In his essay "The Awful German Language", American author Mark Twain remarked: “Some German words are so long they have a perspective.”
He was referring, of course, to the curiously German habit of stringing several nouns together to form a new word.
This can lead to rather bizzare constructs such as:
- “Feuerwehrsicherheitanlage” (firefighting safety mechanism)
- “Netzwerkassistenzdienst” (network help service)
- “Autoscheibenreparaturstelle” (a place where you can get car windows repaired)
In 2013, the official longest German compound noun in actual usage (“Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz”) disappeared from the language as the Mecklenburg-West-Pomeranian law detailing the monitoring of beef meat labelling was repealed. It had 63 letters. It even made the news.
Compound Words Exist in English Too
Little-known fact: this practice exists in English, too. In Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice about portmanteau words. In his examples, two words are merged, like lithe and slimy to form “slithy;” the individual words are not present in their entirety.
However, the word “portmanteau” itself is a compound noun, made up of the French words “porte”, to carry, and “manteau”, a coat. Thus, a "carry-coat" is wardrobe where you can hang up your coat.
Speaking of wardrobes - “to ward” is “to protect from” and a robe was a fairly common garment in the past. So a wardrobe was a piece of furniture to protect your robes (from dust and moths).
Then there are words such as keychain, doorstop or breakfast. Some were originally hyphenated, but lost their hyphen as time and usage made the combination salon-worthy.
How to Construct & Learn German Compound Words
Determinative compounds, or compounds that have a main word that is qualified by others, can be made up of:
- Noun + noun ("Flugzeug" = "der Flug" + "das Zeug" = the flying thing = aeroplane)
- Verb stem + noun ("Liegestuhl" = verb stem of "Liegen" + "der Stuhl" = a chair for lying = reclining chair)
- Adjective + noun ("Rotwild" = "rot" + "das Wild" = red game = a type of deer called red deer, Cervus elaphus)
- Adverb + noun ("Mitbringsel" = "mit" + "Bringsel" (from “bringen”) = with-bringable = a souvenir)
And other combinations
- adjective + adjective ("rotbraun", red-brown)
- adjective + verb ("falschparken", to park illegally)
These can then all be built upon at will with even more words
- "Flugzeugsitz" = aeroplane seat
- "Liegestuhlbezug" = cover for a reclining chair
- "Rotwildgehege" = a corral for red deer
- "Mitbringseltasche" = a souvenir bag
German Lessons in Bulk & Custom-made Compound Nouns
When learning German, it is important to realise that there are two main types of compound words:
- Words you can find in the dictionary that just happen to be made up of two other words
- Made-up words a German speaker has created to suit the occasion and baffle non-Germans.
Learn German Compound Nouns Found in the Dictionary
Sure, these are easy. You pick up your dictionary (or open your browser tab) and voilà: right there, under “Handschuh”, is the definition “glove.” Oh, good, (or possibly: wunderbar!) you say, and get on with your life. But it can be fun to look at these a little more closely, too.
Most people seem to get a kick out of “Handschuh” and I can see why. The literal translation is “hand shoes”, making you wonder why there aren’t “foot shoes” for what you put on your feet and whether Germans ran around for centuries with freezing hands until someone thought: “What if… What if we encased them in something to keep them warm? Like shoes, but for hands?”
Then there is the “cold cupboard” ("Kühlschrank" = refrigerator), the “teaching worker” ("Lehrkraft", one word for teacher), the “naked snail” (a slug, obviously - "Nacktschnecke") and the “donkey bridge” ("Eselsbrücke" - a mnemonic device, or a way for even an ass to get from here to there.)
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But one of my favourites is “Flugzeug.” When man finally conquered the skies and mastered flight, the English-speaking world called them “aeroplanes” - from Greek “aero”, the “air, the sky” and “planos”, “wandering”. Romance languages liked some version of the Latin “avis”, “bird”, which we find in English in “aviation”. Germans just called it “a flying thing”.
Learn Made-up German Compound Nouns
The cruel part is, though, that anyone can stick two words together and create a compound noun the dictionary has never heard of.
I am going to do just that and call them Kunstnomen, or artificial nouns. See how easy that was?
And then, of course, there is Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.
But fear not! There are ways to navigate these, and as you get fluent in speaking German, you will no longer find them quite as daunting. Learn how to speak German with the perfect accent as well as discovering the regional differences in the German language.
Learn to Dissect German Words Without a Medical Degree
When encountering compound nouns in the wild, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain just what it is they are trying to tell us. Here is a little step-by-step guide for dissecting your German compound nouns.
- The main word is the LAST one. Everything else just qualifies it.
Also, and this is important, it is the word that decides the gender and type of word. (I don’t want to scare you, but there are compound adjectives, and adverbs, too.). So the first thing you should do is look at the END of the word and see if you can identify something you know.
Take "Kompositwort". When reading backwards, “Wort” is the first recognisable group of letters - it means word. “Wort” is neutral, so it is “das Kompositwort”. It is also a noun, so it needs to be declinated properly and given its proper place in a sentence.
- Go back a little. Is the rest of the word identifiable, too? In our example, thankfully, it is: “Komposit”, which means composite or compound.
- If not, see if you can break it down some more. “Feuerwehrsicherheitanlage” is made up of three component words: “Anlage”, “Sicherheit” and “Feuerwehr” - mechanism, safety and firefighter.
- Now you can go one of two ways:
- Just hyphenate it. "Komposit-Wort" and "Feuerwehr-Sicherheit-Anlage" are suddenly not quite as daunting! Longer composite words, though, may still stump the beginner, in which case
- Take the words in their reverse order and make a sentence out of them. Try adding “ist” (is), “des” or “der” (of) or “für” (for): "Ein Wort, was komposit ist" (a word that is composite). "Feuerwehrsicherheitsanlage" = "Eine Anlage für die Sicherheit der Feuerwehr" (a mechanism for the safety of firefighters.)
Just for fun, let’s take a look at our law for beef labelling:
The last word in the sentence is “Gesetz”, which means law. So we know it’s a law, which is a start.
As we break it up further, we get:
Rind + Fleisch + Etikettierung + Überwachung + (Aufgabe + Übertragung) + Gesetz
The next word is tricky in that it is itself a compound word:
"Aufgabenübertragung", made up of "Auftrag" (plural) + "Übertragung" = function + assignment, thus “the assignment of a function”.
So our law regulates how certain functions are assigned.
- "Überwachung" is monitoring, surveillance.
- "Etikettierung" is labelling
- "Fleisch" is meat
- "Rind" is beef.
So we have a beef-meat-labelling-monitoring-function-assignment-law, or a law that assigns functions for the monitoring of the labelling of beef.
In other words, it details who is responsible for making sure that beef is labelled properly.
Congratulations! After this, any other word is a piece of cake, or a "Kuchenstück".
Learning German is all about Order
Remember how we said the last word was the significant one? Well, change the order of words in a compound noun, and you get different meanings.
Since unicorns are popular right now, let’s use one to illustrate our point.
Take the word “Einhornreiter”. It’s made up of "Einhorn" (a composite noun: one+horn), unicorn + "Reiter", rider.
The last word is the important one, remember? This means that we are talking about a rider, and we learn that he doesn’t ride horses, but unicorns. So "der Einhornreiter" is a unicorn rider.
But if we swap those, we get “Reitereinhorn”. Here the unicorn is last, so that is what we’re talking about. And it is now the one doing the riding, not being ridden. What?
Let’s say it’s a Harley. But we don’t have the copyright for an actual Harley Davidson, so our poor unicorn has to ride a generic motorcycle, a “Motorrad.” It becomes a "Motorradreitereinhorn".
If you are talking about someone riding a motorcycle shaped like a unicorn, you will have a "Einhornmotorradreiter".
And if you are talking about a motorcycle shaped like a unicorn rider: "Einhornreitermotorrad".
And if its shaped like a unicorn riding a motorcycle: "Motorradreitereinhornmotorrad".
So always remember who is riding whom and who looks like whom.
The Glue Holding German Words Together: The Fuge
Observant students will notice that the words are not always simply stuck together - insidious little letters such as -e, -en -er or -s often slip in between them ("Hundekuchen", "Lieblingsessen", "Straßenhund").
These are called “Fugenelemente”. A quick look in German grammar books will tell you there are no rules.
When to use Plurals when Speaking German
Sometimes, the Fugenelement is not one at all, the word is simply used in plural.
This should be used only when it makes sense, a "Straßenhund" is a dog that errs through more than one street, just as a "Notenständer" doesn’t only uphold one piece of music.
On the other hand, a "Handschuh" goes over only one hand at a time, so there is no need to put "Hand" in the plural.
So when building your own, think about whether the noun needs to be in plural, and what plural it takes: with -e ("Hundekuchen"), with -en ("Straßenhund"), with -er ("Kindergarten" - a place where you grow children) or with -s (usually loan words.)
When to use an -s
Sometimes an -s indicates a genitive, though usually the composite elements don’t need it. "Muttersöhnchen" (little mommy’s boy) doesn’t use it, but "Schiffsdeck" ("der Deck des Schiffes", the ship’s deck) does.
Words ending in -heit, -keit, -ing, -ung will usually take an -s when part of a compound word:
- "Gesundheitsreform" (health care reform), "Keuschheitsgürtel" (chastity belt),
- "Werbungsmaterial" (ad material), "Schmetterlingsflügel" (butterfly wings).
An -e will generally come after a verb stem ending in -g, -b, -d and -t. -s will be added where too many consonants are in a row, rendering the word practically unpronounceable.
This site explains it nicely, if somewhat differently than here.
Now, hopefully, words like "Vanilleneiswaffel" (vanilla ice cream cone), "Busunternehmen" (a Bus company) or "Freitzeitparkparkgebühr" (a parking fee for an amusement park) will no longer seem as daunting.
And when in doubt, remember your motorcycle-riding unicorn.