Why are so many words prefixed with 引き?

Hey y’all! I’ve noticed that there are a lot of words that combine with 引く (to pull). In some cases, it kinda makes sense, like 引き上げる meaning “to pull up”, but then there are other cases like 引き返す, which means “to turn back to,” where I’m not seeing what it’s adding to 返す. Is there a nuance I’m missing here? How do you all think of these words?

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返す has a broad meaning of return, so when you add 引き, it’s a bit like “returning by being pulled back”. It could be phrased as being pulled back by something (like a worry, a nostalgia, a reluctance to go, etc.). At least that’s how I see it. Not sure if its 100% correct

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返す is a transitive verb meaning “to return (something)”. Whether 引き at the front feels like it makes sense or not, 引き返す is still quite different as an intransitive verb meaning “to turn back.”

Perhaps my interpretation of “I’m not seeing what it’s adding to 返す” isn’t what you intended, though. To me it sounded like you thought the meaning didn’t change.

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I didn’t think about the transitive/intransitive thing. That’s a good point! Though I guess I don’t see what the difference in nuance is between that and 返る though?

Also, it’s not specifically 引き返す that’s giving me the issue, it’s more like I see this 引き~ pattern a lot and I’m not sure if there’s a nuance I’m missing here?

Are you thinking of 帰る? 返る is not usually used with people moving through space.

Additionally 引き返す specifically means to turn around go back the way you came. It’s possible to return to a place (帰る) without doing a 180 to go back (引き返す).

引く has a ton of meanings, so that’s the starting point I guess. It’s a motion that’s very easy to make abstract.

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i will add some vocabs which not appear in wanikani to add your 引き collection
引き出し : drawer
引きこもり

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English also has many words containing the root “tract,” which comes from the Latin tractus (pull):

  • attract
  • contract
  • tractor
  • distract
  • traction
  • subtract
  • protracted
  • tractable

Some of them are obviously related to “pulling” while others are more… abstract.

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These are “compound verbs”, and it’s not just 引く that’s involved. Japanese has a lot of these – I just found the neat Compound Verb Lexicon which is a searchable online database of over 2,700 of them. As a general rule, you should think of these compounds as each being new words, with their own meaning, rather than as being a grammatical combination of the two root verbs. If you look at the Lexicon’s “Word Structure” explanation you can see that there are multiple subtypes. Sometimes, as with your 引き上げる example, both verbs bring their usual meaning and you could sort of paraphrase it with the -te form as 引いて上げる. But more often, one or the other verb has lost most of its literal meaning; or the compound as a whole has taken on a completely new meaning (they give 思い出す – to remember – as an example).

TLDR: treat compound verbs like this as words in their own right. The two parts are useful clues to the meaning but the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

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I’m English.

I didn’t know this.

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  • retract
  • detract
  • extract
  • abstract
  • tract
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Ahh this is the sort of thing I was looking for. I don’t know if it answers the question of what’s going on in every 引き case, but it does give me a framework for thinking about it. Thanks!

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Ahh that Compound Verb Lexicon is really useful. Thanks!

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