What does the be- prefix change when applied to adjectives and verbs? There are many such words that seemed to be coined of this process, for example:
behold, beget, befallen, beridden, bedazzled, bedevil, between, befluxed
That’s just off the top of my head; I am positive that I’ve missed plenty more. How does (or did) be- change the “root” of each word? (Scare quotes, because many of these “roots” don’t seem to be actual words in modern English).
And also, I’m aware that words typically often gain different meanings, sometimes vastly away from their original sense, in the process of word evolution; in addition to asking what be- prefixation means in the present day, I’m also wondering about what the first coiners of these words, many from Old English, would have been thinking as they coined them, and if the be- prefix evolved from a “natural” preposition.
The formation of verbs in many Indo-European languages follows the following rule
prefix + root verb
- English incoming, outgoing
- German einkommen (income), ausgehend (outgoing)
- Latin inīre (to come in), exīre (to go out)
German for instance still follows this system very closely and has a small number of ubiquitous prefixes which fall into two categories:
- The so called separable1 prefixes (ab- “off”, an- “on”, auf- “up”, aus- “out”, ein- “in” etc.), which indicate an ongoing action, a movement or a direction.
- And the so called inseparable1 prefixes: (be- (be), ent-, er-, ge-, mis-, ver- and zer-) which indicate a completed action (differentiated according to the type of outcome: neutral, successful, failed…).
The English be- prefix is clearly the same as the German be- and is therefore a remnant of its Germanic ascendancy.
It is actually of the same origin as the verb to be which linguists have traced back, through Proto Germanic to the reconstituted Proto Indo European root *bheu-, *bhu- meaning “to grow”, “to turn into” or ” to become”2.
Ultimately most of the English words starting with a “be-“ can be traced back to this notion of “to turn into”3.
The general form is:
be + [quality]
and the corresponding meaning is:
to turn into + [quality].
Let’s illustrate all this theory with a few simple examples:
- to befriend somebody => to turn somebody into a friend.
- to beget something => to make something supplied, produced.
- to besot somebody (besotted) => to turn somebody into a sot (a dummy).
- to bewitch somebody => to make somebody possessed by a spell.
- to bedazzle somebody => to make him confused (see also bewilder)
These ones are slightly more difficult:
- to behold: the original meaning of to hold (OE healdan, German halten) is to keep. But to keep by actually keeping an eye on, to watch over. => So to behold is to make something watched.
- to bedevil someone => to make someone feel like in Hell.
- to believe something => to make something dear (loved). See also German glauben (ge + lieben) as well as Dutch geloven.
- to belong to someone => to make something go along with somebody.
As usual there are a few exceptions or look-alikes that don’t fit into the template
- to behead => sometimes the “be” is categorised as privative but you can also interpret it as “turn into a head (and not much else)”. The question being what do you sever: the head or the body ?
- between. It is not a verb. The “be” is akin to “by” and the “tween” part is akin to “two”.
But their existence is not sufficient to belie the general theory outlined above.
German verbs starting with a separable prefix form their past participle by inserting a “ge-” between the prefix and the root.
Infinitve aus-gehen “to go out” => past participle aus-ge-gangen “gone out”.
The meaning of “ge-” in this role is actually the same as the meaning of “ge-” taken as an inseparable prefix: it indicates that an action is complete.
Inseparable prefixes already have the meaning of a completed action. Therefore the past participle form of the verbs starting with this kind of prefixes does not need an additional “ge-“.
The Proto Indo European root *bheu-, *bhu- also enters into the composition of the German equivalent of to be:
– ich bin “I am” and
– du bist “you are”.
In German the past participle of the verb kennen (to know) is gekannt (known) but it has a close relative in bekannt, which also means “known”.
However, bekannt is the past participle of “bekennen” which means “to confess, to acknowledge” – that is to say “to turn into a known thing” whereas the simple un-prefixed kennen verb means “to known”.
In English, there used to be a similar word beknown and we still use unbeknownst (see German unbekannt – credits @OregonGhost’s comment).