The word “umfahren” has different meanings and apparently one of them is the opposite of the other.

etw. úmfahren: to hit sth by a vehicle

etw. umfáhren: to drive around sth


Du sollst das Tier umfahren.

Apparently the only way to distinguish both meanings lies in the stressing of the syllables. Is this true for all German dialects, like Austrian, Bavarian or Berlinerisch dialect? Because people from different regions tend to pronounce and stress words differently, especially in Austria. Would this sentence lead to misunderstandings?


4 Answers 4


This is not a matter of regional variations of pronunciation. This is pronounced everywhere the same.

But we are talking here about two distinct verbs, one of them is separable, the other not, which have different pronunciations and different meanings.

  1. not separable
    Etwas umfahren = um etwas herum fahren (to drive around something)
    Pronunciation: [ʊmˈfaːʀən]; the second syllable is stressed (umFAHren)

    The driving instructor said:

    Bitte umfahren Sie das Hindernis.
    Please drive around the obstacle.

    In indirect speech this is:

    Sie haben gesagt, ich soll das Hindernis umfahren. (umFAHren)
    You said, I should drive around the obstacle.

  2. separable
    Etwas umfahren = beim Fahren so heftig gegen etwas stoßen, dass es umfällt (crash so strong against something when driving, that it topples down)
    Pronunciation: [ˈʊmfaːʀən]; the first syllable is stressed (UMfahren)

    The driving instructor said:

    Bitte fahren Sie das Hindernis um.
    Please drive over the obstacle.

    In indirect speech this is:

    Sie haben gesagt, ich soll das Hindernis umfahren. (UMfahren)
    You said, I should drive over the obstacle.

When this is spoken, there is no misunderstanding, because of the different pronunciations of the both verbs, and this is true everywhere where German is spoken and heard. But pronunciation is not visible in written texts, so in written texts (like in the cartoon above) there will be misunderstandings, and this again is true everywhere where German is written and read.

  • Nonseperable? Bitte fahren Sie um das Hindernis. Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 15:48
  • 7
    @LangLangC That's short for "Bitte fahren Sie um das Hindernis herum". And yes, it makes the matter even more hilariously complicated. Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 15:53
  • @PeterASchneider: I do think the relative stressing is the same everywhere. However, a dialect-specific and much more noticeable stress or "tone" may be added on top of that stress. Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 16:04
  • 3
    @LangLangC: You are talking about a different verb (fahren) in combination with a preposition (um). This is different from the verb »umfahren«. Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 13:14

The two forms of umfahren differ not only in stressing, but also in the much more differentiating aspect of separability. One is a separable verb, the other isn't (so we actually have two different verbs here, not one verb with two different pronunciations).

Umfahr das Tier! (a)

Fahr das Tier um! (b)

(a) clearly is the non-separable verb meaning "avoid it", (b) is the separable verb meaning "hit it".

To answer your actual stressing question: People tend to avoid the infinitive as shown above with these two verbs as that could lead to misunderstanding, especially in writing. If you really think you must use it, in my experience in all German-speaking regions the stressing is normally pretty much over-emphasized to avoid misunderstandings.

  • 1
    so basically the two verbs just happen to be written the same way. Interesting enough. I'm going to look for more such pairs.
    – Sadık
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 10:30
  • 5
    @sadik No need to look far - This question german.stackexchange.com/questions/15926/… and the links originating from there have pretty exhaustive lists.
    – tofro
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 10:41
  • No need to learn lists, just expect any verb prefixed by durch, über, um, unter (and, to a lesser extent: wider) to be in fact two different verbs. It's a rule of thumb.
    – Janka
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 12:40
  • 2
    @Janka No. Most prefixed verbs do not exist both as a separable and non-separable verb.
    – tofro
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 13:25
  • Huh? For those separable verbs with any of these five prefixes, one should be aware there may be a second non-separable verb with an entirely different meaning. For all other prefixes, it's either separable or non-separable. Not both.
    – Janka
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 13:49

I can answer for Austria (and thus probably Bavaria): the two words are distinguished by stress here as well. The stress on "um" is the first meaning, the stress on "fahr" is the second.


Lets take a look at "run over" and "over run", the the problem in German is the "um"

In different countries (and thanks for distinguishing between German-German and Austrian-German) the use of "um" is different, and it would be "überfahren" or "niederfahren" instead of "umfahren"

As others pointed out, it is a matter of stressing, but it's more complicated its a matter of semantics:

If you hurt a person with your car: the police would write "überfahren" (not to mention "angefahren")

an other tip:

If there is a traffic jam, radio will tell "umfahren Sie den Stau auf Ax" never ever somebody would think to crash into ...

so "umFahren" is in most cases "drive around", "try not to touch" seldom - and mostly bad speach "UMfahren"

Other example: "ein problem umgehen" (avoid) - try to "UMgeh" a tree ... like run over a tree - or so

Last "bad" example:

"umschiffen" = "circumnavigate" (as I learned from a big internet translator, now), but, "schiffen" is a slang (Austria) for "peeing" ... try it ...

So if the tree is a Problem and 4 men coming from a bar are peeing at it, they say: this tree is a Problem we try "ihn um zu schiffen" or "wir "schiffen ihn um"

Edit: "umbauen" - for put something around, or change it

  • 2
    This post could be drastically improved by proper formatting, better grammar and a more coherent line of thought. You raise some good points, but fail to elaborate properly.
    – Polygnome
    Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 14:22
  • @Polygnome: OK, I accept critics, please give me some examples, where /how to improve. Just to deliver better answers next time, if. [FYI, I am Austrian native speaker, my English is technical driven (programmer)]
    – halfbit
    Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 18:46
  • 'Lets take a look at "run over" and "over run", the the problem in German is the "um"'' - I think "over" has little to do with "um". "Over" refers to the thing that hits. It's the car that goes over whatever it has hit. "Um", in contrast, refers to the movement forced on the thing being hit, it implies turning it, usually from an upright position to a horizontal one (like in "umfallen"). Commented Mar 9 at 9:22
  • 'and mostly bad speach "UMfahren"' - there is nothing linguistically "bad" about the separable "umfahren", and the same concept works with various verbs that describe a movement of some kind. "Umreißen" comes to mind, and if you include a wider sense, there are also verbs like "umschreiben", "umfassen" and "umgreifen". Commented Mar 9 at 9:34

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