The formation of causative forms of German verbs is demonstrated with numerous examples – in fact, with a list meant to be fairly complete for the contemparary German language.
In the German language, as well as in other Germanic languages, there is a pattern how causative verbs are formed from non-causative base verbs. This pattern works according to the following rules:
The base verb is typically, but not always, intransitive. The causative verb is always transitive and has as its object the agent of the action denoted by the base verb. When the meaning of the base verb is “do something”, the meaning of the causative verb is “make him/her do something” or “cause to do something”.
The base verb is nearly always strong (past participle with -en and change of vowel). The causative verb is weak (past participle with -t and no change of vowel); it builds the perfect tense consistently with the auxiliary haben.
The causative verb is formed by replacing the vowel by -e- or -ä-, or at least into that direction. Sometimes, the consonant after the vowel acquires an additional plosive, e.g. -ch- → -ck- or -ss- → -tz-. The latter change is more typical for denoting intensive or repeated action, but it often occurs together with causatives.
Note that the same rules apply also in English, e.g. fall → fell, rise → raise, lie → lay, sit → set, and, only in a very special context, hang (hung) → hang (hanged). However, in English there are much fewer examples.
Unfortunately, there is no rule whether an -ä- or an -e- appears in the causative form. Fortunately, the spelling reform at the end of the 1990ies did not attempt to make this more “consistent”; the result would otherwise have been similar as with the word aufwendig (from aufwenden) which now can also be spelt aufwändig (from Aufwand), whereas *aufwänden remained wrong, for whatever reason.
Of course, there are also false friends, i.e. words that are not cognates but still exhibit a similar behaviour as far as the vowel change and the formation of the perfect tense are concerned, e.g. bieten → beten, fliehen → flehen, klimmen → klemmen, schinden → schänden.
This way of forming causatives is not restricted to base verbs; base nouns and adjectives are also possible, e.g. schwarz → schwärzen. Such pairs have been included in the list below when there is also a verb which could have been the base, e.g. prall → prellen with the cognate verb prallen. Always when the base verb is weak, this is a strong indication that the derivation of the causative verb is not directly from the base verb. See the list below for examples and look there for a correlation of remark 6 with remarks 8, 9, and 13.
The most frequent way of conveying a causative meaning in German is the same as in English: by applying an auxiliary verb lassen (“let”). In contemporary German, lassen is employed even when the meaning is actively causing something to happen as distinct from passively allowing something to happen; in English, one would mostly use “make” and not “let” in such contexts. In German, using machen (“make”) as an auxiliary verb sounds very archaic.
In German as well as in English, there are a number of verbs that are their own causatives: „Der Krug zerbricht.“ (“The jar breaks.”) and „Er zerbricht den Krug.“ (“He breaks the jar.”) can be constructed as in English, with the same distinction of auxiliaries when the final state is reported: „Der Krug ist zerbrochen.“ (“The jar is broken.”) vs. „Er hat den Krug zerbrochen.“ (“He has broken the jar.”). There is, however, no German equivalent to “The jar has broken.” Note that all these forms are no real passiv voice constructs (German: wurde / wird / ist worden; English: was / is / has been). Examples like zerbrechen have not been included in the list of examples unless the non-causative verb is strong and the causative verb is weak – a clear indication that these are indeed two distinct verbs. German schmelzen (“melt”) and verderben (“spoil”) once had this distinction but are now strong in both meanings; with schleifen and weichen (see the list for the various meanings of both words) the verbs are now mostly weak but the strong verbs are used in related meanings.
The author would appreciate learning more examples and including them in the list below.
In the table below, the more far-fetched examples are marked by a saturated background colour. In this context, “far-fetched” does not mean that these examples are etymologically wrong, but only that one of the verbs, typically the causative one, is archaic or otherwise unusual, or that the connexion between the two verbs is not at all obvious. Learners of the German language might choose to omit these pairs from their learning programme. Note that even for the more normal examples (those with the pale background colour), the meaning of the causative verb is not always a simple “cause to do”: see the “seman.” remarks.
|(strong) base verb||weak|
|infinitive||past tense||perfect tense||seman.||gramm.||etym.|
|bewegen||bewog||hat bewogen||bewegen||2||5, 7||11|
|futtern||futterte||hat gefuttert||füttern||5, 6||8|
|hängen||hing||ist/hat gehangen||hängen||4, 7||11|
|hassen||hasste||hat gehasst||hetzen||2||5, 6|
|saugen||sog||hat gesaugt/gesogen||säugen||3, 10||5|
|schallen||scholl/schallte||hat geschallt||schellen||3||19||8, 19|
|schleifen||schliff||hat geschliffen||schleifen||2||5, 7||16|
|stecken||stak/steckte||(ist)/hat gesteckt||stecken||4, 7||11|
|(er)trinken||(er)trank||hat ge- (ist er-)trunken||(er)tränken||5|
|(sich) winden||wand (sich)||hat (sich) gewunden||(sich) wenden||2||5|
|wissen||wusste||hat gewusst||weisen||5, 6, 21||9, 21|
|(sich) ziemen||ziemte (sich)||hat (sich) geziemt||zähmen||2||6||20|