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There is not really an english counterpart to the often used german prefix "ver-", IMO. It has many functions (verbification) & meanings (e.g. verstärken vs. verschollen). Often it doesn't seem to be used like a typical prefix with its own clear meaning at all, like e.g. in-/un- for inversion.

For example:

Es wäre vermessen, sich beim Vermessen zu vermessen

3 different meanings (thx to Hendrik for this nice aphorism)

What rules of thumb exist for interpreting/deriving meaning correctly?

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DIfficult one. My favorite, with 3 different usages: Es wäre vermessen, sich beim Vermessen zu vermessen. (It would be impudent to make wrong measurements while surveying.) –  Hendrik Vogt Aug 25 '11 at 13:24
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Wer sich hier durchbeißen will: Im Grimm steht viel drin‌​, unter anderem, dass "ver" aus 4 verschieden Präfixen entstanden ist. –  Hendrik Vogt Aug 25 '11 at 13:53
    
@hendrik thx, i have a new bookmark and probably opened pandoras box :) –  Hauser Aug 25 '11 at 13:57
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Who wants to read an old book: "Die Vorsilbe ver- und ihre Geschichte" von Max Leopold. Published 1907.openlibrary.org/books/OL7000766M/… –  splattne Aug 25 '11 at 15:47
    
@splattne how about a kurzfassung ;) I would set up a bounty if i could (there is no button??? do i have to wait?) as this seems really a unique feature of German language and history. Or community wiki? –  Hauser Aug 25 '11 at 16:07
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4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

There is a most conclusive article on the etymology and usage of the prefix "ver-" in the "Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen (nach Pfeifer)":

ver- Präfix bei Verben und zugehörigen Nomina [...].

Die Funktionen von ver- im Nhd. sind vielfältig; vor allem kennzeichnet es ein

  • Beseitigen, Wegschaffen, Aufbrauchen (verrücken, vertreiben, verzehren)
  • Fort-, Zugrundegehen (verdunsten, verklingen, verschwinden)
  • Irreleiten, Fehlgehen (verführen, verwechseln, sich verzählen)
  • Ausdruck der Negation (verbieten, versagen)
  • resultativen Sinn (verbluten, verpacken, vertilgen), dient der
  • Verstärkung (verschließen, versperren)
  • Transitivierung intransitiver Verben (verfolgen, verheiraten, verspotten)
  • Hervorbringen verbaler Ableitungen von Adjektiven und Substantiven (verdeutlichen, vergöttern ‘deutlich, zu einem Gott machen’, verarmen, verholzen ‘arm, zu Holz werden’).

Die für nhd. ver- festzustellende Unterschiedlichkeit der Verwendungsweisen findet sich schon bei vorausgehendem ahd. fir-, far-, mhd. ver- und ähnlich bei asächs. far-, for-, mnd. vor-, mnl. nl. ver-, aengl. for-, fer-, engl. for-; sie erklärt sich aus dem Zusammenfall dreier Präfixe, die noch getrennt, wenn auch mit nicht mehr fest abzugrenzenden Bedeutungen in got. fra- (meist ‘fort-, weg-’), faίr- und faúr- begegnen; zu letzterem vgl. in frühen Texten belegtes anord. for- mit negativem, verschlimmerndem Sinn[...].

According to this, the usage of "ver-" may be used when

  • removing
  • vanishing
  • misleading
  • negating
  • resulting
  • reinforcing

and in

  • transitive formation
  • verbal transformations fo adjectives and nouns

This has it's roots back to merging three similar gothic prefixes fra-, fair-, and faúr-. A similar etymology has the English prefix for- (like in "forbidden").

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The "ver" prefix corresponds loosely to "for" in the English (and Scandinavian) languages.

Vergeben: to forgive.

The approximate meaning is "to cause", or "to make".

Verstärken: to make/cause to be strong; verfolgen: to cause to be "followed" (to persecute); verheiraten: to make "married", the act of marrying; vertreiben: to cause to be "driven" (to drive away).

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Another common meaning of the prefix is to indicate that something went wrong.

Some examples from the top of my head:
laufen -> sich verlaufen
haspeln -> sich verhaspeln
scherzen -> es sich mit jdm. verscherzen
gießen -> vergießen

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yeah thats the typical cases i head in my head. Imo the origin/meaning would get more clear on words like verringern where i dont see a real prefix function. As there is no pendant in english it seems unique in German. –  Hauser Aug 25 '11 at 15:44
    
@Hauser: No pendant, like for so many German prefixes. And it's not only "ver" that has these ambiguities. Prefixes often just give a word a completely different meaning, without any clear rule. –  Hendrik Vogt Aug 25 '11 at 16:02
    
@hendrik how frequent is often. german.stackexchange.com/questions/1511/… yield all different english pendants. So actually the prefix in German often simplifies learning of the language while in Engish you have to learn several different words for fine nuances imo. Dont you agree? ver- just seems to be the exception that proves the rule –  Hauser Aug 25 '11 at 16:18
    
@Hauser: (I'm not sure what you're saying with your 2nd sentence, the only containing the link). I thought of "be-", "er-" and "ent-", so it's not really so many prefixes. But also supposedly clear cases such as "über-" can act surprisingly, e.g. in "überlegen". –  Hendrik Vogt Aug 25 '11 at 16:26
    
@hendrik überlegen, entbeinen is a nice metaphor and meaning derivable & conclusive imo, while vernichten, verringern dont really give you any hints to deduce meaning. ver- still seems much more unique to me...splattne linked a whole book above in comment :) –  Hauser Aug 25 '11 at 16:32
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I'd say a pretty common of the "ver-" prefix is "to increase some property".

  • verstärken: give something more strength (Stärke)
  • verehren: to increase someones glory (Ehre)
  • veredeln: to make something more precious (edel)
  • ...
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imo this is the verbification example (Stärke, Ehre, edel). Counter example would be verringern :) Here ver- is not really a prefix as ringern is not derivable? –  Hauser Aug 25 '11 at 14:21
    
@Hauser: yes, I'm well aware that by far not all "ver-" words match this description. It's just one common use. –  Joachim Sauer Aug 25 '11 at 14:22
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