In what moment in the development of the German language were separable verbs introduced? Also, is there a linguistic reason behind their introduction? Thanks!

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    I've addressed this question partially in this answer in the English Language and Usage forum. Commented Jun 10, 2011 at 15:19
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    I learn Dutch & I know it has some similarities with German. So, is there anyone who can explain about the way of thinking and analyzing a sentence with separable verbs by a native speaker. Personally, I find it very difficult to connect the verb with its separable prefix which may stay 5-6 words further in the sentence and can be next to a preposition (which makes it difficult to choose which one is the preposition and which one is prefix of the verb). It is still ok while reading, but when people are speaking I can't understand which prefix relates to which verb.
    – user1207
    Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 11:35
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    Hi @Olga and welcome to German.Stackexchange. This answer you posted is probably more of a separate question about learning to deal with separated verbs.
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 11:40
  • I want to say two more things: English is not my native language, but I didn't get problems with pharasal verbs there. However, while I had some grammar problems with English, it helped a lot to start thinking like a native speaker. I got an enourmously interesting and unique book where 'why' questions of all grammar points were explained. It was not a grammar book, but a linguistic book.
    – user1207
    Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 11:58
  • 2) Jan, maybe it is about learning to deal with separable verbs. However, for me it is related to linguistic background. Native speakers (as well as other poeple) have limited mental resources and they can't consider the sentence of 10 words as one big whole. They break it on parts in their mind, but then you often will have two parts of a separable verb in different clusters of your memory. There should be a trick which native speakers use (without realising it). I think that knowing the history of why separable verbs are used this way can help personally me. (I would not say about others)
    – user1207
    Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 12:15

3 Answers 3


Separable verbs have actually not been "introduced" but actually have always been there so to speak.

Linguists posit that separable verbs are a primitive feature of Indo European languages and can even be found in non Indo-European languages (e.g. Hungarian).

You will find separable verbs in:

A. Modern Languages

  1. Some present-day English phrasal verbs:

    • To swear in: "The Prime Minister swore the whole cabinet in".
    • To screw up: "He is always screwing things up".
  2. Present-day German separable verbs.

    • Abfahren: "Wann fährst du ab?"
  3. Present-day Dutch separable verbs.

    • Schoonmaken: "Ik maakte het huis schoon" (Ich mache das Haus schön/sauber).
  4. Even Canadian French has been "contaminated" with preposition stranding due to a prolonged contact with English (but this is a recent phenomenon, just mentioned here for the record).

B. Ancient Languages

First there is the familiar Latin sentence structure where, as in German, infinitive verbs are thrown at the end of the sentence in LIFO order. Did Latin ever have separable verbs? As a matter of fact "Old Latin" and a few other ancient languages did. As I read in this article of which I reproduce here the relevant part.

  1. Many Modern [sic] Indo-European verbs are separable verbs, as in Homeric Greek, in Hittite1, in the oldest Vedic [...].
  2. Thus, in Latin the verb supplāktum, "beg humbly", "supplicate" (adj. supplāks, "suppliant", verb plākējō, "advise, persuade"), gives sup wos plākējō (cf. O.Lat. sub uos placō), "I entreat you", and not "*wos supplakējō", as Classic Lat. "uos supplicō".
  3. Non-personal forms, i.e. Nouns and Adjectives, form a compound (karmadharaya) with the preposition; as O.Ind. prasādaḥ, "favour", Lat subsidium, praesidium, O.Ind. apaciti, Gk. apotisis , “reprisal”, etc.

In Hittite at least the technical term is preverbs. Except for two of them, they are all separable. The same (directional) words can be used either as adverbs, prepositions or preverbs: anda (into), appa (away), arha (outward), katta (downward), para (forward), sara (upward). Looks familiar? Google "up" for "Hittite preverbs" for more.

Maybe the right question then could be "When and how did prepositions become [inseparable] parts of verbs?".

1 At that point, it is worth noting that Hittite is recognised as one of the oldest known Indo-European languages, if not the oldest — with such primitive characteristics as only two genders (animate/inanimate).

  • I think another example from a Germanic language might be interesting to some: Present-day Norwegian Phrasal verbs are abundant, but only a few separable verbs exist, like "Jeg overtar huset" and "Jeg tar over huset" both mean "I take over the house".
    – Stovner
    Commented Jun 11, 2011 at 8:22
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    hmm I'm not convinced by the present day English examples. One feature of separable verbs to me is that they appear non-separated in some grammatical contexts and separated in other. You would never use the verbs in the form "to upscrew" or "to inswear".
    – user12889
    Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 2:05
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    @user12889, the of thumb rule in English is that intransitive phrasal verbs are inseparable (as per the very definition of intransitivness: for instance "I get out") and that transitive phrasal verbs have a good chance of being separable. For instance, consider 'I look up a word in the dictionary' (the object is not inserted between the verb and the preposition), and 'I look it up in the dictionary' (when the object is a pronoun it is always inserted between the verb and the preposition). Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 20:03
  • You are probably right on an academic linguistic level. But still, as a native German speaker and long time English speaker, to me they don't quite feel like they are in the same league :-). Maybe my view is biased by the observation that German speakers don't seem to have problems with English separable verbs, but German separable verbs seem to cause a lot of pain for English speakers.
    – user12889
    Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 23:46
  • I really have to agree with user12889 basically because English present day phrasal verbs are not on the same league of separable prefix verbs that German has and I will give my 2 cents as to why. Take a look at these 2 sentances, Turn off the light. Turn the light off. 1st one is how I always speak always always always, 2nd one is how / you can speak but for some reason i just never do, and you are right it is not like we can say offturn or onturn. So even though our phrasal verbs are technically equivalent to modern day german trennbare verben i must agree with you they are not in the same l
    – user5410
    Commented Feb 9, 2014 at 15:00

German has, by the way, some phrasal verbs as well in addition to the separable verbs. If you take for instance schauen (to look), you'll see that you can add prepositions like über or auf. In a sentence, these are inverted like separable verbs but are not quite the same in their infinitive form: über etwas schauen - ich schaue übers Meer. I'm not sure if this will make it easier for you to learn and understand separable verbs, but it's at least a common feature of both German and English

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    While German may indeed have phrasal verbs, I think your example is not the best to demonstrate that. In "übers Meer schauen", you just use the literal meaning of "schauen", nothing phrasal here as far as I can tell.
    – Hulk
    Commented Apr 29, 2020 at 8:39

Yes, it is the writing together that distinguishes German from English, and that happens only after an evolutionary process: 'Teil/teil' was not always written together with parts of 'nehmen' and, according to Duden, 'wett' did not become consistently written together with 'machen' until the 19th century.

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