My first experience with the complexities of German verbs and their prefixes started with the commonly used verb kaufen, which means “to buy.” At first, I assumed that the opposite verb in German — “to sell” — would be a completely different word. But when the teacher scribbled the word verkaufen on the board, I began to contemplate the power of the prefix. I investigated a little further and discovered that kaufen gets around a bit, popping up here and there with other prefixes: einkaufen, aufkaufen, ankaufen, and so on. Einkaufen, which means to shop, is a particularly prevalent combination.
My first impression, as yours may well be, is that this was pretty handy from a language learning perspective. It’s like learning one and half words instead of learning two… And I guess you do end up having to learn fewer words to indicate a specific intention than in languages like Spanish or Italian, for example (though, there’s still plenty of room to get mixed up). It took me quite some time before I successfully announced I was going einkaufen instead of kaufen as I headed out the door to the supermarket. And it took many months until I stopped confusing verkaufen with kaufen when my brain was forced to think at the speed of speech.
The trick, as you may have guessed, is to dissect the verbs into their particles and use the particle meanings as clues. This will rarely give you the actual definition, but will usually point you in the right direction.
Let’s start with the verb stellen, which means “to set” or “to put.” But if you add the prefix be– to stellen so that it becomes bestellen, it means “to order.” This is the verb you’ll need for talking about that time you were at that awesome burger bar or spiffing new craft beer joint: Ich habe ein großes, leckeres Bier bestellt.
If we change the prefix and replace be– with her-, we end up with herstellen, which means “to manufacture or produce.” And if we choose another prefix — aus — we end up with ausstellen, a verb we can translate as “to exhibit or show,” such as when you exhibit your latest artistic masterpiece: Ich habe mein letztes künstlerisches Meisterwerk ausgestellt.
There are plenty more prefixes to choose from (Fact alert! The verbs legen and stellen have the most), but let’s take a look at one final one: vor. With this and stellen, we now have vorstellen, which means “to imagine” if you use it with the dative case and “to introduce (to a person)” if you use it with the accusative case. (If you’re freaking out at the mention of cases as you learn German, check out our German courses for answers.)
Prefixes In Action
Let’s break it down and focus on the prefixes independently. The particle be– means to inflict something on someone or something else. For instance, “I paint a cat” (as in to make a painting of a cat) is Ich male eine Katze. But let’s add be- to the verb malen — “to paint.” We now have Ich bemale eine Katze, which means you are painting directly onto the cat. Congratulations, your cat is now green, and despises prefixes. But at least you can see how a simple particle can change intention and meaning.
Time for another example: aus. This prefix means “out or off.” So ausgehen is “to go out” and ausschalten is “to switch off.”
Thirsty for more? Let’s consider the prefix her. It indicates movement, along the lines of “to here,” or “hither.” Herkommen is a good example. It means “to come from” or “to come from here.” Wo kommst du her? is on the first phrases you learn in German class, and means “Where do you come from?”
We’re on a roll now. The prefix an means “at or on,” so anziehen (ziehen means “to pull”) means “to put on” or “to dress.” The prefix vor means “before.” If you add it to the verb haben (to have), you end up with vorhaben, which means means “to plan.” Nach means after. Add it to denken (to think) for nachdenken, which means “to think it over.”
Über means “over.” Add it to fahren (to drive) for überfahren, which means “to run over.” One last prefix: zer, which means “asunder” or “apart.” So it’s logical that zerbrechen (brechen means “to break”) means “to break apart” or “into pieces.”
Now that you’ve been confronted with the verbs and we’ve analyzed the prefixes attached to them, try following the clues and guess what these verbs and prefixes mean. I’ll guide you through it and you can check the right answers further down.
Legen means “to put” or “to place.” We will use it as our main verb.
- Now let’s add the prefix an– we analyzed previously to create anlegen. Any idea what it might mean?
- Let’s give it a go with the prefix über- and consider the verb überlegen. What do you think is the meaning of this verb?
- The particle zer- can also be added as a prefix to create the verb zerlegen. What do you think the corresponding English verb would be?
- One last try with the prefix vor. We end up with vorlegen. What do you suppose this means?
(1. Anlegen: to attach something; 2. Überlegen: to consider; 3. Zerlegen: to dismantle; 4. Vorlegen: to submit.)
Daunting? Yes, I know. Once the prefixes start piling up, the mind boggles! But as you gradually make your way through the jungle of German verb prefixes, you’ll notice how these once subtle differences evolve into helpful signposts. You’ll no longer confuse kaufen with verkaufen or anziehen with umziehen. In my mind, they are no longer verbs with prefixes. They are independent words with distinct meanings. This development comes with time, but it does come.
As if that weren’t confusing enough, the story gets a little more complicated. Some of these particles, or prefixes, aren’t overly fond of their accompanying verbs and split up with them when the verb is conjugated. Others are more attached and never separate. These verbs are imaginatively called separable and inseparable verbs. You can read more about them here, or get all snazzy and interactive in a German course. But that’s enough grammar for now. Well done for getting this far!