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I know the question

Was bist du von Beruf?

but I don't know the meaning of von in it. Is it

What are you by profession?

or is it just an idiom thing that just exists in the language? Also, if it is the latter, then this should be passive, because von comes as by in passive sentences.

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    Hi, I formatted your question a bit and fixed some typos. But what do you mean in your last sentence, that is should be passive? This is neither passive in German or English. The reasoning seems flawed to me, just because in some sentence type von might translate to by, that this implies the other way around. Or in mathematical notation, just because A => B does not mean B => A. Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 18:38
  • I mean I don't understand how "von" means "by" it is not passive because wiktionary says that "von"="by" only in passive
    – MonsterX
    Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 18:53
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    German "von" has many more uses aside from marking the agent in passive voice.
    – RHa
    Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 20:49

5 Answers 5

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The grammatical structure has already been explained in other answers. As far as the meaning is concerned, it may be helpful to think of "von" in this case as kind of denoting the source of something.

If you take

Peter ist Bäcker von Beruf.

you could read it as

Peter is (a) baker, and he received this attribute from his profession (his training, his professional experience etc.)

A similar phrase would be "von Geburt", like

Peter ist Berliner von Geburt.

You could read this as

Peter is (a) Berliner / is from Berlin, and the source of this attribute is that he's been born there.

In a little less mangled English this would be something like

Peter is a Berliner by birth.

So, to return to the initial phrase, you could translate

Peter ist Bäcker von Beruf.

as

Peter is a baker by profession.

which probably isn't that common in English, but shows the idea of the German phrase.

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  • "he received this attribute from his profession" This occured to me too although it doesn't work well. If Peter's attribute is professional, this means to me that his job is to have a job.
    – vectory
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 18:21
  • @vectory I'd see it more like, his being a baker is an outcome of his profession (and not, for example, his hobby). Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 18:33
  • Still, his being a baker is an outcome of his having become a professional baker or a baker professionally by force majure. I'm not saying it's wrong but it aint bright.
    – vectory
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 18:59
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In this context 'von' means 'of' as in 'of which profession are you'.

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Here are some similar sentences:

Ludwig ist Maler trotz Farbenblindheit.
Irene ist Tänzerin aus Leidenschaft.
Franz Joseph ist Kaiser von Gottes Gnaden.
Heinrich ist Priester durch Berufung.
Barbara ist Lehrerin von Beruf.

The pattern is always the same:

  • On position 1 is a name in nominative case. This is the subject. It could also be a personal pronoun ("er", "sie") describing a person.
  • On position 2 is a form of the colupa "sein". It could be any copula. (A copula is a coupling verb that doesn't describe an action as verbs usually do, but binds an attribute to the subject. Other German copulas are »werden« and »bleiben« but also some other verbs can be used as copulas.)
  • The rest is a predicative attribute in nominative case ("Gleichsetzungsnominativ") that describes the subject and is bound to it with a copula. The predicative attribute in these sentences is a nominal group that consists of two parts:
    • The first word is the core of the nominal group. It is in nominative case. This is why the whole group of 3 words is considered to be in that case.
    • The two other words are an adjective-like prepositional expression that behaves as an attribute of the core of the nominal group. The words »aus Leidenschaft« are describing the word »Tänzerin« in the same manner as an adjective (like »leidenschaftliche«) would describe it. While an adjective would stand before the core, a prepositional expression always stands behind but is still an attribute of the core noun.

But a prepositional expression can often carry more information than an adjective. Compare these sentences:

Ludwig ist farbenblinder Maler. = Ludwig is a color-blind painter.
Ludwig ist Maler mit Farbenblindheit. = Ludwig is a painter with colorblindness.
Ludwig ist Maler trotz Farbenblindheit. = Ludwig is a painter despite color blindness.

It wouldn't be possible to add the aspect that he is painter despite being color-blind to a simple adjective. But still is it always possible, to replace the prepositional expression with an adjective:

Ludwig ist Maler trotz Farbenblindheit.
Ludwig ist farbenblinder Maler.

Irene ist Tänzerin aus Leidenschaft.
Irene ist leidenschaftliche Tänzerin.

Franz Joseph ist Kaiser von Gottes Gnaden.
Franz Joseph ist gottbegnadeter Kaiser.

Heinrich ist Priester durch Berufung.
Heinrich ist berufener Priester.

Barbara ist Lehrerin von Beruf.
Barbara ist berufene Lehrerin.

The fact, that the word »Beruf« (Engl.: profession) is derived from »Berufung« (Engl.: vocation, calling, mission) is widely forgotten, so the adjective »berufen« (to be called to something, to have a vocation for something) fits better to the prepositional expression »durch Berufung« or »aus Berufung« than to »von Beruf«, but this is only because the connection of »Beruf« to »Berufung« has become so weak, that it is no longer apparent in the people's minds.

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  • I disagree. Unless you can source »durch Berufung« or »aus Berufung«, it is a judgement call that suggests arbitrary innovation without motivation. Ich bin ein Rennauto aus Bereifung.
    – vectory
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 17:58
  • I mean, the first and worse part of this answer is explaining SVO. The other part refering to etymology is missing clearly obvious prerequisites like Brief, Meisterbrief.
    – vectory
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 18:17
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Another short answer:

According to DWDS especially section V.3, von serves to indicate a general relation (as opposed to locational, time-related, causal, ...), here especially restricting the query to the profession (neither nationality, sex, ...).

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The implied comparison to English by trade, is meaningful. Some users are teachers by trade and may be able to explain this better, but as a matter of etymology I'm afraid this is obscure.

Von can be understood to mark genitive, like the English cognate of. Of course, the fact that it is frequently used in passive constructions where English uses by, is remarkable: Der Satz wurde von dem Lehrer an die Tafel an die Tafel geschrieben (formally dative). Compare the aphorism, Von der Hand in den Verstand (written by hand, to better understanding, or stilted, literally: from the hand into the mind).

I agree that it doesn't make much sense with von Beruf. This is a phraseme which is to some degree opaque, doesn't work like that with other nouns. It doesn't need an explanation to be used, because the meaning is clear. Chances are that etymology can explain it by (from?) comparison with other phrasemes, see perhaps Grimm's Deutsches Wörterbuch (and below1).

However, it does not explain the comparison with English by, or the precise meaning of Beruf, as I expect the genitive is most salient with belonging to a group, ie. a guilded trade:

  • What is your position called by the trade.

For reference, see für (for, which is related to from)

  • Was bist'n du fü'an Typ? (often derogatory, Was bist du für einer, What are you supposed to be?)

Since von Berufli is missing an article, the phraseme had probably ossified long before, when articles weren't necessary, and subsequently substituted with different nouns.

By the way, it is notable that by is related to Be- if you want to follow the common surface analysis of Beruf.2


1: Comments have challenged the notion that genetive would be a meaningful interpretation. See otherwise Grimm (DWB: Beruf), towards the end, no comment: "das ist gar nicht meines berufs, amts."

In particular, it would be most meaningful to read *was? * as a genitive question, wessen, or instrumental (obsolete), anyway with word order that is not current:

  • ? Von wessen Beruf bist du?

This might follow from the usage of the verb and participle.

Although it is true that the verb berufen is often commanding dative with preposition von, ie. the dative object is commanded by the subject, which is most relevant for the passive or middle voice (emphasis mine)

"Ireneus spricht, das brot sei nicht schlecht gemein brot, nach dem es von gott genennet oder berufen ist, sondern eucharistia. 3, 371"

this is ambiguous while dative and genitive are merging, since pronouns have been innovated:

"liebevoll von ihr berufen huldigt alles seiner pflicht. Bürger 2ᵃ"

"beide wider ihren beruf in die liebe verwickelt wurden. maulaffe 1."

and because von Gottes Gnaden has its own legacy, thus as adverbial particple

"so ist ein erbar rath zu Nürmberg so berufen von gottes gnaden mit weisheit und gerechtigkeit, dasz herzog George ir meister nicht sein sol. Luther 4, 337ᵃ"

Pfeifer (etymwb: berufen) argues that Luther famously spread forms that replaced other usage.

This requires further research (or more modern references).

There is one construction cited that is typical without article (emphasis mine):

"die liebe zur kunst ist von jugend auf meine gröszte neigung gewesen, und ohnerachtet mich erziehung und umstände in ein ganz entferntes gleis geführet hatten, so meldete sich dennoch allezeit mein innerster beruf. Winkelmann 3, xiii"

See also von Kindesbeinen an; von daher or von dem her, von der Warte aus, coeur, hehre Ziele, etc. etc.

2: Without going into detail, I propose instead that this has to be compared to to be and credo, ie. Lebensmotto, Daseinsberechtigung, smh.

Conclusion: This can't possibly be explained in modern terms by the preposition von. It is by now a set phrase with particular meaning: Was ist dein Beruf.


[DWB] Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm. Lfg. 7 (1853), Bd. I (1854), Sp. 1530-1532. Zitiert nach https://www.dwds.de/wb/dwb/beruf

[etymwb] „berufen“, in: Wolfgang Pfeifer et al., Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen (1993). Zitiert nach https://www.dwds.de/wb/etymwb/berufen

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    The word "von" does not mark genitive. It is a preposition that only can be used with a dative object. Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 8:33
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    Maybe you wanted to say "marks posession"? Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 10:36
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    I downgraded this text because I think it is pseudoscientific gobbledygook. (Note that I say nothing about the author. I say something about my opinion about the text. Therefore, this is not a statement directed against other persons on a personal level.)
    – Alina
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 18:28
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    @Alina, vectory Come on (both of you). Make a real effort to be kind. This kind of discussion leads nowhere.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 8:53
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    @JonathanScholbach: 7 persons downvoted this attempt to an answer. I think this could mean something. And I think I read somewhere (in the tour or in the help center, I can't remember) that you should add a comment to let the author know why you downvoted an answer. And this is that I did. I consider this answer to be pseudoscientific gobbledygook and therefore I can't help but say exactly that. I have also tried hard to make it clear that I do not want to offend the author. I wanted to say quite factually and soberly what this answer is in my eyes and why I voted it down.
    – Alina
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 8:42

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