In both German and English we have the proverb Der Apfel fällt nicht weit von Stamm – “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” – which I understand to mean that parents and children are often alike. This got me thinking, when we talk about words, we can sometimes say that they have a fairly transparent relationship – like apples and the trees from which they fall – but many times this proverb is violated, with words straying from their roots or being dramatically changed when they form compounds. To explore this, I took the German words fallen, die Falle and das Fallen.
fallen – “to fall” or “to drop”
die Fallen – “pitfalls” or “traps”
das Fallen – “descent”
The relationships here seem relatively transparent and indeed in English we have expressions that use both “fall” and “trap.” Of course, “fallen” itself is an English word. Unlike German where it is the infinitive, “fallen” is the past participle of “to fall” (gefallen auf deutsch) and can also be used as an adjective as in “fallen arches” (to describe a foot problem).
What about compounds? My favorite, given the topics of this blog is Sprachfallen or “language traps.” They come in many forms, including the false friends like punktuell , and to keep with the connection to “falling,” we might say that you need to take care not to “stumble” over your words or that you must take care as some words can really “trip you up” (as one website said, you need to learn these Sprachfallen to avoid peals of laughter - um schallendes Gelächter zu vermeiden).
There are also a number of combinations in English that use “fallen” where it is not used in German such as “fallen asleep” - eingeschlafen; three ways of saying “fallen out with someone” – 1) entzweit (which has a literal meaning, “split in two, as you might expect from breaking it apart), 2) zerstritten sein (mit) and 3) jemand. hat/hatte sich mit jemandem verkracht; and “fallen short of” - unterschritten.
Moving to German compound verbs, an interesting relative for me is the verb ausfallen – “to fail (harvest, machine, power, etc.)” – because “fall” and “fail” are only one phoneme apart in English, and, if my experience with German word pairs of this type is anything to go by, these two are likely to be a “trap” for the non-native speaker. Another prefix+fallen verb is zufallen - “to shut.” Its membership in the family helps make the phrase jemandem natürlich zufallen - “to come naturally to someone” – make more sense to me (and to link it back to the tree, you could say that for such a person something “is as easy as falling off a log”)!
But probably more common than any of these are a set that leave me feeling out on a limb:
All three can take the meaning “to occur to somebody.” Of the three, as far as I can see only the first, einfallen, has a meaning that is related to “fallen” – it can mean “to collapse” or “to dip.” For beifallen dict.cc gives only the meaning “to occur to somebody” and says that it is both humorous and more elevated in tone. Auffallen has as its most frequently given meaning “to strike” in the sense of attracting attention. Now I suppose an idea could literally strike you – take the perhaps apocryphal story of Newton, the apple and gravity – but for my money we have wandered away from “fallen”
And since we’ve come right back around to speaking of apples, I wonder if it means anything that der Apfel is one of the few fruits (the only other I could find was der Pfirsich) with the masculine gender?!