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.


  1. Very nice explanation! It inspired me. It then occurred to me that most of what you’ve said can be summarized as some kind of either human experience or humanly achieved outcome that occurs via or results from some more clearly specified kind of means, such as living through, following through, thinking through, etc. Maybe we can summarize it this way:

    By means of [whatever the verb: living, thinking, following, traveling, or just “faring well (or poorly)”]


    [Whatever the verb] through
    (examples: living, traveling, thinking, through something, or following through on something to achieve success)


    by means of [whatever the verb, such as traveling or merely expanding one’s mental reach] through or via that verb’s meaning

    I played with your examples and found that substituting one of these word forms around the non-er-modified verb fairly well predicts the meaning of its er- form. But in most cases, as you seem to imply, these er- constructions are more metaphorical, more abstract, than their more literal verb counterparts without the “er”. As their abstraction implies, they are conceptual and therefore uniquely confined to the human experience of having gone through something akin to what the simpler, unmodified verb implies. This helps to explain why there are so many apparent synonyms when we translate to another language, while in the original German the nuance in meaning found in the different verbs is very much determined by context and so the subtle differences therefore render these words as often not so viable as substitutes for each other in the German.


  2. Oh, I meant to include implied success “by means of following through” (Erfolg) as an example of the third format, which otherwise seems rather redundant.


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