Why does the Internet love German words?
A mainstay of the English-speaking internet, below pictures of funny cats but nonetheless readily familiar, is the article about German words that, depending on the slant of the article, either reveal the inimitability of the German psyche or deserve to be imitated in English. Far more than French, say, or Italian, the German language has given sustenance to reichlich English-language forum discussions, thinkpieces, charticles, and listicles (Buzzfeed has several examples, from which the words below) that take pleasure in its gift for words with memorable translations:
Backpfeifengesicht: a face that needs to be slapped.
Torschlusspanik: “too late panic”; fear that the clock is running out on one’s life goals.
Weltschmerz: sadness over the condition of the world.
Schnapsidee: “Schnapps idea”; a drunken idea that may lead nowhere good.
Treppenwitz: “staircase wit”; a clever retort that you come up with after the fact. (The French have the same concept with the phrase l’esprit de l’escalier, “wit of the staircase.”)
Nonetheless, the language’s ability to pack such nuance into a single word has more to do with linguistics than with the spirit of its people. Specifically, it arises from the difference between synthetic and analytic languages – which falls along a spectrum rather than a strict division. A language that is highly synthetic uses what is called synthetic compounding, along with other morphological tools like prefixes, to combine units of lexical meaning into individual words. A language that is highly analytic uses few such tools, instead conveying the same meaning through groups of words. (In linguistics as in philosophy, analysis means breaking apart, synthesis bringing together.) As a more synthetic language, German can combine Treppe (“stairs”) and Witz (“wit’) in a single morphological unit; by contrast, French, a more analytic language, must keep those words separate, contextualizing them with function words such as of and the. However, both languages are equally capable of expressing the same concept – down to the light flavor of condescension in the undercutting of the high term wit.
As it happens, English, which belongs to the Germanic family of languages, is a fairly synthetic language. For example, we can say cheese-hat-wearer, compounding a set of lexemes into a single word, whereas the French must say un homme qui porte un chapeau de fromage. As the linguist Mark Aronoff notes, one difference between English and German is that English speakers have taken up the habit, when writing compound words, of separating the component parts with dashes or spaces, whereas German speakers write them without spaces. However, this is a convention of writing that has no relation to the workings of language itself. And indeed, it’s a relatively recent convention; in the Middle Ages, writers didn’t place spaces between words at all.
Among German speakers, a word that has become celebrated for its length – at eighty letters, it is not the longest word ever coined in the language, but it gets the point across – is Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaft, or First Danube Steamboat Shipping Company. Speakers have often exploited the language’s synthetic properties to craft for the word, which is the name of an actual company founded in the nineteenth century, even longer variations: for example, Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänskajütenschlüssel, or the cabin key of a captain for the First Danube Steamboat Shipping Company. But English speakers can also compound these meanings into a single word – First Danube Steamboat Shipping Company captain’s cabin key – which, despite the spaces in the written text, truly is a single word on a linguistic level; it is formed by grouping nouns together to form another noun, as with doghouse or handbook, but on a very large scale. (This is why, when you say these phrases out loud, you automatically place stress on Shipping, for First Danube Steamboat Shipping Company, or cabin, for First Danube Steamboat Shipping Company captain’s cabin key. English phonology includes a rule that speakers place the major stress of a compound word on the left-hand, or second-to-last, element.)
A final note: some languages, like Inuktitut, can create words of even greater length and nuance, because of features that have prompted linguists to describe them as polysynthetic. In polysynthetic languages, speakers can create words that encompass even more complex meanings than words in languages we describe as synthetic; they can combine multiple lexemes, modify those lexemes with tools like prefixes, and further modify them with a vast number of inflections. Sometimes this feature leads English speakers to mistake words in such languages for concepts so commonplace as to merit a distinct coinage and an accompanying dictionary entry. For example, a list of exotic-sounding Inuktitut words recently popped up on Facebook: aliasuguti, “an object of joy”; imarraluk, “the sound of the sea”; immaturpuq, “the earth getting its first water when the snow melts”; utirnigiit, “traces of coming and going”.
The most famous instance of this kind of myth-making is the claim that the Inuit have a hundred words for snow. In the 1950’s, a posthumous book of the writings of the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf announced to a credulous world that the Inuit have a hundred words for snow, and that this fact supports the hypothesis that language fundamentally shapes how we perceive the world – in other words, that speakers of Inuktitut, because they are speakers of Inuktitut, carve up their perceptual field in a way that is fundamentally different from that of English speakers, for example seeing an intricate spectrum of snow types where we see only snow. One response to this claim is that of course we have more words for things we live with daily, regardless of the language we speak; an English speaker in Alaska can name blizzards, crud, flurries, freezing fog, hail, powder, sleet, whiteouts, and so forth, without this fact evidencing a different perceptual field from that of any other English speaker. (The linguist Geoffrey Pollum wrote a famous essay debunking the “Eskimo vocabulary hoax” that raises just this point.)
But another response is that, because Inuktitut is a polysynthetic language, the Inuit have infinite words for snow, for the same boring reason that English speakers can create infinite sentences about snow. In Inuktitut, a word can be a sentence, never spoken before in the history of mankind and never to be spoken again. The Inuit have a word for “traces of coming and going” not because their culture requires such a word to be coined, but because their language permits such an idea to be compressed in a single word.