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Compound German verbs are formed as

prefix + basic verb

So, if you have the verb X you can have its compounds by adding one prefix to it.

I'm asking whether a certain prefix carries always the same added meaning, whatever the basic verb you add it to. In English, this is usually the case (e.g., go, undergo, forego...).

If this is not the case, can you provide examples of prefixes whose added meaning changes according to the verb it is used on?

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Adding prefixes to verbs generally doesn't yield compound words (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compound_word) but derivatives (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derivative_%28linguistics%29). –  Toscho Jun 30 '13 at 22:46
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1 Answer

up vote 4 down vote accepted

German prefixes in combination with verbs quite often don't work that simple way, I'm afraid. A specific prefix can have different meanings, depending on which verb (or type of verb) it is attached to.

For example, the prefix "ent" can mean the beginning of something, it does so in compounds like "entzünden" (to ignite). It can also mean taking something away, like it does in "entreißen" (to snatch something away) or "entmotten" (to dust the mothballs away from something). Another meaning of "ent" would be to reverse something, like in "entproblematisieren" (to solve a problem).

Further discussion of "ent" and its possible meanings to be found in the Duden.

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Thanks. So, is this true for every prefix (the fact they do not add the same concept/meaning to every verb)? Do you think that in English this is the case instead (I guess so)? –  martina Jun 30 '13 at 12:37
I'm pretty sure that this is not true for every prefix. The more specific its meaning is, the less variation there will be, if all (imagine e.g. the prefix "zurück", which is pretty precise). Can't say it for English, though. –  Tim Jun 30 '13 at 22:43
@Tim Zurück is an adverb, not a prefix. Words including zurück are compound words not derivatives by prefix. –  Toscho Jun 30 '13 at 22:54
@martina The only rule here is, that there is no rule. Some prefixes only add similiar meanings to verbs, other can add very different meanings. To be sure, one has to learn the exact meanings of the derived verbs themselves. Concerning your question in English: It's the same in English (undergo and understand.). There are just less prefix derived verbs in English than in German. Instead, there are more modal verbs in English, that also show quite different meanings of the single prepositions applied. –  Toscho Jun 30 '13 at 22:58
Ent- is a difficult example. It is the result of different prefixes in earlier versions of German: Ant- and In-/An-. Entzünden, Entbrennen, … are of the latter kind and the prefix means the start of something. Most other verbs starting with ent- are of the former kind and the prefix means to remove/revert something. So if you exclude the latter kind, the prefix has an unsually sharp meaning. –  Toscho Jun 30 '13 at 23:01
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