Words with a perspective: German compound words
A few years ago, it was reported that German had ‘lost’ its longest word – the 63-letter monstrosity Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungs-
The cause of this ‘loss’ was a law change in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern: in 2013, the ‘beef labelling supervision duties delegation law’, as is the term’s literal English translation, was officially repealed, thus rendering its name obsolete.
Now, Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz had arguably never been a word someone would have come across all that often in everyday conversation. In fact, it isn’t even included in the Duden German dictionary. The longest and second longest German words they record are Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung (‘motor car liability insurance’) and Donau-Dampfschifffahrtsgesellschaft (‘Danube steamboat shipping company’) respectively. (The Duden hyphenates both words, although omitting the hyphen is also grammatically correct.)
But Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz nonetheless still serves as a prime example of the ability of Germanic languages to combine a seemingly unlimited number of lexemes to form one single word. It is this particularity that non-native speakers often find most amusing about German.
The Awful German Compound Words
In an essay entitled The Awful German Language, American writer Mark Twain thoroughly mocked the German penchant for endlessly complex compound words: “Some German words are so long that they have a perspective,” he wrote. However, compound words also exist in English, but, as a general rule, they are often written as separate entities, even though they convey a single unit of meaning, e.g. English table tennis translates to Tischtennis in German.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges learners of German face is the fact that, because they’re often made up ad-hoc, many German compound words are not listed in the dictionary – something that Twain also lamented: “The dictionary must draw the line somewhere […] because these long things are hardly legitimate words, but are rather combinations of words, and the inventor of them ought to have been killed.” Here understanding how compounding (or composition) – one of the most productive word formation processes in the German language – works can help.
Two types of compounds
Compounds are formed of at least two stems, and can combine any parts of speech (noun + noun, adjective + adjective, verb stem + noun, etc.). There are generally two types of compounds that can be identified: the determinative compound and the copulative compound. The determinative compound is the most common one. It is made up of a semantic head, the right-hand component of the lexeme, which also determines the grammatical category and gender of the word. The meaning of this head is restricted by the qualifying element that precedes it.
An example of a determinative compound is the noun Handschuh. Here the feminine noun Hand (‘hand’) and the masculine noun Schuh (‘shoe’) form a masculine compound noun with the meaning ‘glove’. As the word formation of Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz shows, determinative compounds can get quite lengthy. However, the number of words combined may be limited by a person’s cognitive ability, i.e. the more elements a lexeme consists of the harder it is to understand.
Less common is the copulative compound. This type of compound is characterized by a coordinate, rather than a subordinate, relationship between the components, e.g. the adjective bittersüß (‘bittersweet’). This means that the order of the combining elements of a lexeme can be varied, e.g. rotbraun (‘red brown’) or braunrot (‘brown red’) – unless they are lexicalized and thus a fixed part of the dictionary (bittersüß is more idiomatic than süßbitter). The copulative compound always combines the same parts of speech (e.g. adjective + adjective, noun + noun).
Approximately 30% of all compounds include a Fugenelement (FE), literally ‘gap element’, which is a bound morpheme that connects the individual stems with each other. In German, these are -e-, -s-, -es-, -n-, -en-, -er-, and -ens-. (When no Fugenelement is visible within the word, linguists assume the existence of a null morpheme Ø – an invisible affix.) Fugenelemente have historically evolved from inflectional suffixes of genitive attributes, e.g. des Tages Licht (‘the day’s light’) merged into Tageslicht (‘daylight’).
Today, the Fugenelement has lost its inflectional function and there are no fixed rules to follow when it comes to its usage. The decision regarding which one to use when is usually made according to the speaker’s Sprachgefühl (‘feeling for language’), i.e. a native German speaker should intuitively know how to use them correctly.
While the length of some German compounds is certainly impressive, the longest ones often come out of a legal context and are therefore not very interesting otherwise. Looking at the literal translations of some more common German compound words can actually be more fun for a non-native speaker – here are some examples:
|Staubsauger||‘dust sucker’||vacuum cleaner|
|Glühbirne||‘glow pear’||light bulb|
However, one of my favourite compounds has always been Maulwurf (‘mole’) – because its history shows how people can unintentionally contribute to a change in the meaning of a word by misinterpreting its etymology.
In Old High German, this little guy was defined as an animal that threw up tiny hills of earth. People called it mūwerfo, literally ‘hill-thrower’, from mūha, ‘hill’, and werfan, ‘to throw’. The name was later reinterpreted to Middle High German moltwerf, imitating molt(e), from Old High German molta,‘earth, dust’, and changing its meaning to ‘earth-thrower’. (A similar formation survives in the English regional mouldwarp.) When the word molt(e) died out, people couldn’t understand the meaning of moltwerf anymore. The word molt(e) was thus reinterpreted once more – this time in imitation of the slightly similar mūl, ‘snout’ – ultimately turning the animal from an ‘earth-thrower’ into a ‘snout-thrower’.
Do you know a language that uses composition to form new words? Let us know your favourite long words in the comments!