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Durrell's "Using German" states that a function of the "be-," "er-," and "ver-" prefixes is to give something a certain quality. How do the prefixes differ in this regard? Does it have something to do with the "types" of verbs (ie, those that could theoretically take an "-ig-," umlaut, or nothing at all)? Something along these lines?

"Be-": Used with a noun/adjective, makes a verb with the idea of providing a quality. Sometimes the suffix -ig- is added:

  • etw belichten - to expose, to provide with light

  • etw bewässern - to irrigate, to provide something with water

  • jdn benachtrichtigen - to notify, to provide someone with news

"Er-": with adjectives, has the sense of becoming something or giving something a certain quality. The root vowel often has umlat:

  • erblinden - to lose one's sight, to become blind

  • erröten - to blush, to become red

  • jdn ermuntern - to liven someone up, to make someone cheerful

  • etw erwärmen - to heat something, to make something warm

"Ver-": with nouns and adjectives, has the sense of becoming something or giving something a certain quality:

  • verarmen - to become poor

  • vereinsamen - to become isolated

  • etw verlängern - to lengthen something, to make something longer

  • jdn versklaven - to enslave somebody, to make someone into a slave

"Ver-": with many nouns, gives the idea of providing with something:

  • etw verglasen - to glaze something, to provide with glass

  • etw vergolden - to gild something, to provide something with gold

  • jdn verwunden - to wound somebody, to provide someone with wounds

  • jdn verzaubern - to enchant somebody, to provide somebody with magic

  • You should focus on one question at a time. This is basically three in one. The problem is that the choice of prefixes to compare seems arbitrary and could be expanded to the point of becoming too broad. – vectory Mar 7 at 21:37
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Prefixes have nothing to do with the sound of the word (e.g. Umlaute etc...).

So how to know which to use? Well, there is no answer without many exceptions.

Here's a try (the descriptions you provided are all correct, this is just an addition):

It depends on the strengh of the action.

Verbs for very soft actions like begegnen, bewässern, beschwichtigen, benachrichtigen, beheben do all use the "be-" prefix.

"er-" is a bit harder to categorize, as there's no clear border.

"ver-" however is mostly combined with strong, forceful actions, verstümmeln, versklaven, vernichten, verletzen, verarmen. verglasen and vergolden are obvious exceptions to this.

The "strongest" prefix would be "zer-": zerstören, zerreißen, zersetzen, zerlegen, zertrampeln are all very destructive actions.

As said, this is no general rule as there are many exceptions, but it is still pretty consistent.

Obvious exceptions: "bekriegen, bekämpfen", "erstürmen", "vergeben, vergolden", "zerreden".

EDIT: For a good explanation for "er-" look at Franks answer. Really good point there.

  • Interesting pattern. As you state no general rule I keep my exceptions for me :-) – Shegit Brahm Mar 6 at 15:00
  • The same word can have different prefixes which lead to different meanings: "erheben", "beheben", "(sich) verheben" for example. – Volker Landgraf Mar 7 at 10:21
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Introduction.

The following list is a quick, shortened translation of information found at dwds.de, a site of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Maybe I have mistranslated some of the explanations as I didn't spend the time to examine the exact meaning of each item and search examples. I don't think that all words fit into the pattern, but I think that it should still be useful.

Meanings:

zer-

  1. expresses that an object becomes something else

  2. expresses that an object is dissolved, damaged or destroyed

  3. expresses that a promising action is prevented or undone

be-

  1. converts intransitive verbs to transitive verbs

  2. makes in combinations with transitive verbs with prepositional object the object an accusative object

  3. expresses that a person or thing is furnished with something

er-

  1. expresses that something is successfully completed, leads to the desired result, that an object is obtained or an objective reached

ver-

  1. expresses that a person or thing changes (in the course of time) to someone or something else

  2. expresses that a person or thing is made something else, is put in a certain state, transformed into something else

  3. expresses that a person or thing is furnished with something

  4. expresses that a thing is removed by something (an action), depleted or no longer exists

  5. expresses that a person spends his/her time with something

  6. expresses that a person is doing something wrong

  7. expresses that a thing is impaired by something

  8. has the same meaning as the original verb

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For all those we can say that the prefix is fossilized in some words, and it's meaning almost opaque, but we can deduce a set of meanings from other examples and the prefixes are productive.

be- is comparable to English be-, cp. become, bewitched and roughly denotes direction of activity; cp. bei, by, Lat. com "with", e.g. correct - "berichtigen". Cp. e.g. a neologism from "to twitter", hence * "jemanden betwittern" would be borrowing the semantics of belabern (to talk an ear full), or pershaps behandlend (to deal with).

er- is ... I haven't thought about it before. It's relatively rare, compared to the others. I'd guess that it's akin to her-, like hin- to in; on the model of erhalten (cp. syn. einnehmen), ergeben (cp. syn. aufgeben). For Ergebniss "result", I would guess, since I don't know any better, that Ergebnis is akin to Latin ergo (thus, consequently), which is from ex+rego, of the same root as rechnen and to reckon; Thus cp. errechnen.

ver- is a conflation of many different roots, for sure. Which is which is hard to tell for a common native speaker. cp Latin per, Ger. vor, für, and more, note the bunch of translations containing pro- below. There's a negative connotation in many words, e.g. vergebens "in vein", verrechnen "miscalculate", verführen "to lure, deceive", etc. but in some words, especially verletzen (to hurt, damage) and verlieren (to lose, cp. forlorn), verlassen "to leave", the negative connotation is already in the stem (all relate to the stem in En. loss, less), and the common notion of the prefix is mutation, change of state, cp. perlocate, permutate, etc. (more or less with a sense for, towards).

It also matters what stem the prefix is attached to. With nouns, the meaning is rather clear. "be--en" means the object is acting onto something (benebelt, foggy mind from smoke), with er- I can't think of a single example, and with ver- it means to turn into, or apply it to. The difference is often not clear, as e.g. golden (viz vergolden "to apply a gold finish") might be adjectival, and nebeln verbal, prefix or not. This ambiguity in the suffixes (morphemes are not real suffixes, but oh well) or rather the versatility of the stems may be part of the reason that it works well. On the other hand, we also have Geltung "dignity, validity", Vergeltung "retaliation" but gelten "to be valid", vergelten "to retaliate"

A few examples:

suchen "to seek"

besuchen - to pay a visit (to someone)

ersuchen - to seek help (in[?] someone)

versuchen - to try out

aussuchen - to pick out, choose

heraussuchen - to find out

...

steuern "to stear", Steuer "tax"

besteuern - to ask tax, set-up a tax (for something)

versteuern - to pay tax (**for* something)

Rechnen "to calculate" [to sum up, collect, cp. Rechen "rake"?]

mostly synonymous ausrechnen, errechnen, berechnen, if talking about math homework. The difference is in the inflected forms

berechnend - calculating, scheeming [highlights the aim, the subordinate nature of the process; to achieve by calculating]

errechnen - to calculate a result [chiefly highlights the achievement]

*verrechnen - 1. to count two calculations against each other (e.g. liabilities versus outstanding income with a single partner, also aufrechnen, lit. to sum up), 2. to miscalculate [I could see 1 and 2 relate a bit as working untidy instead of "doppelte Buchführung", but deem it unlikely].

Abrechnung - billing [ab "off"; denotes that the calculation the conclusion of a bigger process (of business in most cases]

incidentally, rechnen, En. reckon, Proto-Germanic *rekanōną "to count, explain", from Proto-Germanic *rekanaz (“swift, ready, prompt”), is from Proto-Indo-European *h₃reǵ-, just as ergo, viz Ergebnis "Result", Tag der Abrechnung "day of reckoning".

führen "to guide, lead"

hinführen - lead to

herführen - bring here

entführen - take away, kidnap; lead astray

verführen - to lure, deceive

befürworten - to concur, endorse, favor, support [this is fossilized, befür- exists only in this one idiom, as far as I know, and no analog that the be- prefix attaches to is in use, though Fürwort could be derived as "endorsement"; A *Führwort could be searched in Geleitwort, Leitwort, Vorwort; Just my two cents]

no er + führen exists. But we have Erfahrung "experience, perception".

fahren "to drive, go"

befahren, die weniger befahrene Straße** - the road less traveled

erfahren - 1. to experience 2. analogue to erlaufen "to achieve something by walking the distance"

verfahren - 1. to process, conduct 2. to go the wrong way

The funny bit is, that fahren derives from the per root. I'd like to compare purport, at another time though.

halten "to hold"

behalten - to keep [to hold by; chiefly behalte bei ...]

erhalten - to attain [to take in]

verhalten - to behave (somehow) ["behave!" would need an object for verhalte dich ...! or it would be e.g. benimm dich instead, viz Benehmen.

greifen "to grab, grasp"

begreifen - to take in, understand [cp. Dutch begripjen, Ger. Grips "smarts"; Ger. Begriff "word, meaning"]

ergreifen - to apprehend (a fugitive) [to take them in, also festnehmen, feststellen, but fest stellen also means to find out a fact]

ergriffen - moved, taken away

vergreifen - to mistake, to take a wrong (thing, tone "im Ton vergreifen")

vergriffen - out of stock

cp. Gr. grapho "write, sign, draw" for this one.

schreiben "write", Schrift "writing"

beschreiben - describe

Einschreiben - a letter send in

verschreiben - 1. (med.) to ascribe medication or treatment [lit. to give a receipt for meds] 2. to make a mistake in writing, a typo

verschriftlichen - to set in writing

tragen "to carry"

Betragen - behaviour, to carry oneself [possibly calqued of Lat. cura "care"?]

Ertrag - yield

Vetrag - contract; vertragen - 1. to get along with each other 2. (col.) to move (a bunch)

vortragen - to perform, to bring before

eintrage - to list, matriculate, to write down into ...

austragen - the delist

Antrag - proposal, request

[again, cp. *Hreg? ragen, hervorragend, reach etc.?]

sprechen "to speak"

besprechen - bespeak, negotiate, debate, to go over (this); Besprechung - meeting, critique

versprechen - 1. to promise 2. to misspeak

handeln "to handle, to act, to deal"

...

  • Das Verb "steuern" hat mit "Steuern" nicht viel zu tun, höchstens im Sinne von "beisteuern". Es stimmt eben nicht, was die Grünen immer behaupten, und zwar sowohl etymologisch als auch polit-ökonomisch. – Ingo Mar 8 at 13:41
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    @Ingo, da bin ich derselben Meinung. Zwar werden die Worte etymologisch verglichen, weshalb ich es auch so aufführe; Immerhin wird eine Steuer, wie auch ein Wagen, (ab)geführt. DWDS bspw. erklärt die Abgabe als "Unterstützung", von "Stütze, Pfahl", und den Lenker als "Steuerruder", "lange Stange zum Staken". Vgl. deshalb auch En. stake (bspw. das was beim Pokerspiel in den Pott gelegt wird), stock market. de.WT nennt niederdeutsch und mittelniederdeutschen stouwen "stehen machen, stellen", als herkunft, vgl. deshalb "bereitstellen, abstellen", etc. und "eine Stange Geld"? – vectory Mar 8 at 19:02
  • Do verbs with an “er-“ prefix imply that the action is successful? (ie, do “ersuchen” and “erbitten,” for example, imply that the thing requested was given or gained?) If so, is that also the case for “be-“ and “ver-“? – Aaron Mar 12 at 11:48
  • I'd say, it implies that the result is final and perpetual:.*belegen* "to occupy; to lay on; etc.", and verlegen "to move, displace, loose" (or adj. "shy, embarassed") are reversible actions, but erlegen "to kill" (often said of animals "einen Elch erlegen") is not. This is not strict, zum Erliegen komme "to come to a stand-still" is not always final, though often it is. Also cp. Streit beilegen "to seize a fight", and "Verstorbene beilegen" "to orderly bury the deceased" and Anhang beilegen "to add an attachment to a letter*;. verliegen negative "to lie resting painfully wrong". – vectory Mar 12 at 20:29
  • Comparing her, hier her, maybe ein Tier erlegen means to score and bring-here a kill (cp. zur Strecke bringen, nederstrecken, track record?). For the perpetual sense, cp. Ehr- pertaining to honour, truth, peraps her- in here Ziele. Indeed, transitive erzielen "to gain, win" implies figurative success, as do erhalten, Erfolg; Also Erhalt may mean perpetual conservation. The archetype for a L1 learner would be erzählen, akin "to tell", not sure what that makes.. But cp. further Erbe, heir, heritage, erteilen, Erbteil, Anteil, orphan, Arbeit, speculatively. – vectory Mar 12 at 20:49

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