ArticleExamples of German causative verbs
AuthorHelmut Richter
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Article URLhttp://hhr-m.userweb.mwn.de/de-causative/
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Examples of German causative verbs

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.

Rules

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:

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.

Examples

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 verbweak
causative verb
remarks
infinitivepast tenseperfect tenseseman.gramm.etym.
beißenbisshat gebissenbeizen25
bewegenbewoghat bewogenbewegen25, 711
biegenboghat gebogenbeugen25
(er)bleichenerblichist erblichenbleichen7
blickenblicktehat geblicktblecken36
dringendrangist gedrungendrängen2
dünkendünkte/deuchtehat gedünkt/gedeuchtdenken16
erschreckenerschrakist erschrockenerschrecken7
ersaufenersoffist ersoffenersäufen
essenhat gegessenatzen5
ätzen2
fahrenfuhrist gefahrenführen15
fallenfielist gefallenfällen3
fließenflossist geflossen(ein)flößen3
futternfuttertehat gefuttertfüttern5, 68
hängenhingist/hat gehangenhängen4, 711
henken34
haftenhaftetehat gehaftetheften68
hassenhasstehat gehassthetzen25, 6
krankenkranktehat gekranktkränken269
lautenlautetehat gelautetläuten269
leidenlitthat gelittenleiten218
liegenlagist/hat gelegenlegen4
(er)löschenerloschist erloschenlöschen7
nässennässtehat genässt(be)netzen269
prallenprallteist gepralltprellen169
rinnenrannist geronnenrennen215
saugensoghat gesaugt/gesogensäugen3, 105
schallenscholl/schalltehat geschalltschellen3198, 19
schleifenschliffhat geschliffenschleifen25, 716
schwankenschwanktehat geschwanktschwenken613
schwingenschwangist geschwungen
schwimmenschwammist geschwommenschwemmen3
(ver)sinken(ver)sankist ge-(ver-)sunken(ver)senken
sitzensaßist/hat gesessensetzen4
springensprangist gesprungensprengen3
steckenstak/steckte(ist)/hat gestecktstecken4, 711
stehenstandist/hat gestandenstellen412
stiebenstobist gestobenstauben/stäuben2
(er)trinken(er)trankhat ge- (ist er-)trunken(er)tränken5
entrinnenentrannist entronnentrennen15
verschwindenverschwandist verschwundenverschwenden1
wachenwachtehat gewachtwecken6
walzenwalztehat gewalztwälzen268
weichenwichist gewichenweichen2717
wiegenwoghat gewogenwägen514
(sich) windenwand (sich)hat (sich) gewunden(sich) wenden25
wissenwusstehat gewusstweisen5, 6, 219, 21
(sich) ziemenziemte (sich)hat (sich) geziemtzähmen2620
zwingenzwanghat gezwungenzwängen25

Remarks

  1. The causative verb has attained a variety of new meanings beyond the original purely causative one.
  2. One or both of the verbs have changed their meaning so that the meaning of the causative verb is no longer to cause the action of the base verb.
  3. The causative verb has a more specialised meaning.
  4. The perfect with the auxiliary sein is an older form which is in use in Southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (bairisch, alemannisch, ostfränkisch). There is, however, sometimes a tendency to regard Northern local usage, in this case the auxiliary haben, as “more standard”.
  5. The base verb is transitive.
  6. The base verb is weak.
  7. The strong and the weak verb look the same in the infinitive; the difference appears only in some forms of the present tense and in all forms of the past tense and the past participle. (er)bleichen and (er)löschen have an additional prefix er- at the base verb which does not appear in the causative form.
  8. The causative verb is derived from a noun, not from the non-causative verb which is a cognate.
  9. The causative verb is derived from an adjective, not from the non-causative verb which is a cognate.
  10. gesaugt has a somewhat more causative meaning (e.g. Staub gesaugt = used a vacuum cleaner) than gesogen (e.g. Luft eingesogen = drawn in air). Except with idioms (e.g. es sog ihn in die Tiefe), the strong form is becoming obsolete, see also stecken in remark 11.
  11. With bewegen, hängen and stecken, a strong and a weak verb have merged their meanings to some extent; the weak verb is etymologically not just a causative form of the strong one. In the case of stecken the strong form is restricted to the simple past tense (stak) which is becoming obsolete. The strong verb bewegen (“motivate”) is obsolescent, at least outside of idioms (e.g. was mag ihn dazu bewogen haben?).
  12. stellen is etymologically not a causative of stehen but it is perceived so and it is indeed a cognate.
  13. The weak verb schwanken is a cognate but is not the verb from which schwenken is derived as a causative.
  14. Strictly speaking, these two words do not belong in this list. Language mavens will insist that wiegen, besides its meaning “rock a child (in a cradle)”, must only be used in the sense “weigh, have a weight” but not in the sense “weigh, determine a weight”, for which latter meaning the word wägen has to be used. The etymology of the two words is, however, much simpler: they are in fact variants of the same word, wiegen being a recent formation for the now obsolescent wägen.
  15. rinnen and rennen, entrinnen and trennen have a complicated etymology: rennen is now no longer used as a causative like English “to run a horse”, and in the history of the two words rinnen and rennen they were mixed up with a now extinct word trinnen (“separate oneself”) which exists now only as a causative trennen (“separate”), as entrinnen (“escape”, should more logically be *enttrinnen), and as abtrünnig (“disloyal”).
  16. The weak verb schleifen was once a causative of the strong verb schleifen when the two verbs meant “[make] glide”. Now, both these meanings are denoted with the weak verb, the only meaning of the strong verb being “sharpen, grind” which squares better with “make glide” than with “glide”, contrary to its position in the list.
  17. This is not a real causative, as the weak verb weichen (“soften”, esp. by watering) is indeed the causative of the weak verb weichen (“becoming soft”, esp. by being watered), whereas the strong verb weichen has a related but different meaning of “give way”. The three words are, however, cognates.
  18. In Old High German times, leiden had a meaning of “go” or “proceed” which explains leiten as its causative. The Old English cognate liðan has not survived, only its causative lead.
  19. The verb schallen (“sound”) has strong and weak forms mixed: in the simple past tense both are possible, whereas the past participle is weak. However, for the close cognate erschallen the strong forms erscholl and erschollen are preferred, and the participle verschollen (“missing”, “no longer heard of”) exists only in strong form. A reason for this mixture of strong and weak forms is that the verb has merged with its weak causative verb schellen (“make sound”) which was later lost except as in zerschellen (“crash into pieces with sound”). The modern weak causative verb schellen (“ring a bell”) is derived from the noun Schelle (“bell”) which is also a cognate.
  20. ziemen (“be seemly”) and zähmen (“tame”, “domesticate”) are cognates but probably not simply as a causative “make seemly” from “be seemly”. Rather, the common root is dom (“house” as in “domesticate”) appearing in many Indo-European languages, and the imagery of ziemen is “fitting like building blocks of an edifice”.
  21. The agent of the base verb wissen is not the accusative object of the verb weisen, which is not the causative of a verb but of an adjective, weise. That weisen is strong is another irregularity for a causative verb; however, this was a later development in the middle of the first millennium.