German 'fressen'


Senior Member
This verb has quite an interesting etymology.

According to Wiktionary, it is from Old High German frezzan/firezzan, from Proto-Germanic fraetaną, from fra- (whence German ver-) +‎ etaną (whence German essen).

The Old High German firezzan is the expected derivation while frezzan is not, while firezzan > frezzan is not hard to accept, so the etymology of this word could be considered settled.

However, this seems to have happened in only this word. I cannot find other words with a mutated ver-.

What makes this one so special? Is there no another?
  • *Fraetanan contains the prefix fra-<*pro, which is productive only in Gothic (fra-itan). In addition, Gothic has fair-<*perhₐ (Lithuanian pér-) and faur-<pr̥hₐ (Greek παρά). The later languages have lost the semantic distinctions between them (Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/fra- - Wiktionary), with fir-<*perhₐ eventually winning in Old High German, so that in freȥȥan we find the petrified fra-, whereas in fireȥȥan the productive fir- (compare also Gothic frawisan : Old High German firwesan).
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    German (Germany)
    *Fraetanan contains the prefix fra-<*pro
    Since the prefixes *fra- and *fir- are completely merged in West Germanic, you would have to explain to us why this should be relevant to the question.

    Are you perhaps suggesting that the shortening form *fraetan to *fretan happened some time in an unattested stage of West Germanic before the merger of the prefixes and that this explains the uncommon development of this verb?
    The question was whether one can find additional examples of the change fir->fr-, and my explanation was that this change actually didn't took place since we're dealing with two separate prefixes. There should not have been any phonetic merger of fra- with either *fer- or *fur- (cp. the preservation of fram- in Old High German), simply the former prefix fell into disuse and was forgotten: perhaps this made the form fraet- look like an odd root with a hiatus and led to the elimination of the unstressed vowel.


    Senior Member
    Thank you for your valuable insight. If indeed it is as you have suggested, that the change in Old German from firezzan to frezzan never happened, then where did firezzan come from?
    It looks like at some point the descendant of *fraetanan was replaced with the descendant of *feretanan in (future) Old High German, like it happened in frawisan (Gothic) : firwesan (Old High German) and *frawardjan : firwerdan.
    No, I haven't seen: Old High German speakers seem to have been the last non-East Germanics to forget the meaning of fra- so they were able to calque the verb in the last moment ,-)

    But that's actually the standard story: the prefixes in Germanic (especially in modern German) are an open part of the speech, constantly replenished from adverbs, so, when a prefix becomes less popular in the language, it rather easily gets replaced with another one — this contrasts with the petrified prefix system in most (all?) other modern Indo-European branches.

    P. S. As an example: Scandinavian languages lost verbal prefixes in the second half of the first millennium due to the strong vowel reduction (so that there were almost no verbal prefixes in Viking Norse) and then reacquired this system from Low German loanwords and their own adverbs.
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    For the vowel loss, we have Gothic ataugjan "to show, to bring before" (ataugjan - Wiktionary) : Middle High German zougen "vor Augen bringen" and Old Saxon tōgian (Pokorny J · 1959 · Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. 1. Band: 3; Lehmann WP · 1986 · A Gothic etymological dictionary: 45), but this can be accounted for the loss of the prefix aȥ/at in continental Germanic (except Frisian) during the second half of the first millennium that made the former prefix obscure for the speakers (and thus comparable with *fraet->fret-), whereas postulating *fer-/*fur->fr- we must suppose an unconditioned and unique change across all West Germanic languages, a change affecting the productive and transparent prefix that otherwise shows no reduction of its vowel.
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    Senior Member
    German (Austria)
    I couldn't find an attestation for ohg. firezzan, so I am not yet fully convinced this form actually exists... Frezzan is amply attested though in different documents. For MHG I could only locate a single instance of verezzen for several dozen of vrezzen so this does not seem to have been a common word in any case. Since *fretan also seems to be common West-Germanic I suspect any German forms showing the productive prefix are younger creations on the basis of ezzan.
    I am inclined to believe the fr- indeed represents an archaism, but one should be careful in assuming the West-Germanic languages preserve anything old in the vowels of the unstressed verbal prefixes. In OHG itself there is a lot of variation between regions/speakers and over time. Otfried has fir- as form of the prefix, which also occurs in some earlier documents, but others consistently use far- and in Tatian we find for-/fur-. Then there is ir-/ar- from *uz- which clearly did not preserve its vowel quality (though ur- occurs in early Bavarian apparently). Other prefixes also fluctuate in vowel between a/i (and e) like ga-/gi- (< *ga-), za-/zi- (< *t_?), while int- (< *and-) seems almost universal (rare cases of ant- could be transfered from the stressed noun prefix).
    As for zougen, that might be a good parallel regardless of whether it corresponds to at-augjan exactly. Here also an obsolete prefix (*t-) was retained in a word beginning with a vowel while it was eliminated elsewhere and that despite the base word still being in use (ohg. ougen, ir-ougen, gi-ougen).
    I also know of two other cases of an apparently (irregularily?) shortened prefix in OGH: fliosan for normal firlioson (lose) and flâzan for firlâzan (forgive).
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