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It's not unusual for me not to be able to find some German word in any dictionary (or dictionary-like resource) I try. Since such words are often of the form PREFIX+STEM, I figure I'm not finding them in the dictionary for the same reason that I would not find, for example, the word "superobvious" in any English dictionary: its meaning is superobvious to any English speaker1.

Does anyone know of a reference work that explains various word-forming German prefixes sufficiently thoroughly2 that, given this explanation, and a definition of STEM, one would be able to figure out the meaning a word of the form PREFIX+STEM?

Note that I wrote explanation above rather than definition. This is an allusion to the fact that the keyword-definition format of typical dictionaries does not lend itself to the type of elucidation that I'm after. Hence, for example, many dictionaries define super, or even super- (i.e. explicitly as a prefix), but this definition is not complete enough that one could use it to guess what superimpose or superlinear means. Rather than a stereotyped, highly condensed definition, what one needs is a mini-treatise on the prefix super-.

That said, I stress that I'm looking for a work of reference aimed at the non-specialist, and meant to be consulted "at random", not a monograph on German morphology aimed at professional linguists, and meant to be read sequentially from beginning to end.

I realize that the kind of reference I'm looking for may not have enough material to warrant its publication as a self-standing work. It is more likely that it would appear as an appendix to some larger work, such as a dictionary. If so, I'd love to know the name of the latter.

1Of course, there are still words that begin with super- that do not readily lend themselves to such ready interpretation (e.g. knowledge of what a "vise" is would be superfluous when confronted with the word "supervise", and good luck finding "fluous" in your typical English dictionary), but these cases that do not conform to the superobvious interpretation are precisely the ones that one would find in a typical German or German-English dictionary.

2For example, a "sufficiently thorough" explanation of super- would enable one not only to decipher superobvious and superquickly, but also give one a clue of what superscript, superpose, and superfamily may mean.

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I love the comprehensive way in which question is asked. – Anurag Kalia Mar 13 '13 at 2:05
@Emanuel: I was be-blown away by that blog post; but please, pace yourself, or you'll zer-burn yourself out well before you make it to zu... Heck, you won't make it to hinaus... – kjo Mar 15 '13 at 20:13

2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

(1) Any German grammar will explain the meaning and use of pre- and suffixes. Grammars differ in the underlying linguistic theory, so the explanations will differ. Do not refer to a learner's grammar, but go to a university library and find a comprehensive grammar of German. The last grammar I looked at that extensively explained suffixes was:

  • Engel, Ulrich (1991). Deutsche Grammatik (2. Auflage). Heidelberg: Groos.

I have never consulted the more easy to find and cheaper Duden Grammatik. I would suspect that it has at least a section on suffixes, but I don't know how comprehensive this is.

(2) There is specialized literature on word formation (Wortbildung). Pre- and suffixation are methods of word formation. Again, any introductory work or handbook on word formation should deal with pre- and suffixes extensively. An example is:

  • Lohde, Peter (2006). Wortbildung des Modernen Deutschen: Ein Lehr- und Übungsbuch. Tübingen: Narr.

Here is a preview of a relevant part of that book.

If you have access to a university library, browse the books they have from these two fields (grammar and word formation) and see what fits your needs.

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Judging by this answer, it is a pity user1914 apparently left German Language StackExchange. – Martin Schwehla Mar 15 at 8:56

As we may have other questions on that topic. There is a quite concise online source for the concepts of German prefixation available in German, and (partly) translated to English:

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