8

I’m using Rosetta Stone and have come across similar sentences like the following:

Wen rufst du an?

What does the an mean and is it necessary? I’ve tried typing it into Google Translate with and without the an it comes up with the same meaning either way. I also know that the German word an translates to to, at, on, by, and against but none of those words seem to make any sense in this sentence.

  • 1
    To close voters: OP obviously tried to use Google Translate as per question but it didn’t help. – Jan Nov 21 '15 at 14:39
21

I give you two situations:

Situation 1:

English:
You and Peter have been swimming in the ocean. You just came out of the water, but Peter is 30 meters away from you. You want, that Peter comes to you, so you call him.
Who do you call?

German:
Du und Peter wart im Meer schwimmen. Ihr seid gerade aus dem Wasser gekommen, aber Peter ist 30 Meter von dir entfernt. Du möchtest, dass Peter zu dir kommt, also rufst du ihn.
Wen rufst du?

Situation 2:

English:
You are at home alone and your computer crashed. Peter is a computer engineer and can help you, so you call him.
Who do you call?

German:
Du bist allein daheim und dein Computer ist gerade abgestürzt. Peter ist Computerfachmann und kann dir helfen, also rufst du ihn an.
Wen rufst du an?

In situation 1 you are calling Peter without a phone. You are just speaking in a louder voice than normal. This is what to call meant even before the telephone was invented. In German this is »rufen«.

In Situation 2 you are using a telephone to ring up another person. You (normally) are not speaking in a louder voice, but you need a special device (a phone). This is a different meaning of to call than in situation 1, and it translates different into German. In German this is »anrufen«.

Separable verb

Some German verbs have a feature that English verbs doesn't have: They can be split into two parts, whose first(!) part can float across the whole sentence to its very end:

German:
Maria wäscht das Geschirr, das ihr Claudia und Walter aus dem Esszimmer gebracht haben, nachdem alle drei dort gegessen und viel geredet hatten, besonders sorgfältig und mit dem neuen Schwamm, den sie von Lisa bekommen hat, ab.

English:
Maria washes the dishes, which Claudia and Walter brought her from the dining room, after all three of them had been eating and talking a lot, very carefully with the new sponge, that she has got from Lisa.

The verb in this sentence is »abwaschen« (to clean a plane surface with water), and it is a separable verb which splits into »ab« and »waschen« in some cases, and when this happens, the first part (here »ab«) moves to the end of the main sentence, while the second part (»waschen«) stays at position 2, after the subject. But as shown in my example, supporting sentences can squeeze also inside the main sentence, which makes the two parts of the verb move apart even more.

The main sentence of my example is:

Maria wäscht das Geschirr ab.
Maria washes the dishes.

But see how separable verbs are used in different tenses:

  • Präsens: Ich rufe Peter an. Maria wäscht das Geschirr ab.
  • Perfekt: Ich habe Peter angerufen. Maria hat das Geschirr abgewaschen.
  • Präteritum: Ich rief Peter an. Maria wusch das Geschirr ab.
  • Plusquamperfekt: Ich hatte Peter angerufen. Maria hatte das Geschirr abgewaschen.
  • Futur I: Ich werde Peter anrufen. Maria wird das Geschirr abwaschen.
  • Futur II: Ich werde Peter angerufen haben. Maria wird das Geschirr abgewaschen haben.

For both examples (anrufen and abwaschen) there exist words that are not separable: Rufen, as described above, and »waschen« (to wash). The latter one can be used in:

Maria wäscht ihr Haar.
Maria washes her hair.

If you use those words, you get this table:

  • Präsens: Ich rufe Peter. Maria wäscht ihr Haar.
  • Perfekt: Ich habe Peter gerufen. Maria hat ihr Haar gewaschen.
  • Präteritum: Ich rief Peter. Maria wusch ihr Haar.
  • Plusquamperfekt: Ich hatte Peter gerufen. Maria hatte ihr Haar gewaschen.
  • Futur I: Ich werde Peter rufen. Maria wird ihr Haar waschen.
  • Futur II: Ich werde Peter gerufen haben. Maria wird ihr Haar gewaschen haben.

For almost all separable verbs there is also a verb without the separable prefix, but this other verb has a different meaning.

rufen: To call someone without a phone, by speaking louder.
anrufen: To ring up someone by phone.

waschen: To clean something with a liquid. (water in most cases)
abwaschen: Te remove dirt from a plane surface with a liquid. (water in most cases) (Hair has no plane surface, so you can't use the verb »abwaschen« for it)

  • Great explanation, separable verbs are a brand new concept to me. Is there a way to know which verbs are separable? Also do you have to separate them? For example, would the sentence "Ich anrufe Peter" be wrong? – batman Nov 21 '15 at 22:12
  • 1
    @batman: Here is a great resource: google.at/… And yes, »Ich anrufe Peter« is wrong. – Hubert Schölnast Nov 21 '15 at 22:56
7

Some verbs are split into their parts when inflected. Anrufen is one of them:

Anrufen -> "Ich rufe an", but "Ich habe angerufen".

Your confusion comes from the fact that both anrufen and rufen are translated as to call into English, but they have different meaning:

The most common meaning of anrufen is to call someone on the phone.

The most common meaning of rufen is to shout.

3

You fell victim to a very special trap that you probably were unable to spot. As other answers have pointed out, to call as in calling someone on the phone is translated as anrufen. Anrufen is a separable verb, so it will separate itself and create a Verbklammer except in cases where the rufen part needs to be at the end of the sentence:

Ich will dich anrufen. (Future I, uses infinitive form; at the end.)
Ich versuche, dich anzurufen. (Infinitive construction; the zu immersed into anrufen.)
Ich habe dich angerufen. (Perfect tense; participle particle ge immersed into anrufen.)
Er will, dass ich dich anrufe. (Subordinate clause; requires verb at the end.)

Ich rufe dich an. (Main clause present tense; generates the Verbklammer.)
Ich rief dich an. (Main clause, past tense; same as above.)

So the an at the end of your example sentence is part of the verb anrufen.

However, when you remove it to generate the sentence ‘Wen rufst du?’, you have again made a valid sentence because the verb rufen exists, too. And, to make matters worse, rufen also translates as to call but only in the sense of shouting. What a very unlucky situation to be in.


Summed up:

  • Wen rufst du an?

    translates to

    Who are you calling (on the phone)?

  • Wen rufst du?

    translates to

    Who are you calling (by shouting)?

Two verbs, different meanings but translate to the same English verb.

1

The preposition »an« is part of the verb »anrufen« which means »to call« and it simply means » whom are you calling?«

  • 3
    It’s not a preposition in this case, it’s a particle. – chirlu Nov 21 '15 at 7:28

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