German Language Blog

Don’t Let It Confuse You! – Bekommen Posted by on May 27, 2021 in Language, Vocabulary

There are always words in a language that sound familiar, and so you may be tempted to think that the word must mean something similar to what you already know. These words are known as false friends or false cognates. In the series Don’t Let It Confuse You!, we take a look at such words in German, and clear up the confusion! Today, bekommen.

For previous posts in this series, click here.

Expectation: bekommen – what will we become?

Bekommen become reflection false friends

Photo by Mikail McVerry on Unsplash

When you hear bekommen, you might think that it means something along the lines of to become. I mean, they even sound similar! You know, you might ask Was bekomme ich? and believe that you’re asking what will become of you.

But no. To become in German is werden – so:

What will I become? – Was werde ich?

That’s to become in its narrowest sense – English has many more ways to use become that translate differently in German, like how certain clothes can become somebody, meaning they look good. In German we’d say: das steht dir! (that becomes you! – though, more commonly, that looks good on you!)

So if bekommen isn’t to become, what is it?

Reality: This is all you’ll get!

Bekommen become reflection false friends

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

In reality, bekommen means to get or to obtain. So when you ask Was bekomme ich?, you’re really asking What do I get? Not really something you want to confuse!

The confusion goes both ways, though: I have German friends who get this wrong sometimes when they speak English. To them, bekommen means to get – so you might get sentences like: we became really great numbers last quarter. If you hear this from a German, it probably comes back to this confusion!

This might make you wonder how these words ended up meaning such different things. The German and English actually have the same root in the Proto-Germanic bikweman. That word meant both to get/obtain and to become. However, the meanings of the word split in English and German – over the years, the English retained the meaning of become – the Germans took the meaning of to get/obtain.

But in some ways, you can still see the similarity. For example, when you say das Essen bekommt mir, you say that the food agrees with you. Similar to the second meaning in English, when something becomes you, it agrees with you, suits you. So there is some overlap in meaning that still speaks to its roots!

Have you been confused by this word or have you heard it in the wild? Do you know of other words like this? Let me know in the comments below! 

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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator, animator and filmmaker.