The Existential Prefix: The German “Er”

German, like English, has prefixes that attach to the front of words to alter their meaning. Some, like the English “pre”, which usually carries some idea of “before”, and “re”, which often contains the idea of “again”, are pretty easy to get ahold of relatively quickly. There are others though, that are not so clear and take time to grasp.

One such prefix is the German “er”, which in many of its usages seems to me to be very existential. “Er”, as we shall see, usually attaches to the front of verbs to alter their meaning, giving it a more human touch and often having the notion of the highest and most complete form of a given act. Oftentimes there are no good translations into English for these words, as we use the un-“er” form if we want to express the same thing, albeit with less specificality. This is an aspect of the German language that I have really come to love, as I first thought that when I translated two words and got the same translation that they were just synonyms. It took me a while to realize that, no, we in English just don’t make the fine-tuned distinction that is made in German. Here are some examples of the prefix “er” in use in German:

  • Erleben: The verb “leben” is translated as “to live”. A plant can “leben”, just as I can, but the “er” in the front of “erleben” gives it more of a personhood touch likely unknown to plants: to have an experience – to “live through” something might be a good translation.
  • Erfahren: “Fahren”, as I mentioned in another entry, means “to fare”, as in “to travel somewhere”. Adding the “er” to make “erfahren” once again takes this and makes it existential. Confusingly, if you translate “erleben” and “erfahren”, you will get the result: “to experience”. I believe (and Germans can correct me here), that “erfahren” is more of an intellectual experience: Through a lot of experience at your job, you can skills that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. This seems to be more erfahren. If you lived through the Cold War, this would be more erleben, but of course you would erfahren something here as well, because you got some experience that would shape your life and the way you think about things.
  • Erkältung: The common cold. Just like in English, the word for “cold” (“kalt”) is reused, but the “er” is added to give it, in my opinion, a more human quality.
  • Erfolg: “folgen” means “to follow”. The noun form, with “er” on the front, “Erfolg”, means “success”. I have the feeling of following something to the end, such as your dreams. A bit poetic, perhaps.
  • Erbauen: “bauen” means to build. Erbauen also means “to build” in English, but in German it carries a notion of building something bigger and maybe more permanent, like a Cathedral.
  • Erlernen: Similar to “erbauen”. “Lernen” means “to learn”, but “erlernen” is more like “to master”. To learn something so long and in such detail, that you own it.
  • Erdenken: “denken” means to think. “Erdenken” is more like developing something new after giving it a lot of thought.

That is probably enough examples, although there are many more. The nice part about all of this is that I can get a feeling for a word even when I have never seen it before, which I think happens a lot less in English. Consider the following: You are armed with the information that “to know someone” in English is the German verb “kennen”. Now you see a sentence with the verb “erkennen”. You can have a pretty good idea that the verb (although not always!) has something to do with knowing the person. In this case it turns out to be “to recognize”. Now, if you are learning English you would be hard pressed to understand “to recognize” if you had never seen the word before. Sure, you probably know what “re” does here, but you would have to know some etymology to come up with the “cognition” sense of “cognize”. In German, you can clearly see the connection to “kennen”. To take this a step further, there is also “anerkennen”, which is also “to recognize” in the sense of “to acknowledge” as in “We recognize Palestine as a state.” Again, if you had never seen “to acknowledge” before in English, you might not know what to do with the word. In German, you can more clearly see the connection.

The German language contains many prefixes that have interesting shades of meaning. It is just one aspect of the language that is fascinating to me and I hope to you as well. I plan to outline more of these interests in the future, but in the meantime, comments and questions are warmly welcome.

My Recent Trip to RPI

Last week, Julia and I went up to my old college: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. I hadn’t been there in quite a while and now that I am bit older and am attending another university (Universität Heidelberg) in Germany, some things were apparent that hadn’t been while I was there. This is, then, a short list of random observations that I made in my few hours at RPI.

Dining Hall

The food in the dining hall was okay, but not as good as I remember. There were far more posters on the wall calling for people to eat healthy. Each section had a vegetarian meal and there was even a vegan meal in the center of the room. I assume they offer it every day. I was really happy to see this. They have the same in Heidelberg, but I was not sure the same movement in the states.

The Commons cafeteria at RPI.

The Commons cafeteria at RPI.

There were still the same two soda fountains in the cafeteria offering a variety of drinks. Refills are free, as you are only required to pay once when entering the cafeteria. In Germany by comparison, no drinks are free (including water) and prices usually start at 2 Euros, or $2.50 for a 20 ounce bottle. There is a strange incentive to take soda/juice when you have already paid the entrance fee. Even though I drink water 90% of the time, I felt like I was wasting something by not taking a free “upgrade” drink. I can’t help but wonder if small differences like this partially account for the weight/diabetes epidemic in America.

Land of the free soda.

Land of the free soda.

On the same topic, after offering free hard and soft ice cream with toppings, by the exit you could get a Magnum or Nutty Buddy ice cream “to go.”

The technological church

I always thought it was weird that an old church in RPI was turned into a computing center, but I never realized just how weird. I can’t imagine another time in all of history when such a blasphemous act could be committed. What better tangible example of Nietzsche’s idea of the shift from faith in God to a faith in Science?

The front of the Voorhees Computing Center.

The front of the Voorhees Computing Center.

Stained glass windows among computers.

Stained glass windows among computers.

The EMPAC Building

When I graduated in 2005, the new EMPAC building wasn’t yet completed. It is quite an architectural marvel. Julia and I got to walk around a bit inside and go into the huge blimp-shaped theater that protrudes out of the building.

The EMPAC building.

The EMPAC building.

The reflection of the city in the glass of the EMPAC building.

The reflection of the city in the glass of the EMPAC building.

 

I felt very nostalgic when I visited RPI, which I hadn’t counted on. I had already visited a few times after I graduated and didn’t feel very emotional about it. I appreciated the architecture, the landscaping, and the weather more and genuinely missed being there with all of my good friends, with whom, I am happy to say, I still get to see much more often than most other people I talk to – what luck.

On a final note, one thing I don’t miss is the price. After we got home I looked it up: $46,000 per year without room and without food. All in all, you can count on $60,000 a year. That is $240,000, or one house, if you graduate in four years. In Heidelberg I pay 135 Euros a semester: less than the prices of two books at RPI (sidenote: I had to buy no books at Heidelberg last semester). This tiny price includes discounted food and public transportation as well as a free sport and fitness program, psychological services, etc. Many people in Germany have asked me how and why Americans do it instead of protesting: for Germans this price is unthinkable. I don’t have a good answer for them as I don’t know myself. I  guess we don’t think there is another option. I am here to tell you there is. People in the USA have laughed when I have told them to educate their child in Germany, but I’ve been serious each time. You get to be a part of a wonderful culture, expand your horizons, save enough money to buy a house, and the only “cost” is learning the German language, which is actually a joy in disguise.