another object to it, then one of 2 the verb usually switches to one of its other meanings.
- Thomas hat Maria einen DVD Abend versprochen.
- Thomas promised a movie night to Maria.
- Thomas hat sich versprochen.
- Thomas has a slip on his tongu.. uh… I mean… he has made a slip of the thong. … uh… I … I am confused…
All right. Breathe :). I really hope that made sense so far. I know… all this talk about “misguiding yourself” and self reference and such is theoretical, contrived, annoying, difficult and incredibly boooooring. But I promise… this was about as grammatical as it gets. From now on we will set sail for a sea … of abstract.
ver – towards new shores
Remember the picture and the original root of ver ? That going beyond some sort of boundary? Here it is again.
Now, I promised that we can explain all vers with it it. And the one we just learned is actually incredibly simple to fit in….
There once was a little village called… “Circle”. Outside stretched a wild
forest beyond the horizon. Little Sam and little Pete, two boys of 10 and 12
years, had never left the fence without their mother. And even then they
didn’t go far into the forest. “The forest is a dangerous place.”,mom always
told them, “the forest lion will eat you.” But being boys, Sam and Pete got
bored inside the village. They felt ready for an adventure. So one day, they
packed up their little wooden spears and snuck away. The best hunters of the
village spent the following days forging the forest. But they could not find the
two boys. The whole village mourned the loss.
But then, it was almost a week later, Sam and Pete walked up to the wooden
gate. Their leather clothes were torn, they were dirty and Pete was limping.
But around their neck was hanging a tooth, a tooth of a forest lion and the 2
couldn’t look any more proud. ”Lion tooth or no lion tooth… going into the forest alone was wrong of you?”, the mom said and tried to hide her relief. ”We couldn’t find you. You must have
been far away.”, the hunter said. “Hmmm… looks like they’re young men
now.”, the old wise chieftain said.
Now you’re asking, why I am telling fairy tales here… what I am trying to illustrate is in what ways you can interpret the basic idea of ver… the going beyond boundaries. It can be a wrong.. for example if you go beyond the “boundaries” of spelling… but that is only wrong by convention.
And how can we ever explore if all we do is stay on well trodden paths? Going beyond a boundary can be wrong.Leaving the village was wrong because mom told them not to. But going beyond a boundary can also lead to new experiences, it can mean change, transformation. They left as young boys and came back as young men who had hunted down a forest lion.
And, last but not least then lastly, from the perspective of the village… the boys were just away.
And those are the 3 main ways we can interpret the basic idea of ver… the going beyond a boundary. It can be wrong, it can mean change and it can mean simply being away.
And the edges between those are blurry. Der Dampf means vapor, verdampfen is to vaporize… that is change because water turns to vapor, but it is also away because the water will be gone. Verkleiden means to disguise (by means of clothing)… that is change, but it is also wrong because it is not you’re usual way of dressing and it is even away because people can’t recognize you anymore.
So… all those 3 ideas, that seem pretty different do in fact have something in common… and this common ground is ver.
Now it’s time to put this to the test. We’ll look all kinds of different words with ver and see how they tie in with this basic idea. So…. we’ll check out what the ver-prefix does to nouns, to adjectives and to verbs. We’ll find that there is one other basic idea that sort of fits too and we’ll talk about some word that just don’t fit in at all. But we’ll do all that in part 2 :).
If you have any questions or suggestions so far or if you want to venture guesses about some ver-words then just drop me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.