A Flashmob for the Bundeskanzlerin
The main reason we use language, I would argue, is to help us communicate our perceptions of the world around us. Therefore, it makes sense that we constantly adapt and expand our vocabulary to account for new concepts, events, inventions, etc. For example, we may invent new words, give existing words new meanings, or borrow words from other languages. These are often called neologisms which can be understood by speakers long before the new word makes its way into a dictionary. As language is often a mirror of society and current events, some periods are inevitably more productive in terms of word creation than others. Similarly, some words have a more significant impact. Consider, for example, Shakespeare, who used language very creatively and invented many words and phrases which are still in use in English today. Sometimes the changes to words are very subtle, but even then it is clear that languages constantly evolve to cater for the human need to communicate.
The who and the what now?
However—even in today’s globalized world—changes are very specific to individual language communities. This is partly why language learning is a continuous process and there is always a need to look at things afresh. The basic structure and general rules of a given language determine which new words we are likely to create or use. Thus, Germans love a good compound. In 2002, one of the words shortlisted by the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache for Word of the Year was Arzneimittelausgabenbegrenzungsgesetz (das). Even for a native German-speaker, that’s a mouthful. Luckily, looking at the individual words will help you figure out what this actually means: Arzneimittel = ‘medicine’ + Ausgabe = ‘expenditure’ + Begrenzung = ‘restriction’ + Gesetz = ‘law’. What we’re talking about here is a law which restricts the expenditure on medicine.
This is an extreme example and not necessarily a word that is used often in daily life. Examples of more common compounds that have entered the German language in recent years are Einbürgerungstest (der) or Einwegpfand (das). Whereas there is a direct translation in English for Einbürgerungstest, ‘citizenship test’, there isn’t really one for Einwegpfand, which is a deposit on disposable containers, such as bottles made out of PET plastics or cans. It was introduced to encourage people to return these to shops so they could be recycled. This explains why you will often see people going through rubbish bins in Germany, as they are looking for bottles and cans that they can take to the shop and exchange for money. Not just a strange hobby, but a serious business undertaking!
Unfortunately the word-splitting technique doesn’t always clarify meaning, as some compounds have a figurative meaning. Let’s take Eselsbrücke (die) as an example. It’s not literally a ‘bridge (Brücke) for donkeys (Esel)’, but it is rather difficult to guess what it means from the individual words. In fact, it translates as ‘mnemonic’. It may sound like a random word pairing, but it’s far from it: back in the olden days, donkeys were used to transport goods. Unfortunately, they are afraid of water and bridges had to be built for them to cross even the smallest rivers. Whereas this initially appeared to be an unnecessary detour, it still turned out to be more efficient than other means of transport. Just like a mnemonic!
Googeln, googelte, gegoogelt
Of course, there is more to the German language than complicated compounds. For example, it has become more and more common to borrow words from English. Tablet (das), for example, as well as Smartphone (das), Burnout (das), or Flashmob (der). Sometimes a word originates in English, but has to be adapted to make sense in German. Thus, in order for google to work as a verb, the infinitive became googeln (compare lesen, malen, laufen). In other cases, a word can derive from another word category than its English equivalent. For example, the German verb for ‘tweet’ is twittern, derived from the noun ‘Twitter’, rather than tweeten from the English verb ‘tweet’.
Another fact to consider is that German nouns describing people will almost always require both a male and a female version. Therefore, there are not just Blogger (male, plural), but also Bloggerinnen (female, plural). Similarly, Angela Merkel is the German Bundeskanzlerin (female Federal Chancellor) and not the Bundeskanzler (male Federal Chancellor). The dangerous words are those that are based on English words or sound English, but in fact don’t have the same meaning in English. There is of course the famous Handy (das), meaning ‘mobile phone/cell phone’, but more recent examples would be Internet-Mobbing (‘cyberbullying’) or public viewing (‘outdoor screening’).
As many new words and terms as there are, there are also always words that go out of fashion and are only rarely used, if at all. An example is the German noun Muckefuck (der), which is no longer used very frequently. A member of the younger generation or a language learner would probably immediately assume this word has a rude meaning, but honi soit qui mal y pense—it is simply an old-fashioned word for weak / bad coffee. Similarly, Penne (die) in German nowadays suggests pasta to most people. However, it is also an old-fashioned word for school, as well as a colloquial term for prostitute.
As you can see, sometimes the meaning of an unfamiliar word is self-evident, other times less so. When in doubt a dictionary is an excellent place to start your research/journey. So whether you want a quick translation, or want to play Sherlock Holmes uncovering the meaning of a word, the new Compact Oxford German Dictionary would be a great starting point.