LINGUIST List 26.5178

Thu Nov 19 2015

Review: Cog Sci; Morphology; Semantics; Syntax: Dewell (2015)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 13-Jul-2015
From: Laura Anna Ciaccio <>
Subject: The Semantics of German Verb Prefixes
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Robert B. Dewell
TITLE: The Semantics of German Verb Prefixes
SERIES TITLE: Human Cognitive Processing 49
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Laura Anna Ciaccio, Universität Potsdam

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


«The semantics of German Verb Prefixes» by Robert B. Dewell provides a detailed analysis of the meaning of verb prefixes of German. Prefixed verbs are treated as opposed to particle verbs (sometimes called ‘separable verbs’ in the morphology literature) and to simple (unprefixed) verbs. The author’s first goal is to show that each German verb prefix has a consistent schematic meaning, thus extending the results he had previously found for the route-path prefixes «um-», «unter-», «über-», and «durch-» (Dewell 2011). The author’s second goal is to provide evidence for his claim that all prefixed verbs prompt perspectives on the action they describe that differ from those prompted by particle and simple verbs. This then clearly distinguishes prefixed verbs from the other two constructions and thus characterizes them as an independent morphological category.

In Chapter 1 ‘Route-path prefixes and basic concepts’, Dewell describes his previous findings about route-path prefixes and explains the basic concepts underlying his analysis. His aim is to apply the same analysis to all German verb prefixes, which, he claims, can all be described in terms of paths. These paths can be dispersed or composed of a multiplex of different paths and do not need to be physical movements, but can also be rather abstract. He calls ‘figure expression’ (FG) the primary object of attention of the paths, and ‘landmark’ (LM) the region of the setting where we locate the FG and its path. Throughout the monograph, the schematic meanings of prefixes will be based on (at least one of) these two basic concepts and their relationships with each other. Another fundamental idea that the author introduces in this chapter is that of ‘synoptic construal’ as opposed to ‘sequential construal’. The former is prompted by prefixed verbs, and it implies observing a moving FG with a stable perspective from a long distance, focusing more on the relationship between FG and LM than on the FG itself, with the attention distributed over the whole area. By contrast, a sequential construal focuses on the FG with a closer perspective that follows its movements and moves together with it, so that the FG is always in the middle of the sight field. This construal is prompted by particle verbs and unprefixed verbs. While using this model to analyze the meaning of route-path prefixes can be fairly straightforward, since these additionally exist as independent words in German, applying the same model to all prefixes of German can be rather challenging. This is what Dewell does in Chapters 2-6. For each prefix, the author underlines how the prefix prompts a synoptic construal, specifies what kind of schematic meaning it has, and shows how the prefixed construction differs from comparable particle and unprefixed constructions.

Chapter 2 focuses on the prefix «be-». According to Dewell, this prefix expresses a diffuse and temporally undefined path directed to the LM, whose end is not specified and which is presented synoptically. The author importantly underlines that the contribution of «be-» then goes far beyond the syntactical role of transitivization that is often attributed to it.

Chapter 3 deals with the prefix «ent-». Its schematic meaning is argued to be very consistent: there is a theme within the LM’s reach that is separated from it. In all cases, this separation is presented synoptically. The prefix has two main sub-meanings: it can suggest separation or privation.

Chapter 4 analyses the prefix «er-». This prefix expresses the emergence of a process indicated by the base verb, which is backgrounded until the process reaches the goal space. This means that «er-» verbs then suggest an achievement, whose process is constructed synoptically. There are two main variants in the meaning of «er-», which are called by the author ‘emerging’ and ‘attaining’ variants.

The prefix «zer-», subject of Chapter 5, suggests a loss of structured order of a - more or less concrete - object: the internal structure of the object disintegrates until this becomes unrecognizable from its original form. The action is presented synoptically.

As explained in Chapter 6, «ver-» is the most productive and complicated of all German prefixes. Dewell points out that, although this prefix seems to carry several different and inconsistent meanings, it is still possible to find common semantic traits shared by all these variants. Hence, the claim by other authors according to which «ver-» may only have a mere grammatical role is here rejected. «ver-» verbs suggest a schematic meaning where a FG moves away from a vaguely defined reference point. The movement consists in the FG losing its status and being no longer recognizable as such, and the event is observed with a synoptic construal. The author specifies the different sub-meanings that this prefix can convey (§3), namely ‘be displaced’, ‘be closed off from access’, ‘lose independence’, ‘become altered’, ‘be ruined’, and ‘deviate from a course’.

Thr seventh and final chapter, ‘The system of prefixes’, compares the use of the different prefixes to each other and shows how these have mutually exclusive roles even when they seem to convey very similar meanings. The author also presents frequency counts: according to the Duden «Grammatik», about 45% of the German prefixed verbs contain the prefix «ver-», which is thus the most widespread prefix. This is followed by «be-» (25%), «ent-» (15%), and «er-» (10%). However, this is a count on the number of verbs with a certain prefix, and not of their frequency of occurrence, which gives different results. Counting the occurrences of prefixed verbs in the «zu»+infinitive form in the COSMAS database, Dewell finds that «be-» and «ver-» actually yield very similar counts, closely followed by «er-» and then followed by the others, which are much less common. The author then concludes summarizing his claims and findings, repeating the features that are shared by all German prefixes and those that make them clearly differ from particle and unprefixed verbs.


«The semantics of German Verb Prefixes» convincingly pursues the goal of providing a complete and coherent analysis of the meaning of German verb prefixes. Moreover, it remarkably also succeeds in providing a set of features that are consistently shared by all German prefixes and distinguish them from particle and simple verbs. The monograph is well structured and easy to follow. It is suited for an audience who is interested in advanced topics in German morphology, but, importantly, it also sheds light on the more general area of the semantics of derivational morphology. The content of the monograph can be of interest to researchers in theoretical linguistics as well as in psycholinguistics, where the role played by semantics in morphological processing is the subject of current debates. Given the clear and schematic meaning assigned to each prefix, the monograph represents a step forward from valuable traditional works on morphology such as Weinrich (1993) and Fleischer (1971), which deal with prefix distributions and syntactical roles, only sketching vague semantic traits. Furthermore, it also completes the framework provided by monographs only focusing on specific prefixes (see e.g. Becker 1971, Günter 1974-1987 and Eroms 1980 for «be-», Bellavia 1996 for «über-», Wunderlich 1993 for «um-», Risch 1995 for «über-» and «unter»).

The sources of evidence used for the study (as reported in §4, Chapter 1) are the COSMAS database of written German and the Internet. Together, they result in a fairly large number of instances. However, the reliability of the information found on the Internet can be questioned, since results from this source are not filtered for correctness and may also come from non-native speakers. The author states that he has done his best to eliminate evidence from clearly non-native informants, but it is hard to imagine that this could have been a hundred percent successful. On the other hand, though, the Internet provides information on more casual speech, similar to the oral language, which is not included in the COSMAS and has to be accounted for to be able to generalize results.

What is specifically valuable about the monograph is the contrast provided in each chapter between prefixed constructions versus unprefixed and particle constructions. The many examples that are presented generally manage to be convincing and to effectively support the schematic meaning of the prefix suggested by the author and to show how different the construal prompted by the other constructions is. However, sometimes the reader may have the feeling that examples were purposely chosen in order to fit the author’s hypotheses, and this is caused by the fact that the whole set of materials used for the book is not available. While this is surely due to reasons of space, it would be useful to at least provide a link to an online source accessible by readers where all materials are listed.

Despite minor shortcomings, the book convincingly meets the author’s goals and fulfills the reader’s expectations, providing interesting hints for further research in the area. Among the others, experimental morphologists and semanticists may find it interesting to design a method to find empirical evidence for the meanings suggested, but it would also be interesting for typologists to search for similar tendencies in languages with a comparable system of prefixation. Further research may also be done to apply the same method to all prefixes of German, like noun prefixes. The monograph thus completely fits the current topics and debates in the semantics of morphology and represents an inspiring starting point for further research.


Becker, Donald A. 1971. Case grammar and German be. Glossa, 5, 125-145.

Bellavia, Elena. 1996. The German über. In M. Pütz & R. Dirven (Eds.). The construal of space in language and thought (Cognitive Linguistics Research 8). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 73-107.

COSMAS II_web. Version 1.6.3 (March 2011). Institut für deutsche Sprache Mannheim.

Dewell, Robert B. 2011. The Meaning of Particle/Prefix Constructions in German (Human Cognitive Processing 34). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Duden. 2006. Die Grammatik (Duden Band 4). Mannheim, Leipzig, Wien, & Zürich: Dudenverlag.

Eroms, Hans-Werner. 1980. be-Verb und Präpositionalphrase (Monographien zur Sprachwissenschaft 9). Heidelberg: Winter.

Fleischer, Wolfgang. 1971. Wortbildung der deutschen Gegenwartssprache. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Günter, Harmut. 1974. Das System der Verben mit be- in der deutschen Sprache der Gegenwart. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

Günter, Harmut. 1987. Wortbildung, Syntax, be-Verben und das Lexikon. Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur (PBB), 109, 179-201.

Risch, Gabriela. 1995. Verbpräfigierung des Deutschen: Skalierungverben mit über- und unter-, Ph.D. Dissertation, Stuttgart.

Weinrich, Harald. 1993. Textgrammatik der deutschen Sprache. Mannheim, Leipzig, Wien & Zürich: Dudenverlag.

Wunderlich, Dieter. 1993. On German um: semantic and conceptual aspects. Linguistics, 31(1), 111-134.


Laura Anna Ciaccio is a Ph.D. student in the International Programme for Experimental and Clinical Linguistics at the University of Potsdam. Her project ‘Rething prefixation: From derivation to compounding’ focuses on the similarities between prefixation and compounding. Her research interests lie in the area of derivational morphology, and her research methods include research on aphasia and neuroimaging techniques.

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