What I learned in school today

My Deutsch class leads me to one inescapable conclusion: German is ridiculous. We students of intermediate Deutsch are busying* ourselves with the phenomenon of the “verb prefix.” The German language bulges with verbs, and many of these numerous verbs can express something else, related or unrelated, to the root verb just with the addition of a few preliminary letters. For example: “lassen” means “to let, to allow.” But, “verlassen” means “to leave your lover,” and “zerlassen” means “to melt.” Meanwhile, “erlassen” means “to enact a law.”

My favorite prefix right now is “zer-” which usually adds the sense of “in to pieces” to the root verb. “Treten” means “to step.” “Zertreten,” then, is “to crush by stepping,” as in ants or cigarette butts. “Drücken”: to push; “zerdrücken”: to squash or mash (think of it as “push to pieces”). Sometimes “zer” seems redundant, as in “bomben”: to bomb; “zerbomben”: to bomb to pieces.

There’s  also often a way to add “to death” to the verb’s significance with the prefix  “er-”. For instance, “schlagen” means “to hit,” but “erschlagen” means “to hit to death,” as in with an axe, which was the example in our textbook. “Hängen” means “to hang,” while “erhängen” means “to die from hanging.” Even innocent “legen” (“to put, to lay”), turns into “erlegen”: “to slay, to shoot to death.”

I wish I could just add prefixes with abandon, but as with the rest of German grammar, these are just rules of thumb, dastardly teases that give me a fleeting hope that I can grasp this language. Just as often, they don’t work (erreichen: to achieve, erwerben: to purchase).

Prefixes contain another delight. They can separate from their verbs and hang out elsewhere in the sentence. So, maybe you’re reading about somebody just sitting herself down (setzen). But then this random syllable “fort” pops up later, and you have to remember that “fortsetzen” is  it’s own word, with a detachable “fort.” Now the person isn’t sitting at all. She’s continuing, because that’s what fortsetzen means.

If this happened in English, I would write like this: “Aaron and I were vited this weekend to a really fun empanada-making party at the home of an Argentinean woman in my German class in. Did you catch that? That last “in” is the separated prefix from “vited.” My teacher says this structure means that German speakers are always alert and tensed, ready to find out what’s actually being talked about. Often this fuses me con, but I also lish the challenge re. In short, I’m sort of joying separable prefixes en.

*Grammar funfact: Deutsch has only one present tense. The Germans make no distinction between “I busy myself” and “I am busying myself.” Furthermore, while the future tense exists, no one speaks with it. So the present tense can also mean “I will busy myself.” Keep all that in mind when conducting a conversation auf Deutsch.

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One response to “What I learned in school today

  1. I really enjoyed reading your observations about the German language. This is the first time I’ve been to your blog in a while. We had a snow day today, so I finally have a little break from teaching to be a human being again. I’m glad things are going well for you and Aaron in Germany. Sending lots of love to you!

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