I’m trying to find out why English uses to with to listen as in I listen to [something.] The word to listen is cognate to the modern German word lauschen.

I know that to say I listen to [something] in German one can use zuhören or anhören, which have the prepositions zu and an. Seems similar to English in that a direction for attention is required.

My questions:

1) Can lauschen take a preposition? I’m not a native speaker (I grew up in Germany and used to speak fluently but that was years ago). It seems like one could say anlauschen or zulauschen. but I was not able to find that usage online and none of the examples for lauschen used an or zu in the sentences.

2) If lauschen doesn’t currently take a preposition, did it, at one time?

3) My German dictionary says that lauschen means to pay close attention to something in a listening way, but many of the examples I found of its usage imply that eavesdropping is the best way to view this word. Is this true? Did the meaning of the word change over time?

2 Answers 2


Lauschen means listen silently and attentively.

Without preposition it may just mean listen, often with enjoyment. The object or person you are listening to is given in dative. This may also explain your to in English — the target (typically dative in German) is translated as to [target] in English.

der Musik lauschen
dem Vogelgesang lauschen

It indicates stealth if you say belauschen instead, which requires an object in accusative, or if you omit the object (must be infered from the context).

den Nachbarn belauschen
an der Tür lauschen

  • Ah, that makes sense ;)
    – Jan
    Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 16:38

According to Grimm’s Wörterbuch, lauschen in the sense of listening to has at earlier stages of German allowed certain prepositions (6.c). Examples Grimm gives:

lauschte ich oft von des vaters lippen auf die thaten der edlen Griechen

With auf.

ach tausendmal wirst du (sonne) meerunter sinken,
eh dieses auge wieder sich berauscht
von seligkeit, in seinem (des freundes) lächelwinken,
wenn er auf lieder lauscht!

Again with auf.

In modern German, I agree the dative direct argument is the standard usage, followed by the intransitive usage.

Note, your question 1, about an- and zulauschen refers to prefixes, not prepositions. There is belauschen: that is, if you add the prefix be- to lauschen, it requires an accusative argument referring to somebody who produces sound, no longer a Dative argument referring to sounds.
This belauschen is also the best translation of eavesdropping. Lauschen without the prefix just means listening, and would typically refer to music.

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