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I have read/heard the following sentence:

Einen Zauberer muss man wiedererkennen.

Context: A child is wearing a skeleton costume to go to the school and his mother asks him to take the costume off and wear normal clothes. Then the boy says the sentence above.

According to Word Reference, one of the meanings of "erkennen" is "to recognize" and that's also the meaning of "wiedererkennen". Supposedly the "wieder" prefix should add a meaning of "again", but "recognize again" does not make sense in the sentence above. Is there any difference between "erkennen" and "wiedererkennen" in this context?

Source: Dark series, 1st season, 1st episode, 10:32 minutes

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  • You probably meant "Zauberer" instead of "Zauberen".
    – bakunin
    Mar 4 at 7:52
  • A magician/conjurer/enchanter/illusionist is a Zauberer in German (erer at the end). This is derived from the verb zaubern (ern at the end) (zaubern = to conjure, to perform magic tricks) which again is derived from the noun Zauber (er at the end) which means magic, but also allurement, charm, attraction. The word Zauberen (with eren at the end) does not exist in German. I corrected this for you. Mar 4 at 8:18

3 Answers 3

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The English translation, who's meaning is as close as possible to the meaning of the German verb wiedererkennen would be

re-recognize

Einen Zauberer muss man wiedererkennen.

A magician must be re-recognizable.
Ein Zauberer muss wiedererkennbar sein.
You need to be able to re-recognize a magician.
Man muss einen Zauberer wiedererkennen können.

But this is unusual in English. The german sentence means: Once you have learned what a magician looks like, you need to be able to recognize him later again.

Another issue is, that the grammatical construction used in the German sentence can't be used in English. I gave you two possible English translations and their back-translations into German. All Sentences mean pretty the same.

The prefix wieder- means again. It means, that something, that already has happened before, happens again.

Wir müssen dan alten Zustand wiederherstellen.
We need to restore the old state. (literal: We need to re-produce the old state.)

Herbert musste nach einem Herzinfarkt wiederbelebt werden.
Herbert had to be reanimated after a heart attack.

Ich freue mich, dich wiederzusehen.
I'm happy to see you again. (literal: I'm happy to re-see you.)

Herr Gruber wurde als Präsident des Schachklubs wiedergewählt.
Mr. Gruber was re-elected as president of the chess club.


What makes re-recognize so weird in English is the fact, that recognize already contains this re- prefix. The word recognize came into English from the French language, which had borrowed it from old Latin.

Latin recognoscere is composed from re- (again) and cognoscere = to know, to get to know. So the origin meaning of English recognize is to re-know. And this meaning is still contained in the meaning of the English word. So, in English it makes not much sense to say to re-re-know. How can you repeat something that already is a repetition? This makes no sense.

But the German verb erkennen does not contain this repetitive meaning. The German verb kennen also means to know, similar to the latin word cognoscere, but the German prefix er- is not related to any repetition. The prefix er-, that you often see in German verbs means, that something has come to an end successfully. So, the original meaning of the German verb erkennen was not »I re-know it« but »I have successfully learned in the past what it looks/sounds/feels like, and now I use this knowledge to identify it«.

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  • I've noticed that German verb prefixes allow a great deal of precision when it comes to meaning, more precision than is generally possible in English. For example DWDS also lists aberkennen, anerkennen, and "zuerkennen" as prefixed forms of erkennen, which in turn is a prefixed form of kennen. I think the trick for learners is to discover how each prefix may affect meaning. This isn't foolproof, for example the connection between holen and wiederholen is tenuous, but in most cases it's possible to guess the meaning without a trip to a dictionary.
    – RDBury
    Mar 4 at 23:01
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As to my knowledge there is no separate english word for "wiedererkennen". It means specifically to recognize something you remember having recognized before already. "Erkennen" means to understand who or what a person is. i.e.:

Ich erkenne, daß du Englisch als Muttersprache sprichst.
I recognize (notice, understand) you are an english native speaker.

Whereas:

Du hast dich so verändert, ich hätte dich kaum wiedererkannt.
You changed so much i barely recognized you.

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erkennen – to understand the true nature of something that you see for the first time

Example

The policeman has never see the thief before, but when he sees the man running away carrying a purse, he recognizes the thief by his behavior and the stolen goods. The policeman might say: Ich erkenne den Dieb!, meaning: I have never seen this person before, but I understand that this person is the thief we are looking for.

wiedererkennen – to recognize something you have seen before

Example

The policeman, when he apprehends the thief, realizes that he has seen the man before in other circumstances. He might say: Ich erkenne Sie wieder! meaning: At first I thought I had never seen you before, but now I realize that I already know you.


In your example, the boy probably used the wrong word. When he says "Einen Zauberer muss man wiedererkennen können", this means that he wants to be recognized as the sorcerer by those who have seen him in that role before. If on the other hand he wants to express his desire to be recognized as a sorcerer even by those who haven't yet met him, then "Einen Zauberer muss man erkennen können" would be correct.

As you see, I have added können (to be able to) to the end of both phrases. Without können the phrases don't make much sense.

  • Einen Zauberer muss man erkennen können. "A sorcerer must be recognizable", literally "One must be able to recognize a sorcerer."

  • Einen Zauberer muss man wiedererkennen können. "A sorcerer must always be recognizable", literally "One must be able to recognize a sorcerer that one already knows."

  • Einen Zauberer muss man erkennen. "You have to recognize a sorcerer", meaning even if the sorcerer does not carry any outward signs of his profession

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