Verbs usually describe a rock-solid activity: What we read or hear is what we get. Take nehmen: Wir nehmen die Schokolade, simple as that. The prefixes ent- and er-, however, give dynamics to the verbs, a certain vitality or – as we will see – morbidity; ent- adds loss and removal, er- very often adds gain and achievement. The statement “wir entnehmen die Schokolade” means therefore more than merely taking chocolate. We take it out of something, a cabinet maybe, and it exempts us from using a preposition like aus.
Wir entnehmen dem Schrank die Schokolade.
The prefix ent- always wants us to get rid of something, and it chooses as its medium not only verbs but also nouns.
Der Fisch hat viele Gräten. The fish has many fish bones. So, lets remove them. Wir entgräten den Fisch.
We would like to drink wine, but beforehand, we have to remove the cork from the bottle. Die Weinflasche hat einen Korken. Wir entkorken die Weinflasche.
Die Bühne (stage) ist voll mit Staub (dust) und Gerümpel (junk). Wir müssen die Bühne entstauben und entrümpeln.
The verb lassen is an assuring verb. Das Opernhaus lässt mich hier singen. How wonderful that they let you sing, but if the Intendant calls you into his or her office and speaks the word entlassen, you should get ready to fight for your job. The Intendant wants to let you go. Ich entlasse Sie!
The verb entschuldigen reveals an interesting concept of apology. It contains the noun Schuld, which means guilt. Literally, entschuldigen means to get rid of guilt, to remove guilt from you (it’s used as a reflexive verb) like a cork from a bottle. Ich entschuldige mich für die Verspätung.
If we add the prefix er- to verbs, we want to express some kind of development – often fatal.
The verb schießen (to shoot) is bad news for those who have to take the bullet, but it still gives them a chance of survival. Add an er- and the victim is dead.
Der Tenor erschießt den Bariton.
The same applies to other forms of violence, for example stechen (to stab). Don Giovanni sticht the Commendatore. The victim (we met him last week in the ver-prefix department) can still run and get help. Because Don Giovanni ersticht him, he can’t even lift his finger anymore.
schlagen (to beat) – erschlagen
würgen (to choke) – erwürgen
You can drink. Du trinkst. But if you fall into a river and cannot swim, you will ertrinken and never again emerge alive.
Of course, the prefix er- takes a more life-affirming role in many other verbs, still giving it drive, growth, a process.
Wir leben, but we erleben (to experience) events.
Wir klären (to clarify), but we erklären (explain), involving recipients of our wisdom.
Wir sind mutig (brave), but we help others by ermutigen (to encourage).
Soon, the music world will know the singer. Die Musikwelt wird die Sängerin kennen. It would be nice if the people on the street will recognize the singer, too. Die Leute auf der Straße erkennen die Sängerin. Hopefully they erbitten an autograph.
You find more information about verbs and other creatures of the German language in my book Ach ich fühl’s – German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing – click here.