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Assuming one of the meanings of "vorgehen" as "to happen", the following sentence came up as an example:

Was geht da vor sich?

With "sich" at the end of the sentence, I initially assumed the verb form was "sich vorgehen", but dwds.de, de.wiktionary and duden.de do not seem to have such a variant. Could someone please explain what the role of "sich" is in this sentence?

Source: Lustiges Taschenbuch, LTB #544, Seite 158

2 Answers 2

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Your assumption that there might be a verb "sich vorgehen" is logical, but actually "vor sich gehen" is a set phrase. The meaning is something like "to happen", "to occur", "to go on", "to proceed". Often (but not always) there's a subtext of suprise, wonder or suspicion, like in your quote

Was geht da vor sich?

What is happening over there?
or
What's going on over there?

The phrase can also put the focus on the fact that something doesn't happen instantly, but over a period of time, and describe how something is going on or proceeding. For example,

Die globale Einführung einer solchen Abgabe wird sicherlich nicht ohne großes Ringen um eine für alle Mitgliedstaaten akzeptable Lösung vor sich gehen.

The global introduction of such a fee surely won't proceed without a big struggle over a solution acceptable to all member states.

or

Wir nehmen an, daß Modellimplementierungen in der Zukunft unter immer günstigeren Voraussetzungen vor sich gehen können.

We assume that model implementations will be able to proceed under more and more favorable preconditions in the future.

As you may have noticed, aside from the everyday "What the bleep is going on here?", this phrase is mostly used in more formal contexts, for example in administrative or technological lingo.

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  • If we're going colloquial, a variant of this is "Was geht denn hier ab?" ("what's happening here"). if you wanna add a little more spice you can say "Was zum Geier/Henker/Teufel/Fick geht denn hier ab?" Oct 23, 2022 at 11:10
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As a general advice how to decode this, subject and objects may never appear in the Nachfeld of a clause. Only comparisons and adverbials may. The Nachfeld is the optional part of a clause that follows the predicate verb block.

So if the verb was vorgehen, the prefix vor was part of the predicate verb block and that would mean sich is a Nachfeld item. But if vor is part of the verb, there's no preposition that belongs to sich, so it can't be an adverbial. It must be an object. And objects can't exist in the Nachfeld.

That's a contradiction.

Was geht da vor sich?

Was geht da vor sich?

So the verb can't be vorgehen. It must be plain gehen.

That expression vor sich gehen is a set phrase meaning to happen. That makes it a bit harder to decode from this point but the general rule above is still useful.


For an example without a set phrase, compare

Was geht da vor den Ausschuss? — “What is going before the commitee?”

That piece vor den Ausschuss is an adverbial, and the verb is gehen.

Was geht da vor im Ausschuss? — “What is going on at the commitee?”

That piece im Ausschuss is an adverbial in the Nachfeld, and the verb is vorgehen. You could reorder the latter example as

Was geht da im Ausschuss vor? — “What is going on at the commitee?”

without a Nachfeld. The difference is only in emphasis. Nachfeld items stand out.

Please also note that the English construction with a preposition that is part of the phrasal verb to go on is very similar to German vorgehen but English lacks the word order variation that is possible in German.

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