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I am struggling to understand why some languages (German for example) have verbs with separable prefixes and others don't. German has both kinds of prefixes: separable and non-separable. So, it's not either or, but rather an extension.

What is the force which makes language speakers separate some prefixes from the verb? What does separation add to the language compared to completely avoiding it?

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    I suspect that you have it backwards: why do these originally independent elements sometimes become stuck to other words - sometimes inseparably? I notice you are cunningly avoiding asking "why", because "why" questions about language are usually unanswerable. But I don't think couching it as "what are the ... reasons" makes any difference.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 10:45
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    They are generally called "particles": "Many particles could be used both as adverbs and postpositions."
    – Arfrever
    Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 13:11
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    Any explanation of German separable prefixes should also account for English phrasal verbs, which are essentially separable suffixes.
    – jlawler
    Commented Aug 24, 2023 at 16:33
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    In order to understand where the verbal prefixes come from, it's good to start with reading a detailed study on that. For you there's a great book Старославянский язык by Г. А. Хабургаев. Go straight to page 327 and read the section Глагольные приставки, from §342 on, It explains in detail the genesis of the verbal prefixes and why they often look like prepositions. In short, it's not that prefixes developed from prepositions, but both prefixes and prepositions developed from the ancient IE adverb-like functional words. Enjoy!
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Aug 25, 2023 at 10:38
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    As Colin Fine said in the first comment above, you have it backwards: those things used to be adverbs, now they are in the process of becoming usual prefixes, in some syntactic roles they have already taken the position before the verb, but in some other ones they still take the final position as it is typical for the adverbs from which they are now splitting as a new grammar entity.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 13:51

3 Answers 3

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I will be comparing advantages and disadvantages of separable verbs in German as reasons for their continued existence.

Pro: Part of a syntactical construction

It is possible to analyse separable prefixes not as prefixes, but words on their own. This is also the most probable source of those words, see the question's comments. And grammar changes slowly, so that may be the main reason we still have them.

In this view, they behave exactly as they are expected, so having them is actually less cognitive overhead than one would think. Compare

Er (schlägt/tritt/macht) die Tür (auf/zu/kaputt).

All combinations are possible, and the first word does not influence the meaning of the second word and vice versa. These combinations are in a sense "transparent" and very productive. The position can also be filled with longer phrases that are unsuitable as prefixes like

Er schlägt die Tür klitzeklein / in tausend Stücke.

An "advantage" of separable verbs is thus that it is part of a more versatile grammatical construction, which constantly produces new separable verbs.

Another source are noun-verb-combinations, like "Bahn fahren", "Leid tun", which behave a bit like separable verbs. Some of those constructions get inseparable, like "staubsaugen".

Con: Hinders comprehension

The big disadvantage is that especially if the combination has a vastly different meaning than its constituents, the entire phrase becomes harder to understand if the hearer has to "reparse" upon hearing the particle.

In German, this is somehow mitigated by the fact that separable verbs often have different valencies than their base verbs, like "sehen-transitive" and "umsehen-reflexive". But having to wait until the end of the sentence to get the full predicate is common in German, so this might not be such a big disadvantage in the eyes of German speakers.

Chinese, for example, also has something that could be considered separable verbs (verb-verb and verb-noun combinations), but severely restricts what can be inserted into the gap because the huge amount of homonyms makes it hard to understand which verb is meant without the complement.

Pro: Close to the object

Most of the the separable prefixes are describing positions of the object and as such, it makes sense to put them near the object. In the V2 case, the prefix would than be close to the subject and not the object.

Consistency for each prefix

Maybe to keep the cognitive load for keeping those two types of prefixes apart, in German every prefix is either separable or not and this does not depend on the verb. It also almost coincides with whether the prefix is stressed. (except for e.g. miss-) Keeping them apart is thus also kept simple.

But why did we start to have prepositions as particles? I don't know. It seems like Germans perceived a verb with a preposition as something different than without and then decided to keep the preposition even if there is no noun anymore.

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The over in Think it over, but don’t overthink it is not too different, grammatically, than the down in walk down, which is not too different than внизу.

(It sounds like Russian is your frame of reference.)

We could pose the opposite question: why can’t you say Я прошел через. (I walked through.) But in English or German you can’t necessarily use any preposition as an adverb with any verb either.

So, the same concept exists, it’s just the specific words which differ.

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  • > why can’t you say Я прошёл через. Well, it would be just Я прошёл where про is a prefix. проезжать-drive through But if you need to specify through what, then you add через + object: Я прошёл через лес - I've walked through the forest. Я прошёл лес - could mean both: I've passed the forest by or I've walked through the forest, but in most cases it is the former one. One can also say Я шёл через лес - I was walking through the forest (but one cannot say я шёл лес. Indeed, we could ask why it's not я шёл через лес про. Commented Aug 25, 2023 at 8:04
  • I could speculate that this may be caused by the flexible word order. Where to put про? Я шёл про через лес, я шёл через лес про, через лес шёл я про?, шёл через лес про я, шёл через лес я про? (with the prefix all variants are valid) If the position of the postfix is not fixed, it ads, IMO, a lot to the cognitive load of the listener. If position is fixed, then it contradicts the word order flexibility. Commented Aug 25, 2023 at 8:04
  • Not sure Russian is special here. Commented Jul 11 at 19:23
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It keeps the listeners attention. One can't reasonably interrupt or contradict until the phrase is finished. Same thing with the "verb at the end" languages.

As you have pointed out, it puts the cognitive load onto the listener, a weaponized neuro-linguistic programming. It probably was an everyday exercise in "how much BS I can get away with". That's why it stuck, people like to F each other's brains up.

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