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In English, I was taught a quote from Heinrich Heine as “Where they burn books, they will eventually burn people.” I searched for wo der Bücher brennen, and found this for the original German:

Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.
(Heinrich Heine)

I had never heard this verbrennen verb before: How is it different from brennen? How would the connotations of the quote change if it we replaced verbrennen with brennen?

  • You can compare this to phrasal verbs in English. The prefix is kinda like the preposition. – Em1 Nov 9 '16 at 6:59
  • brennen usually means that something burns on its own, verbrennen means that somebody is actively doing it (i.e. burning something). – Ingmar Nov 9 '16 at 7:26
  • @Ingmar: Der Vorhang brennt. Der Vorhang verbrennt. Alice brennt Schnaps und CDs. Bob verbrennt belastende Unterlagen. – O. R. Mapper Nov 9 '16 at 13:53
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    ... somebody is actively doing it, and/or the object is wholly consumed by the fire. – Ingmar Nov 9 '16 at 14:43
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Verbs with a prefix are sometimes transitive variants of the bare verbs, and vice-versa.

Er brennt vor Eifersucht.

He burns from jealousy.

Er verbrennt den Brief aus Eifersucht.

He burns the letter out of jealousy.

Sie löschte das Feuer.

She extinguished the fire.

Das Feuer verlosch.

The fire went out.


Sometimes the aspect between direct object and prepositional object changes with the different verb.

Er legte Wurst auf das Brot.

He put sausage on the slice of bread.

Er belegte das Brot mit Wurst.

He plated the slice of bread with sausage.


In general, you need to learn the ver-, zer-, be-, ent-, ab-, auf-, an-, vor-, nach-, etc. variants of verbs as separate words with a distinctive meaning. There is no rule.

Sie liest.

She reads.

Sie liest den Brief.

She reads the letter.

Sie verliest den Brief.

She reads the letter aloud.

Es stört ihn.

It annoys him.

Es verstört ihn.

It unsettles him.

Es zerstört ihn.

It destroys him.

Es entstört das Gerät.

It eliminates interference in the device.

  • Bei mir erlöschen Feuer. – Jan Nov 9 '16 at 19:46
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    Gibt es offensichtlich beides. – Janka Nov 9 '16 at 20:57
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brennen

This is: to burn.

This just means that there is a fire. You can feel the heat, you can see the flames, possibly there also is some smoke. This is »brennen«.

Of course, the burning material will become less, but this is not what we are talking about when we say

Im Ofen brennt ein Feuer.
There's a fire burning in the oven.

If you use »brennen«, you just talk about the flame. You talk about its heat and/or its light, very often with a positive connotation.


verbrennen

This is more like: to burn down, but you still use just »to burn« in English.

So this means that the thing that is burning will vanish. It will no longer exist when the fire has done its work. This is »verbrennen«.

Of course, there will also be heat and light and flames. But we are not talking about this aspect of fire. We are talking about the fact that the burning thing will be destroyed and will no longer exist.

Die Verdächtigen haben alle Akten verbrannt.
The suspects have burned all the files.

So »verbrennen« always means that something will be destroyed. In most cases this has a very negative connotation.

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    Nein, verbennen heißt auch einfach nur burn. To burn down wäre niederbrennen, ein anderes Wort.. Ich stimme Dir aber zu, dass beim Verbrennen der Gegenstand normalerweise vollständig vom Feuer vernichtet wird. – Ingmar Nov 9 '16 at 7:57
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    @Ingmar: Ich gebe dir recht. Ich habe den angesprochenen Satz nun entsprechenden korrigiert. – Hubert Schölnast Nov 9 '16 at 8:42
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    Die Tatsache, dass brennen in seiner Grundbedeutung kein transitives Verb ist sollte herausgehoben werden. Man kann nicht sagen Ich brenne die Zeitung (man kann aber sagen: Ich brenne Schnaps, doch dieses Brennen hat nichts mit "etwas anzünden" zu tun). Man kann aber aktiv die Zeitung verbrennen. – Thorsten Dittmar Nov 9 '16 at 12:26
  • The fact that verbrennen is typically transitive and brennen typically intransitive is the simplest way to express this, for me. It means that the original sentence would be grammatically incorrect if one replaced verbrennen with brennen. So I accepted Janka's answer. Still +1 to you, because I think your answer captures some of the differences in the connotations (in flames versus to destroy). – Douglas B. Staple Nov 9 '16 at 14:30
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Verbrennen is a more complete form of brennen.

Using the past tense,

Er brannt seine Hande. He burned his hand. ("some.") He still has his hand, or most of it, even though it was injured by fire.

Sie haben die Bücher verbrannt. They burned the books. ("Through and through," in the English slang). There was nothing left of the books.

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