Take, for sake of concreteness, the verb erschrecken:

Du erschrickst vor Kakerlaken (du gerätst in Panik, wenn du Kakerlaken siehst)

to be compared with

Du erschreckst sie, wenn du trinkst.

Firstly, I don't understand why it has two conjugations.

  • Could somebody explain that?

Secondly, the former seems to be an intransitive variant, which obeys an irregular conjugation (erschrak, bist erschrocken) and the latter a transitive one, which obeys a regular conjugation (erschreckte, hat erschrocken).

  • Could I do that with any verb?
  • Or, perhaps more concretely, is there a way to detect when a verb presents this conjugation duality?

3 Answers 3


One feature of Indo-European was that verbs were working in 2 directions. For instance the word to become/bekommen...

In German, bekommen means that you get something. So something is moving toward you. In English, you are moving toward something (on an abstract level). So each language has picked one interpretation.

Another example is the word to make . It can mean to produce but also to reach, and while it is not totally obvious that those meanings are 2 faces of the same thing, it makes sense on an abstract level. German, for the most part, has gotten rid of 2 way meanings but there are some left overs. And one is erschrecken.

Du erschrickst...

Here, you "receive" fear

Du erschreckst...

Here, you "spread" fear. So the verb is about fear and there are 2 ways the fear can go. Either way has its own conjugation. One other example I can think of is schaffen but I think there are more.

Now, I have to say that I do not know this for fact. It might be wrong and erschreckst/erschrickst might just be a coincidence. However, especially the fact that there are 2 distinct past forms for the meanings supports my theory. Anyway... to conclude this, here's the source that I have basically paraphrased.

  • hat mir jemand anders hier in einer anderen Frage empfohlen :)
    – Emanuel
    Aug 8, 2013 at 10:02

I know this isn't an answer to the question, but I'd still like to contribute the following.

Another example for the same phenomenon is hängen. The transitive verb takes regular forms:

Er hängt seinen Mantel in den Schrank.

Er hängte seinen Mantel in den Schrank.

Er hat seinen Mantel in den Schrank gehängt.

The intransitive form takes irregular forms

Der Mantel hängt im Schrank.

Der Mantel hing im Schrank.

Der Mantel hat im Schrank gehangen.

  • Mit gegangen, mit gefangen, ... Aug 8, 2013 at 9:54
  • BTW, the same split occurs in English with "hung" vs. "hanged" (with slightly different meanings).
    – Philipp
    Aug 10, 2013 at 10:42
  • Außer im Rheinland, wo man Er hat seinen Mantel in den Schrank gehangen (und viele andere seltsame Dinge) sagt. 🙄
    – Crissov
    Nov 3, 2015 at 9:51

The verb erschrecken is one of a few examples where there exist both the strong and the weak conjugation and this difference carries meaning. (There are other examples where switching between strong and weak may occur without change of meaning, for example ich fragte may be ich frug in older texts or *ich frägte in some dialects).

A similar phenomenon can be seen with backen: irregular (ich buk) meaning to bake (bread, a cake) and weak (ich backte) meaning to stick together (e.g. of snow forming a snowball). But in general this is rare.

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