Skip to Content

The secret meaning of “ge-“

So, very early on in my learning German, I learned about the ge-form, which we need for to use the past tense of many verbs.

  • gesehen (seen)
  • gesagt (said)
  • gekauft (bought)

And for a while I thought “ge-“ is just kind of this grammar thing but I started noticing that some verbs have it as a “regular” prefix.

  • gefallen (to like)
  • gehören (to belong)
  • gewinnen (to win)

So I started digging and what I found was a real surprise.

This ge- used to be a normal inseparable prefix just like ver- or zer- or be- and its core theme was to shift the focus of a verbs from the mere act toward the goal. The point to which the act leads. So it basically expressed completion.

For many verbs, there were two versions. Hundreds of years ago, lesen would be the act of reading and gelesen would be the act of reading something completely.

And because they were about about completion, the ge-versions of a verb were particularly often used to talk about the past tense, so much so that people slowly started associating the syllable with the tense. And over time, the prefix became actually part of grammar.

And that’s why there are actually verbs that have it as a normal prefix, as well. gewinnen for example. Germans started using it exclusively in the “completed” version while in English it’s just the “base” to win. English has no love for prefixes. Unless they’re Latin of course. Then English is simping hard.

Anyway, I think there might actually another surprising secret about ge- but I still have to do some research. I’ll definitely add that to the archive one I’m sure.