I was wondering if somebody could help me out with the fine differences between annähern and nähern. They are both widely translated as approach, but they do not seem to be interchangeable in all cases. Let me describe the uses as far as I understand the words:

  1. In a physical context, the words are interchangeable, and a matter of style, like steigen and ansteigen, and always used with sich. So the following are equivalent:

    Ich nähere mich dem Hund.
    Ich nähere mich dem Hund an. I am (physically) approaching the dog.

  2. Annähern has a variety of figurative translations of approach/approximate, which nähern does not:

    1. like approach/approximate:

      Unsere Gewinne nähern sich der gewünschten Zahl an.
      Our profits are approaching the desired number.

    2. like angleichen:

      Der ständiger Kontakt mit der Gruppe näherte seine Weltsicht derjenigen in der Gruppe an.
      The constant contact with the group made his worldview more similar to those in the group.

    As far as I understand, nähern wouldn't work in the second contexts. Am I understanding these differences correctly?

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    In my perception (native speaker) ich nähere mich dem Hund an (with an*) is not to be used for physcially approaching that dog; rather emotionally or mentally. (In context, the sentence would be understood, but it would leave a strange taste in the ear. Sorry for the skewed metaphor.) – Christian Geiselmann Aug 5 at 16:39

I have no theoretical explanation or hypothesis ready, but I can present a number of well-formed sentences. Perhaps you can derive a theory from it.

Sich nähern

Der Elefant nähert sich der Giraffe

Das Gewitter nähert sich mit verblüffendem Tempo.

Putin näherte sich Trump und gab ihm einen Ball.

Das Schiff näherte sich gefährlich der Mole.

Sich annähern

Trumps Weltsicht näherte sich im Laufe seiner Regierungszeit immer mehr derjenigen seines Freundes Putin an.

Deine Elefantenzeichnungen nähern sich immer mehr der Wirklichkeit an.

"Darf ich mich dir annähern?", fragte Hans und rückte auf der Bank etwas weiter zu Sabine.

Well, okay, I see now that there is anyway a hypothesis approaching: "Sich nähern" is purely physical. "Sich annähern" includes always an increasing mental (cognitive, emotional) proximity.

Side note: Your exammple with profits is interesting. Indeed, one would rather say "Unsere Gewinne näheren sich der gewünschten Höhe an" than "Unsere Gweinne nähern sich der gewünschten Höhe", although also the latter is feasible. However, you would definitely say "Wir nähern uns der Gewinnzone", not "Wir nähern uns der Gewinnzone an". I suppose, usus is here more deciding than logic, in other words: German has very strong "rules of habit", in a sense that certain things are usually said in a certain way because everybody does it that way, although there is no logical reason for not using a different expression. Or in short: it is a question of getting used to it.

  • Thanks! So, is my original hypothesis correct that in the physical sense, "sich etwas annähern" and "sich etwas nähern" are a matter of stylistic preference? You example ""Darf ich mich dir annähern?", fragte Hans und rückte auf der Bank etwas weiter zu Sabine. " seems to suggest this, but I would like to make sure. – Mark Aug 5 at 16:59
  • Ah but then it doesn't work with getting close to a dog, as in your comment above... – Mark Aug 5 at 17:13
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    @ChristianGeiselmann 1. I disagree with "Darf ich mich dir annähern?". I think it should better be "Darf ich mich dir nähern?". 2. I wouldn't only describe it as an increase in mental proximity. I think the key of "annähern" is an iterative increase of proximity, including physical. So if there is a one time approach it is just nähern, but if it is done or meassured in several steps it comes with the "an". – Javatasse Aug 5 at 22:15

Usually one uses "nähern" or "sich nähern" wenn one wants to get close to a location or a person etc. or if we express a change in a state etc. (For details see in duden).

Wir nähern uns der Stadt.
Die Feier nähert sich ihrem Höhepunkt.
Ich nähere mich dem Ziel.
Ich nähere mich dir.

While "sich annähern" or "annähern" is in first place related to a statement or opinion or a value (maths): in this case "annähernd" and "ungefähr" have the same meaning. It also means making something fit "sich anpassen". Another use of "annähern" is to use it as a synonym of "sich nähern" (For details see in duden).

Trump und Merkel haben sich am Ende der Besprechungen in Sachen Einwanderung annähern können.

An example for the other synonyms stated in your post "angleichen":

Es gibt annährend viele Hunde wie Katzen in diesem Ort: Die Zahl von Hunden und Katzen haben sich zu letzt angenähert.

Your example

Ich nähere mich dem Hund an. I am (physically) approaching the dog.

therefore could be interpreted as:

I'm becoming like a dog. I'm looking closer to a dog than a human.

if taken/put in the wrong context.
A better choice here would be using the verb "nähern".

Ich nähere mich dem Hund: I'm approaching the dog.

Maybe one thing that needs to be said when I think of "annähern" I'm thinking of a slow process of approach, which might apply, but doesn't need to in case of "nähern". So one could say "annähern" is often related (or used) to some obstacles which might be in the way to reach whatever one wants to get close to.

A bit more details on the examples from your comments

Der Mann hatte nicht den Mut sich der Frau anzunähern

This sentence without any context may allow two meanings approach or approach with the intention to flirt one cannot exclude any emotions here, but that's subjective. Not that "Mut" in this sentence might hinder the option to interpret it as "grow emotionally close to". Maybe one could express emotionally grow closer using "näher kommen", but than you need to rephrase your sentence:

Der Mann brauchte sehr lange um seiner angebeteten näher zu kommen.
Mit der Zeit sind sich beide immer näher gekommen.

As to "herankommen" this verb has an aggressive undertone and is usually a better fit in the context of competitions. As my -subjective- first impression of

Der Mann hatte nicht den Mut an die Frau heranzukommen.

was that this "man" is chasing this woman, but has some fear of coming close to her, it can be used in a colloquial speech to express approaching her or reach her. One could say it somewhat expresses the opposite of what you actually wanted to say, even if the word "Mut" may lead the listener/reader to a good direction.

  • Thank you. May I ask one more question? If I said: "Der Mann hatte den Mut nicht, sich der Frau anzunaehern" Would you translate "annaehern" here as "approach=flirt", or "grow emotionally closer to"? – Mark Aug 7 at 16:54
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    @Mark let me correct your sentence first: "Der Mann hatte nicht den Mut sich der Frau anzunähern" in this case the first which came to mind was the meaning "approach =flirt". I can hardly imagine the second option to be thought of. – Medi1Saif Aug 7 at 19:13
  • Thanks again. If I replaced "annähern" mit "an die Frau heranzukommen", would it then imply the second? – Mark Aug 7 at 21:19
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    @Mark I've added an explanation in my answer post, honestly I'm a bit confused how to interpret "grow emotionally closer" and how to express this, maybe I need some distance to be able to see further than the end of my nose. Maybe "näher kommen" might apply. – Medi1Saif Aug 8 at 6:22

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