Word! The Language Column Prefixes

They are inconspicuous and usually very short – but they can have a great effect: In the German language, prefixes sometimes succeed in completely changing the meaning of a word. If you read carefully, you can make surprising discoveries.

By Sharon Dodua Otoo

Illustration: red jagged speech bubble containing three coloured circles Prefixes do a lot of heavy lifting in the German language | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank
An alliterative prefix served as an ornament of oratory
(Oscar Wilde)

How amazing are prefixes! Just pop one on the beginning of a word and the meaning is completely altered! This gave me a lot of joy during my German lessons in school. Because, let’s be honest, learning vocabulary is not quite “the yellow of the egg” and I was always looking for lifehacks to make it easier or at least more interesting.

Innocent or deadly

Very early on I learnt that “schießen” means “to shoot” and “erschießen” mean to “shoot to death”, “schlagen” means “to hit” and “erschlagen” means “to beat to death”, and whereas “hängen” is an innocent enough verb meaning to hang, “erhängen” also results in death. I was amazed. So imagine my shock when I found out that the word “erziehen” actually means “to parent” or “to educate”? Why did it have this deathly prefix? What is the connection between “ziehen” (which means to pull) and the act of teaching children how to be good citizens of our society? And in a language where “wachsen” means “to grow”, what happens to those who become “Erwachsene” (adults)?  When I realised that “Erlangen” was the actual name of a real-life German city, my chin dropped. “Langen” means to be sufficient. How can a place be sufficient to the point of being deadly?

But that’s not all! Even the way a word with a prefix is stressed (on the prefix or not) can have life-threatening implications. Think about the word “umfahren”. On its own, “fahren” just means “to drive” or “to travel.” But in combination with the prefix “um” it can mean “to drive around” or “to run over” / “to knock over.” Whenever I picture myself as a passenger warning a driver to drive around the grandma standing in the middle of the road, I break out into a cold sweat.

A special moment

So, I quickly learnt that prefixes are more than just “an ornament of oratory”. Although, admittedly the alliterative prefixes that Oscar Wilde refers to in the quote at the beginning of this text are probably adjectives rather than parts of a noun or verb. Nevertheless, prefixes do a lot of heavy lifting in the German language. Probably to make up for the fact that German does not have as much vocabulary as English. The award-winning translator, Professor Susan Bernofsky, regularly speaks about her love for the German language and in an interview once praised its ability to express things in a prefix that English might need several words to do. Compare “einen Apfel anbeißen” to “to take the first bite of an apple.” “Beißen” means “to bite” and the “an” conveys a special moment, a fulfillment of anticipation, that the English sentence really does not really convey.

And then I got to thinking about words like “unterhalten” which actually means “to entertain” but consists of the words “unter” meaning “under” and “halten” which means “to hold.” As a person who critically reflects on processes of marginalisation, I wondered if the word “Unterhaltungssendung” actually had a deeper meaning? Is the German language entertainment industry perhaps being used to subjugate the population? To quite literally to hold them under? I could be overthinking it.

But honestly, I could go on and on about German prefixes. I wish that more people shared my obsession.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.