Verbs: What You Can Say with the Prefix “be”

Gendarmenmarkt, April 2012

Verbs are usually seen as indispensable for creating a sentence. It doesn’t make much sense to have a couple of nouns hanging out with some adjectives and doing nothing. Only verbs can keep them busy. Who would have thought then that verbs represent only a pathetic minority. No more than two percent of the German vocabulary are verbs, only 900 to 1.000 words. However, the German language has a nice tool to make them look larger than life: the prefix, little guys consisting of two or three letters who can be attached to many verbs (or many verbs can be attached to them, depend on your viewpoint). There are only a dozen of them, but they can increase the meaning of a verb exponentially and quadruple the chance of a life-changing misunderstanding.

Don’t tinker with prefixes like an-, auf-, zu-, er-, ver-, emp-, ein-, aus-, ge- etc. unless you know exactly what you want to say.

With the verb fallen or example you can simply fall. With the prefix auf– , thus auffallen, you stand out, with ver– as in verfallen your talent declines, with ge– as in gefallen you will please.

Today, we are going to look at the prefix be-.

The prefix be– is especially treacherous because very often (not always) it does not change the meaning of the verb directly. A moment ago, staunen (to be astonished) was a nice, independent verb, only committed to the subject of the sentence, something that is capable of staunen, a human being or some animal. Now, with the prefix be– it needs an object, something to marvel at: Wir bestaunen das Teatro Colón, the great opera theater in Buenos Aires.

In many cases (not in all cases), the prefix be– changes an intransitive verb, a verb that does not have an object like leben (to live), into a transitive verb, a verb that needs an object, like beleben (to revive, to revitalize, to activate).

Other examples are…

– lügen (to lie) > belügen (to lie to someone): Das Volk belügt die Politiker (just kidding);

– zahlen (to pay) > bezahlen (to pay for something): Ich bezahle das Bier;

– urteilen (to judge, to pronounce a judgement) > beurteilen (to judge or to evaluate something or someone): Die Kritiker beurteilen den Tenor.

– lächeln (to smile) > belächeln (to smile at something or someone condescendingly): Die Diva belächelt den Bühnenarbeiter.

Other verbs change their objects after they got aquainted with be-. The verb singen can stand alone, like the soprano on the stage: Sie singt. It can have an object, too: Sie singt das Schubert-Lied.

With besingen however, she celebrates or praises something. She sings the Schubert-Lied, but sie besingt die Liebe.

Other examples are…

– antworten (to answer a person, dative) > beantworten (to answer a letter, e-mail, twitter, questions etc.),

– schenken (to give something as a gift) > beschenken (to give a gift to a person),

– bauen (to build a building) > bebauen (to build a building on something, for instance, a piece of land),

– fahren (to drive a vehicle) > befahren > (to drive a vehicle on a street, alley, Autobahn etc.).

Sometimes, be– modifies the verb’s meaning:

– fragen (to ask a question) > befragen (to consult, to canvass, to interrogate, to survey)

– grüßen (to greet) > begrüßen (to welcome someone)

– raten (to advice) > beraten (to consult)

Next update: Sunday, May 6th .

Published by


Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s