Separate but equal?

Back in April, in Sich [sic] as a Dog I talked about the challenges posed by verbs that have both a reflexive and a non-reflexive form. For example, there is the pair:

fragen – “to ask”
sich fragen – “to wonder”

These can be pretty tricky and yet today I discovered another verb family that may top them, prefixed verbs where there is a form where the prefix is separable and another form where it is not. As full verbs, these two forms have different stress patterns. The separable form has the stress is on the prefix, the inseparable form has the stress on the verb stem:

um|fahren – separable, stress on um “to knock down” or “to run over”
umfahren – inseparable, stress on fahr “to circumvent” or “to drive around” gives the sample sentences Der Bus fährt einen Hydranten um and Der Bus umfährt die Baustelle. With the first someone is calling the emergency services to report an accident and lots of water, with the second someone is calling the transit authorities to complain about the bus detour throwing off the schedule.

Unfortunately for the learner, some of the most common verb prefixes – durch, über, um and unter – are ones that can take either a separable or a inseparable form. (There is an additional member of the family, wider. It is not terrible common and I could not find any examples where the same stem can be combined with wider to create both a separable and an inseparable form.) Given the topic of this blog, one of my favorites pairs from this devilish little family is über|setzen “to cross over” and übersetzen “to translate” or “to ferry,” not only because there are two forms, separated by their separability, but also because the separable version takes sein as its helping verb and the inseparable one takes haben. Nothing like two laughter-provoking error opportunities for the price of one to make you feel like you are den Rubikon überschreiten.

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