Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. This was officially the longest German word. The English translation is: Cattle marking and beef labelling supervision duties delegation law. It was part of a legal text, but since the law was repealed in 2013, it disappeared from the dictionaries. Nevertheless, the German language is known for its long words, also known as compound words. And this is also one of the (many) reasons why German is not an easy language to learn.
In this blog series, I want to explain some common challenges for German Learners in more detail. And in this blog post, I will focus on – you guessed it – long words such as Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.
Compound Words (Komposita)
How is it even possible to form such a long word? The answer is: compounding or also called (nominal) composition. Compounding is a type of word formation where at least two word stems are joined. Let us take a simpler example: If we join the German words Fuss (stem 1) and Ball (stem 2), we get Fussball (compound). If we add Spiel (stem 3), we get Fussballspiel. In this example, we grouped together three nouns. However, it is also possible to join a verb (warten) and a noun (Raum) (Warteraum), an adjective (alt) and a noun (Glas) (Altglas) or an adverb (nicht) and a noun (Gebrauch) (Nichtgebrauch). Verbal composition (e.g., verb + verb) occur most commonly in technical language.
The word Fussballspiel is a so-called transparent compound: the meaning is composed of the individual meanings of its components and the relationship between them. With intransparent compounds, it is not possible to derive the meaning. This means that these words must be learned by heart. An example of this is Junggeselle. The meaning: an unmarried man. (An English example would be butterfly.) Last but not least there are so-called ad hoc compounds. These words do not exist in any dictionary. Instead, they are constructed spontaneously in a particular situation. An example of this would be the German word Umverteilungsinitiative (a Swiss popular initiative from 2000).
Did you notice anything in the previous example? Umverteilungsinitiative consists of the nouns Umverteilung and Initiative. However, there is also an s in the middle of the word. Where does that come from? We are talking about linking elements (Fugenelemente) here, which are supposed to simplify the pronunciation. In addition to the so-called Fugen-S, -e, -(e)s, -(e)n and -er are also common. Examples are Katze-n-baum and Strasse-n-beleuchtung. Unfortunately, there are no fixed rules for when such a linking element is added.
Comprehensibility of compound words
Due to the many compound words in the German language, one may think that Germans love compound words. Nevertheless, compound words are difficult to understand because they require more resources for mental processing. Rarer compounds, for example, are not activated as a whole in lexical memory, but are first decomposed into their individual parts.
There is another difficulty. Determinative compounds are the most important compounds in the German language. In a determinative compound the right stem word refers to a concept that is more precisely determined by the first, left stem word. In the case of Fussballstadion, Stadion is the primary word (Grundwort), which is determined more precisely by the determiner Fussball (Bestimmungswort). The primary word determines the case (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative) and the gender (der, die, das). Nevertheless, the primary word comes at the end. This means that understanding does not take place word by word, but retroactively, and this requires a greater memory capacity.
Compound words can make sentences shorter since a long explanation is replaced by two words that are simply joined. For instance, Warteraum (waiting room) is shorter than a room in which one waits. Nevertheless, one should not overdo it. Words like Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz are simply too long and difficult to understand. That is why you should only use compounds that consist of a maximum of three word stems. Break up longer compound words or at least write them with hyphens in between. This makes the words more readable.
Wow! That was the first challenge of the German language. Did you already know about it or was the topic new to you? What other difficulties do you encounter whilst learning German? I hope you learned something new with this blog post, and I would love to read about your experiences in the comments. See you soon!
Nelly Müller – Sprachen Akademie