Is there an explanation why the verb "aufhören" which means "to stop" is derived from the verb "hören" (to hear)? Or, is it just a pure coincidence?


4 Answers 4


Synchronic view

(Synchronic meaning: Looking at the language as it is now.)

The meanings of particle verbs are in principle independent of their verbal bases.

fallen (to fall) – ausfallen (to be cancelled)
lehnen (to lean) – ablehnen (to reject)
nehmen (to take) – aufnehmen (to record)
wenden (to turn over) – aufwenden (to spend)
greifen (to grip) – angreifen (to attack)

This is the group aufhören belongs to. The assumption that aufhören is independent from hören is supported by the fact that aufhören allows inanimate subjects and infinitives with zu, whereas hören does not.

Der Regen hörte auf.
Die Wunde hörte nicht auf zu schmerzen.

Of course, there are also many cases where the particle and the verb combine transparently.

schalten, einschalten, ausschalten, umschalten (switch, switch on, switch off, switch from... to...)
atmen, einatmen, ausatmen (breathe, breathe in, breathe out)
bauen, aufbauen, abbauen (build, assemble, dismantle)

And you can build groups of verbs where the particle seems to add a similar meaning.

(auf meaning from the ground)
aufsammeln, aufwischen, aufschlecken, auflesen

(auf indicating that an event is suddenly coming to be perceived)
aufschreien, aufheulen, aufleuchten, aufblitzen

Diachronic view

(Diachronic meaning: Looking at the history of the language.)

You can look at etymological dictionaries if you are interested in how the meaning developed historically.

For example, the Brothers Grimm observed that there are dialects that use hören in the meaning of aufhören. They also note that gehorchen, derived from horchen (to hearken), evolved to mean to obey. They cite examples from Luther to show that he already used aufhören in the contemporary meaning.

As they speculate:

Wie der hörende anhört, audit ad dominum, ihm angehört, (lat. mit dem sinne des auges statt des ohres aufgefaszt, spectat ad dominum); ebenso hört er auf, attendit ad vocem, paret verbo, verrichtet das gebotene, unterläszt das verbotene, hör auf! desine!

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    Du schreibst zuerst sinngemäß »es gibt keinen Zusammenhang« und lieferst 3 Absätze später erste Indizien für genau den Zusammenhang, nach dem gefragt wurde? Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 8:08
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    In der synchronen Perspektive gibt es keinen Zusammenhang. Diachron läßt sich eventuell einer finden.
    – David Vogt
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 8:10
  • Jetzt ist es eine gute Antwort. Daher: +1 Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 15:44
  • Very good to distinguish synchronic and diachronic perspective her. However, I'd say that the relation from aufnehmen to nehmen is clear also in synchronic view.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 6:36
  • A synchronic perspective won't give an explanation why aufhören is derived from hören, and it doesn't say anything about coincidence either.
    – Takkat
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 7:27


Like in English hören/hear has common etymologic roots that always meant more than a simple acoustic listening. It is also used widely in the meaning of to follow, to obey, and in German also to belong (e.g. gehören, zugehörig sein, hörig sein).

To hear on something also meant to follow an action with attention.


The prefix auf- which in German among other meanings* is used to designate a termination or a fulfilment of a process (e.g. aufessen, aufarbeiten, aufklären, aufkündigen, aufgeben).

*Much to the confusion of learners the prefix auf-can even have an almost opposite meaning such as in aufhorchen.


If we combine this prefix with hören as in aufhören, we come to the meaning of to stop listening, or to stop paying attention.

In modern usage this meaning of to stop following an action became more generalized in to stop a continued action as a whole.

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    You meander your way exactly around the actual target. See my alternative explanation for the genesis of aufhören as stop doing something below. Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 12:10

I suggest an explanation for the semantic construct of aufhören in the meaning of stop doing something based on situational logic:

Imagine this very typical situation in any society in the olden days: people sitting together in a room and doing something productive, e.g. sewing clothes (in a taylor's shop), or copying a book (as scribes in a monastery). Everybody is concentrated on his task. Enters a chiefly figure (the master taylor, or the abbot), calling:

Alle mal herhören!

or whatever such command to make them listen to the important words that are going to follow. People now put down their needles or pens and look up (!) towards the superior, waiting for his words. What they actually do is


which is initially and primarily not stop doing something, but simply listening up. You may see heads being raised, and eyes and ears being turned towards the expected source of communication.

As this intensified form of listening is typically (and almost necessarily) accompanied by interrupting any current occupation, that's how aufhören got a secondary meaning, namely stopping to do something.


1) Grimm

The Deutsches Wörterbuch by Grimm (here Vol 1. Col. 670 ff) discusses the etymology of aufhören at length, testing variuos explanations, but here is a piece of it that would support my theory:

[...] Auch die heutige schweizerische und bairische volkssprache gebrauchen noch hören für aufhören: nu hör einist = nun lasz ab, hör auf; er cha nit höre = kann nicht ablassen, aufhören (Stald. 1, 54); hoir! = lasz ab, hör auf (Schm. 2, 233). dem haupteindruck nach stimmt das zu dem hören = gehorchen anderer gegenden: das kind will gar nicht hören = nicht gehorchen, denn wenn es gehorcht, läszt es vom verbotnen ab.

This is of course not a direct proof of my

aufhören = to listen up - and as a consequence stop doing other things

but it gives an independent example of exactly this situation: the child, when listening, will stop doing other things it was doing hitherto. (Even more so the dog, by the way.)

2) English listen up

The very fact that there is an English expression to listen up supports the theory of aufhören = listen up - and stop doing other things. It has different lexical roots (hear vs listen), but it uses the same situational and semantical logic of "raising one's ears" (possibly as an analogy to "raising one's eyes").

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    Is there any reference to support this or is this your personal observation?
    – Takkat
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 14:30
  • It was genuine thought of my own. But I add a reference to Grimm, for your entertainment and intellectual satisfaction. Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 14:35
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    Thank you, that would be great. I may just have misread the Grimm for that peculiar fact. Other people who come here also may like to read about it.
    – Takkat
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 14:39
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    I am not sure whether I'd like to follow this rather speculative approach here. I think, you mix it up with aufhorchen a bit.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 6:39
  • @jonathan.scholbach I hope I made clear that aufhören in the sense of aufhorchen / listening up is not actually used (any more), but that I see this understanding of aufhören as an underlying (tacit) semantical structure to explain the modern use of aufhören vor stop doing something. As other explanations have not been provided ("they are cognates" is not an explanation, and other attempts here were simply self-contradicting), I think this one is the most promising one. Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 11:11

The following might be an explanation:

Peter sitzt in einer Vorlesung und langweilt sich. Eben deswegen fängt er an, ein Porträt seiner Sitznachbarin in sein Notizbuch zu zeichnen. Er ist schon ziemlich weit gekommen, da wechselt der Professor zu einem Thema, das ihn interessiert: Er horcht/hört auf, legt seinen Stift weg und hört der Vorlesung gebannt zu.

Hören and horchen must originally have had a wider meaning than anything we do with our ears, but rather (or, in addition) denoted obedience and belonging (you belong to a group when you follow common orders). Composites like angehören, gehören, aufhören, gehorchen and Gehorsam are hints to that. Some of this original meaning is still present when we say of someone's dog

der hört aber gut!

and don't praise its ears, but rather mean it's well-trained and obedient. Aufhören does thus have the original meaning that someone stops following orders and does something else.

This BTW seems to be a common pattern in many Germanic languages:

  • Swedish upphöra
  • Danish ophøre
  • Norwegian opphøre
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    You are close, but you miss the target anyway. Aufhören is listening up, and who listens up usually stops other current activities. See my answer below. Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 12:13
  • The North Germanic words are all borrowed or calqued from High or Low German.
    – fdb
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 19:45
  • @fdb No. Dutch has it different.
    – tofro
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 19:46
  • @tofro. I wrote "or". That is trying to be careful.
    – fdb
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 19:49

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