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  • Writer's pictureDIe Frau

Fun with Deutsch: A series

I'm a word nerd.

I love learning the history of how a word in a particular language has changed over time, what roots it has in other tongues, etc.

I also like noticing the different things you can learn about a culture by how its people communicate - what details are important to share, and in what ways.

We lived in Seoul, Korea from 2006 until 2009. While there, I learned that Koreans use many different words to describe snow and snowfall.

For example, my daughter's nanny would ask me, 'What's the word in English for small, light snowflakes that look like lace."

Me: "Uh, snow.'

Her: "What about big, heavy snow that falls fast?"

Me: "Still, just snow."

Koreans also have many more words to describe family members. Mrs. Han was really perplexed that we used the same words to refer to our mother's sister as we did our father's brother's wife, for example.

In German, one thing that continually throws me for a loop are separable verbs (Trennbare Verben). These are verbs that have a base verb plus a prefix that is separated from the base when the word is conjugated. The base is conjugated while the prefix moves to the end of the sentence.


ausfallen = 'to fail.'

Used in a sentence: 'Der Zug fällt aus.'

(By the way, if you will be visiting Germany for even a short time, you're going to hear this sentence - a lot. You should know it means your train isn't coming.)

The meanings of many, if not most, separable verbs are indicated by the combined meanings of both the prefix (which is often a preposition) and the base verb.

Gehen = 'to go.'

Raus = 'out.'

Rausgehen = 'to go out.'

bringen = 'to bring.'

mit = 'with'

mitbringen = 'to bring with'

kommen = 'to come.'

mit = 'with'

mitkommen = 'to come with'

In short sentences, this isn't hard to understand. But, in longer ones, with say an indirect object and a dependent clause, it can be confusing if you don't notice the preposition at the end.

And sometimes, a separable verb has a meaning completely unrelated to the base verb.

For example, today I was reading the newspaper and several articles featured a separable verb I had not seen before: vorwerfen.

Now, 'vor' is a frequently used preposition meaning 'before' or 'in front of' depending on the context. Werfen, by iteself, means 'to throw.' For example: 'Er wirft den Müll in den Mülleimer.' He throws the garbage into the garbage can.

I kept reading, for example, that members of the train drivers' union were 'throwing' statements 'in front of' the railway management. How weird, I thought. Maybe it means they used a hostile tone?

But vorwerfen means to accuse someone of something.

There are lots of these verbs in German, which I find weirdly funny because of the mental pictures it provokes. My favorite, so far: Umbringen.

Now, as I wrote above, 'mitbringen' means to bring with, or bring along.

The German word 'um' by itself can mean 'to,' 'around,' or 'for,' depending on the context.

But 'umbringen' means 'to kill or murder!'

So, 'Ich bringe ihn' means 'I am bringing him,' and 'ich bringe ihn mit' means 'I am bringing him along,' but 'Ich bringe ihn um' means 'I'm killing him!' or 'I'll kill him!' So, be really careful with the prefixes there.

(To give some less alarming examples, verbringen also means 'to spend time with' and 'beibringen' means 'to teach.')

Are any of you starting to learn German? What are your 'favorite' separable verbs that you know about? Share in the comments. I'll probably learn something.



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