Although no sentence, no statement of any significance, can do out without them, verbs appear in the German language in pretty small numbers. 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. 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 for example you can simply fall. With the prefix auf– , thus auffallen, you stand out, with ver– as in verfallen things decline or fall apart , with ge– as in gefallen you will please.

Lady Gaga muss immer auffallen.

Mein Haus in Berlin verfällt.

Ich gefalle dem Regisseur.

In part I of my little series about prefixes (Vorsilbe) 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. Die Touristen staunen.

Now, with the prefix be– it needs an object, something to marvel at: Die Touristen 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).

Die Kinder leben.

Die Kinder beleben die Atmosphäre im Haus.

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 (no kidding);

– 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.

Beethoven besingt die Freiheit in Fidelio.

Other examples are…

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

Wir antworten dem Freund. Wir beantworten seine E-Mail.

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

Ich schenke (der Sängerin) Blumen. Ich beschenke die Sängerin (mit Blumen).

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

Die Stadt baut eine neue Oper. Die Stadt bebaut ein Stück Land.

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

Der Bariton fährt einen Porsche. Viele Autos befahren die Autobahn nach Hamburg.

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 week: With ver- You Go Down the Drain