untangling long german words and making your studying easier
A lot of people have the unfair assumption that German is a hard language.
They say it’s complicated, strict, and even harsh on the ears.
Such baseless stereotypes only divide people and put them off from experiencing an amazing language and culture…
Okay, seriously? What’s going on with all these long German words?
Does anybody even use them? Does anybody know what they mean?
Wait, that one seems a little familiar…
In today’s article, we’re going to break apart the truth and the myth of these seemingly endless German words – and by the end, you’ll learn how to make them yourself.
Let’s get two main points out of the way first:
German words are often longer than English words, but nobody really uses the longest ones.
What makes German words long?
They’re just noun phrases without the spaces. Or, more directly, they’re just short words stuck together.
In English grammar, people are traditionally taught that adjectives modify nouns. However, if you think about it, nouns modify nouns just as much.
What kind of table is that? It’s a heavy table. <-adjective modifying a noun
What kind of door is that? It’s a refrigerator door. <- noun modifying a noun
In English, we have to put spaces between nouns and other nouns they modify.
Very occasionally, you’ll find words in English that have done away with the space over time. Try headdress, for instance. What kind of dress? One for your head. Just scale that concept up and you’ll see that it can be applied to any word you can think of.
That monster of a word up in the beginning, the one that took up more than an entire line on a word processor – I made it up. Or more accurately, I found an existing very long word and made it longer.
Why did I do it? Because I could.
But more importantly, to show that making a long German word is the same as making a long English sentence.
Let’s break it down.
This noun, then, can be translated roughly as “the price of the embellishment on the enamel of the button on the fastener on the case for the key of the Danube steamship voyage captain’s cabin.”
Long German words are rather specific and mainly used in official documents
As you can see, the longer the German word, the more specific it gets. This one contrived example is perhaps going too far, but take a look at another one from the beginning.
Fahrtreppenbenutzungshinweise can be broken up into three main parts.
Die Fahrtreppe is the word for an escalator or moving staircase. This word itself is made of two roots, fahr- meaning journey and treppe meaning stairs.
Die Benutzung is the noun form of benutzen, meaning to use. Therefore the noun is the use (of something)
Lastly, der Hinweis is advice or tips about something.
Translated into English, “escalator usage advice” doesn’t sound so bad after all – especially if you imagine it as a sign or poster near an escalator.
In fact, that’s where you’ll find most of these German monster words. They’re used for official things, like laws, rules and regulations, and signboards. It even sounds more natural in English to have a sign saying something like “Pool Rules” than the more conversational “Rules for the use of the pool.”
Speaking of rules, what are the rules for making these compound nouns?
Unfortunately, there are no perfect rules here, only guidelines. If you examine our monster Danube captain key box decoration price word carefully against the chart breaking it down, you’ll see that the single word has a couple of little extra connectors.
Those are included just to make the elements flow together better. They’re called die Fugen – connectors – and they appear in about a third of German compound words.
The most common connectors are -n-, -en-, -s-, -es- and sometimes just -e- by itself.
The bad news: They appear rather inconsistently. Take the word der Tag for instance. By itself it means day but, naturally, it can be attached to other words like so:
das Tagblatt (a daily newspaper), die Tagesaktivität (diurnal activity), der Tagelohn (daily wages)
You’ll see that these show three different Fugen – no connector, -es-, and -e-.
However, if you have access to a dictionary with a wildcard search, you can easily start to see some rough patterns.
Search for Tag* and you’ll notice that the vast majority of results have -es- connectors. Tageshitze, Tagesdosis, Tagesfahrkarte…
The root Zeit (meaning time), by contrast, has far more compound words without any Fugen. Try it out yourself with some more common nouns and see what you find.
Now take a look at those three examples with Tag again. You’ll note that they all have different noun genders. That’s because German compound nouns always take the gender of the last noun in the word. Our Danube mega-word up there ends with Preis, so the whole thing is masculine. If we add on die Herabzeichnung (reduction) then it’s feminine – because, of course, we’re talking about an entirely different thing.
What kind of reduction? The price reduction on the decoration of the enamel…
As a quick note, long German words aren’t limited to nouns. Some of these compound nouns can become adjectives or even verbs. In my Tag* research I found tagesrhythmisch, a respectable 15-letter word for circadian. You can see that it too has an -es- connector.
It’s not so bad after all
Like all irregularities in language, the inconsistency between connectors just needs to be learned by heart. After learning enough compound nouns and creating your own, you’ll gain an intuitive sense for following whatever patterns exist.
German isn’t that hard and the best way to learn is to get plenty of exposure to a wide variety of German resources. You’ll soon learn that a lot of the language is related to English, something that Steve Kaufmann mentions in his video on learning German. Also, here on LingQ, there’s enough to keep anyone from getting bored.
Long German words come up in everyday conversation just as much as they do in newspapers and novels, so it’s crucial to read and listen to all kinds of natural, interesting German content.
Try out the Introductory German material here for a start, and we’ll see you next time!
Alex Thomas is a writer and teacher interested in all things language, all the time. He began teaching himself German after high school and has never looked back.
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