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I learned that brauchen means to need in English, and gebrauchen means to use. Using and needing are relatively similar verbs, which makes me wonder if ge- is some kind of a prefix in German? So when I see it on other verbs, might I be able to infer their meaning?

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    See Wiktionary.
    – RDBury
    Jan 10 at 7:25
  • It can be one (i.e. stehen -> gestehen), but the derivation is not always trivial (we have genehmigen, but there is no nehmigen), and I don't think that you can logically infer the meaning when you know the base word. Jan 10 at 15:20

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Yes, in your example, ge- is a prefix. Be aware though that in most cases when you encounter ge- in German it will be the marker of the past participle (also called "Partizip II"), such as in essen ("to eat") - gegessen ("eaten").

Also, there are verbs which simply start with ge-, for instance gewinnen ("to win"). In current German, there is no verb *winnen, but there once has been one. Another example is gelingen ("to succeed, to work out"), where the previous existence of *lingen is not clear. Other examples are gebären ("to give birth"), and gesunden ("to recover"), and I bet there are a lot more.

As a general rule for verb prefixes, there is often no simple rule to derive the meaning of the the derived verb from the meaning of the root verb and the meaning of the prefix. (There is a question on this matter here in German: Wie kann man die Bedeutung von Verben mit Vorsilben ableiten?). I would say this general rule of thumb holds true for ge-. When ge- actually is a prefix it often has a fortfying, strengthening meaning. One example is gedenken ("to commemorate") to denken ("to think"). But you see how this already fails in your example of gebrauchen.

In nouns, Ge- prefix often refers to a collection of things. Examples are Gebirge ("chain of mountains") to Berg (mountain), Gewässer ("water course") to Wasser ("water"), Gehöft ("homestead") to Hof ("court"), and Gestüt ("stud farm") to Stute ("mare").

This relation might be deeply buried in the etymology of the word, as illustrated by the examples of Gesinde ("the menial staff, the servants") originally from Old High German sind ("the way, the journey") referring to "everybody who accompanies you on the way", and Getreide ("grain") to tragen ("to carry"), originally having the meaning "everything that is being carried". Both *sinde and *treide don't exist in German, so Ge- is not perceived as a prefix anymore in those words.

I would speculate that the collectivizing function in nouns and the fortifying function in verbs have "once" been related, but the examples should already demonstrate that one would have to go very far back in time (beyond the boundaries of what is called "German" anymore, in fact) to find such a relation in the actual language.

All etymological claims are backed by Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen by Wolfgang Pfeifer, as available at dwds.de

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