Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNumérosVolume 14The Semantics of German Verb Pref...

The Semantics of German Verb Prefixes by Robert Dewell

Book review
Karin Madlener
Référence(s) :

Dewell, Robert B. 2015. The Semantics of German Verb Prefixes (Human Cognitive Processing 49). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 284 pages.

Texte intégral


1The Semantics of German Verb Prefixes represents a major extension of Dewell (2011), which focused on the semantics of German route path prefixes such as über- ‘over’ and unter- ‘under’. As such, it extends insights, concepts, and methodological approaches from these prior analyses to the examination of the more abstract verb prefixes be-, ent-, er-, zer-, and ver-. The goal of the book is twofold: On the one hand, the specific (image-schematic) meaning of the individual verb prefixes is described. On the other hand, the schematic meaning of the highly abstract prefix construction itself is identified, as opposed to that of unprefixed or particle verbs. The main questions are the following (cf. p. 179): What do the prefixes typically add to the meaning of base verbs? Why is a specific prefix chosen rather than other prefixes? Why is a prefix chosen at all, rather than a simple verb or a particle verb?

2The author takes a cognitive-semantic approach to these questions, in which meanings are seen as active mental processes (p. 7). The analyses are focused on image-schematic construal patterns, where construal refers to “what perspective we adopt as we imagine the scene being described, and how we are prompted to distribute our focal attention as the event unfolds“ (ibid.). The main hypotheses are the following: Firstly, the individual prefixes contribute objective information to the utterance, even if this meaning may be very abstract; as a consequence, the individual prefixes contrast with one another. Secondly, the abstract verb prefix construction has meaning in and of itself, it namely prompts a synoptic overall construal pattern; as a consequence, the prefixed verb construction systematically contrasts with unprefixed and particle verb constructions (p. 8).

3Chapter 1 introduces the basic terms and concepts that are key to the following analyses, based on Dewell’s (2011) analysis of the route path prefixes, where the prefixed verb construction (1; p. 11) often directly contrasts with a simple verb paired with a prepositional phrase (2; ibid.) or with a particle verb construction such as (3):


Die Erde umläuft die Sonne ‘The earth orbits [um-goes] the sun’


Die Erde läuft um die Sonne ‘The earth goes around the sun’


Die Frau kehrte um ‘The woman turned back’

4Path expressions basically relate a figure to a landmark (p. 12); figure and landmark represent the first of the two main distinctions that the prefix verb analyses in general will refer to, throughout the book: A figure is defined as a located or moving entity that is relatively prominent against the background of the setting, whereas a landmark constitutes a part of this background, taken as a reference point for the localization of the figure (p. 6). It is a specificity of the prefixed verb construction that it tends not to profile a prominent figure (e.g., the moving earth), but a prominent landmark (e.g., the sun) and a whole corresponding path; this prominence is reflected in the landmarks’ accusative (as opposed to oblique) case marking. This specificity is related to the second crucial dichotomy, which sets apart two types of construal, namely a sequential as opposed to a synoptic perspective. Sequential construals evoke a local scope of attention (on the moving figure); this is the case of unprefixed and particle verbs. By contrast, synoptic construals involve a bird’s eye perspective with a global scope of (distributed) attention (pp. 20-21). This is the case of the prefixed verb construction, where the paths are construed as holistic or multi-directional; in a synoptic construal; a whole path (as opposed to a salient figure) is thus related to the landmark (p. 23). This explains why route-path prefixed verbs are more likely to occur with abstract, extended, or multiplex figures and in the case of fictive motion.

5Chapters 2 to 6 present detailed analyses of the verb prefixes be-, ent-, er-, zer-, and ver- with reference to the central concepts of path, figure, landmark, and construal. Based on a visual sketch and an illustrative range of attested examples, each chapter first introduces the image-schematic core meaning of the prefix under consideration and explains how this involves a synoptic overall construal. The chapters then proceed to richly detailed analyses, exploring the contrasts between prefixed, unprefixed, and particle verb constructions by drawing on a wealth of attested usage examples; for each prefix, the discussion also includes a short summary of German-English contrasts. Selected grammatical and also stylistic issues, such as aspectual implications and register preferences, are taken into consideration in special sections.

6Chapter 2 focuses on the prefix be-, whose image-schematic core meaning, according to the author, corresponds to the profiling of a diffuse path directed at an accusative landmark (pp. 56, 269). The overall event construal being synoptic, be- verbs favor abstract paths or multiplexes of path vectors and abstract or mass theme arguments (e.g., Schutz ‘protection’ in beschützen be-protect’ or sugar with bestreuen be-sprinkle’). As a consequence, the paths tend to be aspectually open-ended and be- verbs often denote sustained or complex activities (such as befragen ‘interrogate’ or bemessen ‘assess’); also the accusative landmark of a be- verb (typically the surface of an object) can not become the figure of an explicit new location (e.g., in a resultative construction such as *flach behämmert ‘*be-hammered flat’).  The chapter grants special attention to denominal and deadjectival verbs (pp. 82-90). Overall, the analysis convincingly demonstrates that and how the contribution of be- by far exceeds its commonly assumed purely grammatical function of transitivization.

7Chapter 3 discusses the prefix ent-, which describes a synoptic source path, with the focus of attention being on the accusative landmark at the moment of separation from the theme/figure argument (as opposed, e.g., to the subsequent locations of the moving figure) (p. 101). There are two subclasses of ent- verbs: First, intransitive ‘escaping’ ent- verbs with a possibly inchoative reading such as entschlüpfen ‘slip away’ and entbrennen ‘break out’, where the path actually denotes a punctual release event. Second, transitive ‘privative’ ent- verbs, denoting (synoptically construed) events of an accusative landmark being deprived or rid of something (e.g., entladen ‘unload’ or enttarnen ‘uncover’, possibly with a reversative reading); as such, they can often be construed as antonyms of applicative be- verbs, the theme in question being indicated by a denominal verb root (e.g., bewaffnen ‘arm’ vs. entwaffnen ‘disarm’). Interestingly, German privative ent- verbs are highly productive, as shown by recent loan translations such as entfreunden ‘unfriend s.o. (on Facebook)’ and entfolgen ‘unfollow s.o. (on Twitter)’ (pp. 115-116).

8Chapter 4 introduces the prefix er-, which “profiles the attainment of a synoptic goal space by a process that begins as a backgrounded run-up process” (p. 269). Aspectually speaking, er-prefixed verbs (such as erreichen ‘reach’ or erblicken ‘catch sight of sth.’) represent a specific type of achievement, called “run-up achievements” here (p. 132): They profile the moment at which a (backgrounded) run-up process has apparent results in a synoptically construed goal space (pp. 128-129). Again, there are two subclasses, which are commonly described as contrasting but analyzed as variants of one core image-schema here (pp. 127-128): ‘Emerging’ er- verbs, such as erröten ‘blush’, denote the emergence of a process (or rather the moment at which it becomes perceptible in the goal space), which is why they are commonly described as inchoative; these verbs are often deadjectival and typically intransitive, although there are common causative variants (e.g., erwachen and erwecken ‘awake (s.o.)’). ‘Attaining’ er- verbs, such as erkämpfen ‘gain by fighting’, by contrast, are typically transitive and perfective, profiling the moment of achievement within a synoptic construal; hence they are often categorized as resultative. As such, they imply success in reaching the intended goal and contrast with intransitive activity verbs (e.g. lernen ‘learn’ vs. erlernener-learn, acquire’). The image-schematic analysis convincingly points to the underlying commonalities of the seemingly contrasting, inchoative and resultative, subclasses.

9Chapter 5 deals with zer- verbs, which basically denote decomposition (e.g., zerfallen ‘decay’). They are often denominal, the base roots specifying the resultant state of the focal object (e.g., zerkrümeln ‘crumble’) or the causal activity leading to the disintegration (e.g., zerreissen ‘tear’). The image-schematic analysis of a substantial amount of examples demonstrates that, again, the prefixed verbs profile a synoptic event construal, namely of the breakdown of a host object’s internal structure, such that, functionally, it is no longer the same object, if not altogether unrecognizable (p. 167). Importantly, as the zer- event is distributed through the focal object, the focus of attention remains synoptically on the overall state of this object; zer- events, like ent- events, do thus not invite sequential attention to the object’s moving parts as it disintegrates (pp. 172, 174).

10Chapter 6 finally discusses the prefix ver-. The author argues for an extension of the prior image-schematic analyses to ver- verbs, in contrast to the common opinion that they have a purely grammatical function, namely the derivation of transitive verbs (pp. 178-179). Based on Brinkmann’s (1962) observation that they denote some “deviation from what is normal and expected” (p. 181), ver- verbs are assumed to basically profile the loss of (access to) an apparent figure (at least in its original functional status or recognizable form) within a synoptic setting; such loss may, for example, be due to displacement (e.g., verschwinden ‘disappear’), hiding (e.g., verstecken ‘hide’), or merging (e.g., verrühren ‘mix’) (pp. 181-183). Again, as the overall construal is synoptic, no attention is called to where the lost figure went after being displaced; ver- verbs are thus perfective not with respect to the sequential completion of a new state of the original figure, but to the alteration of the setting through the loss of the figure (p. 193). As a consequence, goal phrases that indicate the figure’s new location are avoided in the prefixed verb construction, but not with simple verbs (cf. ins Meer sinken ‘sink into the sea’ vs. im Meer versinkenver-sink in the sea’; pp. 193, 220-226). Special attention is given to deadjectival prefixed verbs in this chapter (pp. 191-192, 194-203).

11Chapter 7 wraps up the analyses by providing an insightful discussion of contrasts and semantic distinctions within the system of German verb prefixes, regarding the core meanings of the individual prefixes as well as, for example, aspectual implications (p. 233) and positive/negative connotations (pp. 234-235, 239-240). It provides a substantial number of interesting observations regarding specific semantic contrasts, near antonyms, and near synonyms, including a range of valuable examples where the contrasting forms occur together in one utterance (e.g., for ver- vs. ent-, pp. 230-232). The discussion closes on some theoretical implications, which relate the crucial, cognitive-linguistic concept of construal to a genuinely constructionist approach (yet without explicitly naming the latter), as the author returns to his initial observation that grammatical meaning must be approached in terms of construal: Highly abstract constructions, such as the verb prefix construction, have meaning in and of themselves to the extent that they precisely prompt specific types of event construal (p. 269).


12Overall, The Semantics of German Verb Prefixes largely meets the reader’s expectations: It presents a highly knowledgeable, coherent, and reasonably critical investigation of the system of German verb prefixes. It includes both greatly detailed analyses of the meanings and uses of a substantial number of common German verb prefixes and a convincingly argued account of the meaning and contribution of the abstract prefixed verb construction itself, namely in terms of the overall event construal as discussed above. In spite of the impressive number of specific observations and the complexity of the individual analyses, the book’s overall structure is fairly transparent and globally easy to follow, it will thus possibly be of interest not only for cognitive linguists (with a special interest in German), but also for (advanced) learners and teachers of German, as intended by the author (cf. Preface). Putting aside some minor issues regarding, for example, the handling of the multiple meanings of polysemous verbs (and their constructional correlates), the very wealth of detailed observations, contrasts, and examples presented in this book makes it both a rich source for informed decisions of usage (or interpretation) for non-native speakers of German and an excellent starting point for linguistic follow-up research questions.

13All of the examples presented and discussed in the book represent attested usages, that is, naturally occurring sentences (p. 10). They come from two main data sources: On the one hand, the DeReKo corpus (Deutsches Referenzkorpus ‘German Corpus of Reference’, see​kl/​projekte/​korpora.html) and a number of further project corpora made publicly available through the COSMAS II interface at the Institut für deutsche Sprache (IDS,​cosmas2), all of which constitute published samples of more or less professional writing (p. 10). On the other hand, the world wide web is used as a larger data base; the respective Google searches obviously include colloquial, informal, and conceptually oral writing. This results in large numbers of usage exemplars in rich utterance contexts, which comprehensively illustrate the author’s argumentation regarding the meaning and uses of individual prefixes as well as the general contrasts between prefixed, unprefixed, and particle verb constructions across the respective chapters.

14The impressive wealth of examples that illustrate the author’s reasoning globally suggests that the examples are chosen in an objective and impartial way (see also the author’s comment, p. 9). However, there are two substantial reservations with regard to the data presentation, which, every now and then, may cast doubts on the assumed objectivity of the author’s choice of examples, primarily with regard to examples that illustrate the crucial contrasts between prefixed, unprefixed, and particle verb constructions: First, given the obvious qualitative differences between the data sources, which the author actually explicitly acknowledges (p. 10), clear and consistent indications of the precise source — either the IDS corpora or the www — of the individual usage examples would have been desirable. Second, ­­there is no reliable indication of the respective frequencies of occurrence of the constructional variants exemplified by the selected usage tokens. Some of the examples do sound strikingly exceptional to the native speaker, even if they are effectively attested (e.g., bestopfenbe-stuff’, p. 69, which seems to be mainly restricted to highly technical uses, poetic and/or 18th century occurrences; cf. also the cases of geruhigt ‘quieted’, p. 90, and erstärken er-strenghten’, p. 244). Given that (for obvious reasons of space) the reader lacks access to the totality of examples that the argumentation is based upon, clear indications of the comparative constructional frequencies of the selected examples would probably have helped the conscious reader to acknowledge the weight of the individual arguments even better, by singling out very infrequent, unique, playful, archaic, or coerced usages from among the more frequent, common constructional types and instantiations.

15In sum, The Semantics of German Verb Prefixes undoubtedly constitutes an impressive piece of research and a major contribution to the study of form-meaning mappings in this highly complex linguistic domain. Its focus on construal clearly invites cognitive-linguistic follow-up research from a range of theoretical, empirical, and applied perspectives, including first and second language acquisition and language pedagogy.

Haut de page


Dewell, Robert B. (2011). The meaning of particle/prefix constructions in German (Human Cognitive Processing 34). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Karin Madlener, « The Semantics of German Verb Prefixes by Robert Dewell »CogniTextes [En ligne], Volume 14 | 2016, mis en ligne le 21 mai 2016, consulté le 08 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Karin Madlener

Universität Basel

Deutsches Seminar
Nadelberg 4
CH-4051 Basel

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Haut de page
  • Logo ERIH PLUS | NSD
  • Logo AFLiCo – Association française de linguistique cognitive
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search