Tag Archives: um

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”

Canoo.net 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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Seeing and looking out

For me, one of the best parts of learning a new language is the way it leads you to wonder anew at your mother tongue. In Dialog in Deutsch this morning we were talking about the various compounds that can be formed by adding a prefix to the noun die Sicht – “sight,” “visibility,” “view” and “point of view.” Now this is a favorite word of mine because it was one of the first I learned as part of a compound because Ex, one of the characters in Warum Nicht? the language learning radio program from Deutsche Welle, is an invisible – unsichtbar – elf (and, yes, that this is rather odd really does help to fix the vocabulary in one’s mind!).

The compound that caught my attention today in terms of what it highlighted about English, however, was die Umsicht. This can translated as “circumspection” – the more formal option – as well as “prudence.” I don’t think I ever put “circumspection” together with its relatives “introspection” and “inspection,” nor had a I thought about its connections with “circumnavigate” or “circumscribe.” If you look at the etymology of “circumspection,”  you will find a Latin root meaning “to look around” which shows a clear relationship to Umsicht if you pull it apart into um – “around” and Sicht – “view”. (You can also find “*spect” in the “prospect” meaning of die Aussicht.)

Intriguingly, die Vorsicht, is also given as a translation of “prudence” – amazing what one can “see” if one is prudent enough to take the time to “look out!” for beautiful language “sights!”

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