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I am finding verbs with the prefix "er" very hard to understand and remember the meaning of.

I understand how it works with verbs like ertrinken and ersticken (partly because I used erstochen once to tell a co-worker I had accidentally stabbed myself with a knife but actually said I had stabbed myself to death with a knife).

I also understand when it somehow corresponds to "re" in English like in erkennen and erzaehlen (in some sense re-tell).

Beyond this I find this prefix very hard to make sense of and almost all verbs beginning with "er" are problem verbs. For instance, I can't make sense of the difference between erfragen and fragen and between erkaufen and kaufen. I don't understand why erfinden means to invent when finden means to find and I don't understand why erdenken means to conceive when denken means to think (although I obviously see that in both situations they are connected concepts).

Can someone give me a guide to "er" and how it works with some groups of verbs?

I've searched for questions about the prefix "er" but couldn't find anything, but if I have just missed it please tell me.

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Be careful with trying to deduce the meaning of a prefixed word from general rules. While such "rules" can be helpful in remembering the meaning, there are many exceptions, where the prefixed word means something completely different. – oefe Feb 24 '13 at 10:29
Oefe: I know I should be careful but I find sometimes once I have a general rule, the verbs that don't follow that general rule stick out more and then my brain pays attention (and then hopefully starts to learn the meaning). – Conrad Feb 25 '13 at 17:33
The German prefix er- has nothing to do with the English prefix re-, which comes from Latin and means again or back. – Walter Tross Feb 8 at 18:21

6 Answers 6

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The prefix "er" is mostly used for a process that will cause a certain state. This states might be finite (for example, "ertrinken" and "erstechen" as well als "erschießen" will leave you dead...) or momentary.

Some examples for verbs that describe a process leading to a finite state:

erhalten - becoming owner of something
erstellen - building something
erfahren - getting notice of something
erlösen - ending someone's pain
erledigen - finishing something

And some examples for verbs describing a process leading to a momentary state:

erinnern - reminding you of something, so your concentration moves there for the moment
ertragen - suffering from something

Sometimes "er" is used as a prefix in verbs that describe the change of something:

erwachen - waking up
erliegen - becoming unable to do something for some reason of dying of a disease
ermüden - in humans: becoming tired; in materials: becoming unreliable or breaking

In some cases, the prefix "er" changes a common verb with a similar meaning into another verb that describes a process, but in every day language the prefix is tightly coupled with the word is is being used with.

Comparison above verbs meanings without "er-":

halten - holding something
stellen - putting something at a certain place
fahren - driving somewhere
lösen - solving a problem
tragen - carrying something
wachen - being awake or keeping an eye on something
liegen - lying

"ledigen", "innern" and "müden" aren't valid words, they can't exist without "er".

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Thanks. This is really helpful. – Conrad Feb 25 '13 at 17:16
How can erwachsen werden be considered in this category, however? – Anurag Kalia Mar 10 '13 at 18:20
Anurag Kalia: You are right, that's misplaced here. – Sascha Kaupp Mar 11 '13 at 8:23
In addition to the adjective the verb "erwachsen" does exist ;) – Takkat Mar 11 '13 at 8:35
Note that "erhalten" is a problematic example, because it could mean "get something" as well as "instandhalten". In the latter meaning, the substantive "Erhaltung" is often used. – Ingo Dec 10 '13 at 9:44

Das verbale Präfix er- ist problematisch, weil es kein klares und eindeutiges Zentrum hat. Du wirst erkennen, dass einigen Verben klare Sinngruppen zugeordnet werden können, wie z. B. Aspekt des Beginnens (ertönen), Komparativ-Sinn (erwärmen für wärmer machen) und einige andere Gruppen. Viele Verben lassen sich aber schlecht einer Sinngruppe zuordnen und man muss sie einzeln erlernen wie z. B. erlauben.

Was ich im Internet dazu gesehen habe, ist anfängerisch, z. B. canoonet

Am besten, du machst deine eigenen Untersuchungen, das ist immer am interessantesten.

Nachtrag: Eine größere Gruppe von Verben mit er- entspricht lateinischen Verben mit re- (zurück, wieder).

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All of these verbs have (in a wider or narrower meaning) a result, that is relevant. The result might be a state, an object or something else. [This is probably not the etymological root, but it works.]

Example verb → the relevant result → meaning of the verb

erkennen → image/knowledge → realize something / make out something

erzählen → story → tell a story

erkaufen → loss of currency → buy something by paying a currency

erhalten → conservation of a state → to conserve a state

erstellen → existencs of something → create something

erfahren → knowledge/experience → experience sth/get to know sth

erlösen → relevation of something painful → relieve of something painful

erledigen → state of getting rid of → get rid of something

erinnern → state of having in mind → remember (=sich erinnern) or remind (jemanden erinnern)

erwachen → awakenness → awaken

erliegen → defeat → getting defeated by something

ermüden → tiredness → get tired

erröten → red face → getting red in the face

erwärmen → warmness → getting warm

erzittern → state of shaking → shake/shaken

erdenken → thought → create a thought

erblühen → blossom → blossum

erglühen → red heat → to heat something to red heat (?correct English?)

erklingen → sound → to create a sound

erfragen → answer → to ask (a specific question)

erdrücken → result of pressure e.g. collapse/death → to pressure something to death / to collapse

ermorden → death → murder

ertrinken → death → drown (by oneself)

ertränken → death → drown somebody else / some living thing

ersticken → death → choke somebody / oneself to death

erstechen → death → stab somebody to death

For some verbs, the difference between the version with and without the prefix "er-" is the importance of the result:

erkaufen: The loss of some currency (not necessarily monetary) is important.

kaufen: Something is bought. The loss of the currency is not important.

Example: Er erkauft sich Erfolg durch weniger Freizeit. = He's "buying" success by "paying" with spare time.

erfragen: The result is important, which means, someone's asking for something specific.

fragen: to ask, perhaps specifically, perhaps unspecifically.

Example: Er fragt nach dem Weg zur Bahnhof. = Er erfragt den Weg zum Bahnhof. = He's asking for the way to the station. Example: Er fragt den Deutschlehrer. = He's asking the German teacher. BUT: Er erfagt den Deutschlehrer. = He's asking, who his German teacher is.

Of course, if you ask something, you want to get an answer. But there are other aspects of asking (who, when, where, for what reason). The verb "fragen" is used for any of these aspects. The verb "erfragen" is used, if the result is of specific importance.

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Thanks, in particular for the erfragen explanation. – Conrad Feb 25 '13 at 17:24
I was always told that I should always and always try to connect the er- verb with the meaning of root verb. The er- one would be specific as well as somehow more fancy. It works. When I am in doubt, I always see where the focus is and depending on it use the verb. It works, I would say, 60% of the time? Though the remaining time I am not even sure the word exists or not. :D – Anurag Kalia Mar 10 '13 at 18:24

It's like in English:

ab- (abstain, abduct, abbreviate) there is no actual meaning in it, just learn it. in- (involve, intend, invent) for- (forgive, forget...

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The English verbal prefix ab- is connected with the Latin preposition ab and has a clear meaning. Sometimes, as in abbreviate it is the Latin preposition ad. ad+b changes to abb (assimilation). – rogermue Dec 25 '14 at 4:24

In fact, the ambiguity is used in a pun I remember: "Es gibt drei Möglichkeiten, jemanden mit einem Vogel zu töten: erdrosseln, ergänzen und erstarren."

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We may get a clue on the purpose of the prefix er-, frequentliy used for conversion of verb-to-verb, noun-to-verb, or adjective-to-verb, when we look at the etymology or "er-" (loose translation by me):

The prefix er- is derived from a tonal weakening of the Old High German prefixes ur-, ar-, ir-, and er-, which mostly turned to er- in Middle High German. Sometimes the original prefixes are partly preserved, as seen in "Urlaub" vs. "erlauben", both having the same roots.

Originally, the Germanic prefix ur- was used for epressing "aus" (i.e. out of, from within, originating), which is still seen in "heraus". This prefix did not make its way into English. In contemporary German the meaning is weakend or partly lost.

We use the prefix er- for:

  • Getting into a state (erröten. erwärmen, erzittern, erdenken)
  • Beginning of something (erblühen, erglühen, erklingen, erfragen)
  • Reaching of a result (erdrücken, ermorden, ertrinken, ersticken, erstochen)

Please note that these three categories are rather loose. The verbs in bold are those from the question. I tried to put them in one or the other category but with "erfragen" the appropriate category is not so clear; it could well be put in the last one (reaching a result) too.

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shouldn't erfragen be in the third category? – Emanuel Feb 24 '13 at 20:32
okay so may I "nitpickingly" suggest to "boldify" another verb of that category then :)? Having "erfragen" in bold makes it seems as if this was the prime example for the concept – Emanuel Feb 25 '13 at 11:53
oh ops never mind :). I wasn't aware that those were the ones mentioned in the question – Emanuel Feb 25 '13 at 17:06
Thanks. This is really interesting. – Conrad Feb 25 '13 at 17:22

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