It seems as if many Germanic aspects of the English language exist in their full-fledged forms in German and in vestigial forms in English.

I wonder whether phrasal verbs in English are somewhat like that. The phenomenon of phrasal verbs in English is far more than a mere vestige, but if it evolved from the same earlier phenomenon as German verbs with separable prefixes, then the German version seems like the full-fledged version and the English version less elaborate.

(As a fairly extreme example of such a "vestige", notice that in English the plural of "he" is "they", the plural of "she" is "they", and the plural of "it" is "they", so that the gender distinctions vanish when the pronoun becomes plural. In German, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, articles, and demonstratives can be masculine, feminine, or neuter when they are singular, and in no instance whatsoever is there any such distinction in the plural. (That doesn't mean every noun or pronoun can take any of the three genders. But adjectives, articles, and demonstratives can.)

To "give up" does not mean to donate in an ascending vertical direction.

  • He gave it up.

  • He gives up playing billiards.

  • He can give it up.

  • He gave it up.

  • He has given it up.

  • He refuses to give it up.

Now use German syntax:

  • He gave it up.

  • He gives up billiardsplaying. (Here I have in mind the neuter gerund ending with "-en" (if "gerund" is the right word for it).)

  • He can it upgive.

  • He gave it up.

  • He has it upgiven.

  • He refuses, it uptogive.

In some cases the prefix "up" is separate from the verb "give"; in some cases it is not, as in "upgive", "upgave", "upgiven", in one case, "uptogive", the word "to" is in the middle of it although it would be separate if there were no prefix. (One thing about English that is Germanic is the use of the preceding word "to" to form infinitives. In German the word is "zu", with "z" pronounced as in "Mozart". This is in contrast to French, Spanish, Italian, and Latin, and, I think(?), most European languages, which use a suffix to form infinitives.) (The use of the auxiliary word "will" to form the future tense is another thing about English that is Germanic, although I think the German word that evolved from the same source as "will" is not the one used in that role in German.)

So the English version seems somewhat stripped down and less elaborate than the German version.

Unless it's not really a version of the same thing—not descended from a common source. So which is it? [Clarification at the request of @Mitch in comments: "which is it?" means: Is it descended from the same source, or not?]

  • "So which is it?" Can you make explicit what the two versions are? Also your adjectives (vestigial and full fledged) somewhat tendentious - you may want to use a mix of conservative/innovative or more complex/simpler.
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 20:15
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    I discovered "on God believe" (="believe in God") in Old English, which I was told was just like in German.
    – Laurel
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 22:31
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    @MichaelHardy So I can't upvote your comment?
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 0:14
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    @MichaelHardy "upvote" is formed from "vote <something> up". So English we do sometimes put the particle as a prefix.
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 0:19
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    @Mitch : ok, I think I finally see what you're saying. The two options are: (1) both phenomena descended from a common source or (2) they did not. Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 17:35

1 Answer 1


There is strong evidence that phrasal verb constructions evolved from a common ancestry, as similar constructions can be found in other Germanic languages. The origins of phrasal verbs in English appear to result from Old English and Old Norse interactions, and similar phrasal constructions were used in Old Norse as well. Additionally, Old Norse is the ancestor of modern North Germanic languages. However, some scholars don't accept that the development of phrasal verbs result from the contact with Old Norse; and they conclude that phrasal verbs in modern English have developed directly from phrasal constructions found in Old English.

The book "Phrasal Verbs The English Verb-Particle Construction and Its History" (By Stefan Thim, 2012) traces the evolution of the English verb-particle construction (‘phrasal verb’) from Indo-European and Germanic up to the present. This book is very comprehensive regarding the history of phrasal verbs and I'm citing a relevant excerpt below that can serve as a summary:

Although from the very beginning the use of the term phrasal verb implies that the construction is distinctively English, there are comparable verbal constructions in other languages, as already noted by Smith (1925). The most obvious parallels can be found in other Germanic languages. Cf. e.g. present-day German aufgeben 'give up', which, like its English translation, consists of a particle (auf, cognate to up) and a verb (geben, cognate to give):

(1) Present-day German
Alexander gab das Cellospielen auf
Alexander gave the cello:playing up
`Alexander gave up playing the cello.'

But neither syntactically nor semantically are there always one-to-one correspondences. Cf. e.g. the German verb aufmachen 'open' (particle auf and verb machen, cognate to make) in the following example:

(2) Present-day German
Wenzel sagt dass Eva die Tür aufmachen wird
Wenzel says COMP Eva the door up:make:INF Aux:3sG
`Wenzel says that Eva will open the door.'

In the modern Germanic languages the distribution of pre- and postposition of the particle is entirely rule-governed. In those Germanic languages where the particle may either follow the verb as in the first example or precede the verb as in the second example it has long been customary to call such particle verbs separable prefix verbs, a term which obviously cannot be applied to present-day English, where the particle is always separated and behind the verb. In studies with a comparative focus the more neutral term particle verb (or verb-particle construction) is now well-established. Consequently, in this study this term will be used from a comparative and contrastive point of view, while the term phrasal verb will be reserved for the Modern English verb-particle construction and its peculiarities, especially where the discussion is restricted to English.

In Old English, the particle may occur before or after the verb, as in the present-day Continental West Germanic languages, where the alternation between pre- and postponed particles has been historically more stable than in English. Cf. the repeated use of Old English ut-gan 'go out' in the following example (note that eod- is the regular suppletive preterite of gan `go' in Old English):

(3) Old English (ÆCHom II, 1 [012700 (10.256)f.])
Gað ut of ðam ofne and cumað to me
go:IMP.PL out of the oven and come:IMP.PL to me
Hi ðærrihte ut eodon
they immediately out go;PRET:PL
`Come out of the oven and come to me; they immediately came out.'

Thus the primary syntactic development in the English construction is one towards almost exceptionless postposition of the particles. And while many details of the development have not been fully explained, there is now general agreement that this development is connected to the changes in the basic word order in the history of English. But the normally post-verbal position of the particle in present-day English also has close correspondences in other present-day Germanic languages. Taken together, such parallels in a group of genetically related languages can be regarded as a clear indication of common historical origins. Although shared features may in principle also be the result of convergence and contact, in the present case common ancestry is the only viable explanation.

  • Thim's work is obviously later than 'Multi-word Verbs in Early Modern English: A Corpus-based Study'; Claudia Claridge. She spends a lot of time discussing terminology; 'phrasal verb' has conflicting definitions, and 'multi-word verb' seems more well-defined (though it is a hypernym, including verbo-nominal examples (stretched verbs) such as 'have a go at' and the rare verb-verb colligation/compound ('make believe' = pretend; 'let go'; 'make do'). Doubtless Thim references the earlier work. Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 18:10

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