Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungs-auftragübertragungsgesetz – Compounding nouns in German Posted by Sandra Rösner on May 30, 2011 in Language
One of the most striking characteristics of the German language is that you can virtually combine an unlimited number of nouns to form a new noun. Such long words can confuse learners of German to a great extend. First, German orthography uses closed compounds, whereas in English most compounded nouns are separated by spaces or hyphens. Second, when you have the chance to talk with native speakers of German they will surely, every now and then use, compounded nouns in their speech.
But don’t worry! I am sure that such a long word like:
will definitely not be among them because such long words overcharge the Kurzzeitgedächtnis (short-term memory) and the dialog partner may have forgotten the beginning of the word by the time the final syllable is uttered. Thus, even when German native speakers are about to make up a compounded noun they will narrow down to the least number of nouns that are absolutely necessary. However, this particular word does indeed exist. It denotes a law that was passed in 1999 by the German federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which dealt with the supervision of the labeling of beef. The abbreviation is RflEttÜAÜG and it literally means beef-labeling-supervision-duty-delegation-law.
What seems to be a totally arbitrary stringing of words does indeed underlie particular rules, which I will outline in the following. However, I do not claim that I will represent a completed list.
Of course, you cannot compound nouns freely. Your intention is to convey some kind of meaning. Thus, the words you would like to combine need to be somehow logically related. For example,
does not make any sense at all because the words stringed together are not related to one another. In order to build a meaningful word you have to follow rule no. 2.
2. From general to detail
When it comes to compounding nouns in German, there is a one-way-direction, so to speak, in order to convey any kind of meaning. Usually, you begin with the most general noun and then go step-by-step into detail. For example,
make marvelous sense. They express that you refer to “the drawer of the desk of the secretary of the congressman of the Bundestag” and to “the educational institution of factory workers who learn how to make of lady’s gloves”, respectively. In both examples the last noun (“drawer” and “educational institution”) is the core noun you refer to, that is why I call it the “detailed” noun here.
3. Adjustment to pronunciation and speech flow
You have probably recognized the single letters and clusters of letters – “s” and “nen”, respectively. These are no grammatical features! These letters are just inserted in order to ensure a smooth utterance. The “s” is called linking s or s interfix. To discuss such interfixes or linking letters in detail would go beyond the scope of the topic.
Anyway, most words, which contain more than, let’s say, three or four basic nouns, are a kind of fantasy words. When I was a child, my friends and I were often making fun of this grammatical characteristic of the German language by thinking up very long words. In other words, you won’t find them in a dictionary. Dictionaries do only list the most well established words. Nevertheless, there will always be linguistic contexts in which the composition of nouns will save you from speechlessness.