You’ve seen them around, German’s notorious long words that your parents warned you about. They can make life difficult or so it would seem. Mark Twain for one wasn’t a big fan and demanded that the speaker should be required "to deliver them in sections, with intermissions for refreshments”.
Compound nouns or Komposita as they are called in German are nouns made up of two or more existing words and even though they may frighten you at first, they are one of the best features of the German language.
Why? Because German is your DIY kit to create whatever takes your fancy and allows you to be extremely precise. If you ever heard a German speaker complain that in your language there is no perfect match for a German term, this is probably the reason why.
So maybe it's no surprise that compound nouns make popular exports too. Words such as Zeitgeist and Schadenfreude have found their way into English, condensing the ideas that there is a certain spirit to an era and to describe that sneaky happiness you may feel at someone else’s downfall or mishap.
There are of course true monsters that even native speakers roll their eyes at and don't get right at the first attempt. First up are compound nouns whose sole purpose seems to be to scare German learners out of their wits but that no one actually uses other than in articles like this one. See this title for example, which translates to “the keyhole of the captain's cabin on a steamboat that cruises around the Danube river”. Ever felt the need to say this?
Then there are Komposita which serve a lifetime sentence in bureaucracy jail. These poor fellas were created to make German legalese (Beamtendeutsch) as precise as possible, but they are also creating a lot of confusion along the way. Both of these — um — beauties below made it into the Guinness book of world records.
Land Transfer Permit Transfer of Authority Ordinance
Beef labeling supervision task transfer act
(By the way, the agriculture secretary introducing the beef labeling law to parliament apologized for its name being potentially a little long.)
But let’s not look to the bureaucrats but to the poets, true champions when it comes to creating new words. Goethe alone has come up with roughly 2500 words regarding love and affection to embellish his writings. So while made-up compound nouns might not pass into common usage or get accepted by the Duden, German’s main dictionary, or your autocorrect, they still will be understood and can enrich the German language further and even daily.
So How Do They Work?
Komposita are created by combining two or more nouns — verbs and adjectives work fine too. This is called agglutination in linguistics. The last word in the line determines what article the party gets while the word(s) in front describe this root further. The aforementioned Schadenfreude for example consists of the nouns Schaden and Freude. Freude is a feminine noun, which triggers Schadenfreude to also be feminine. Schaden at the beginning of the word describes happiness in more detail and distinguishes it for example from Vorfreude, another compound noun that describes the happiness you feel when looking forward to something.
Making up new compound nouns can be tricky if you are not a native speaker as every now and then you will need a linking element, e.g. an “s” to glue the words together or will have to add a plural ending to one of the words. Sadly, you guessed it, there is no general rule.
It can also be hard to recognize the words used at first, or even read them properly. This is not the best lesson to learn German for beginners. But if you go syllable by syllable (Ger-man se-pa-ra-tes them by vow-els), it will help you find the right pace and make it easier to recognize the different components. Try reading this: UmweltSchutzMinisterium (Ministry of Environmental Protection) We have capitalized the new word here to help you out.
My Seven Lieblingskomposita
(Yup, I just made that one up. Lieblings — favorite, Komposita — compound noun). So let’s take a look at some of my favorite compound nouns.
der Weg — way
das Bier — beer
The beer that keeps you going while you are on your way somewhere.
der Mittag — midday
das Kind — child
A title every kindergartner is keen to get as it means that you will be picked up from daycare early, usually around lunch and due to a special occasion.
die Macht — power
das Wort — word
The little speech you give when you have to put your foot down, be that with children or colleagues.
die Nächsten — the people next or nearest you
die Liebe — love
The biblical command to love your neighbor like yourself in one word.
das Kabel — cable
das Salat — salad
The mess of cables on your desk or behind the TV that will probably never be organized.
die Zukunft — future
die Musik — music
Some future plan or project that is still up in the air.
feiern — to celebrate
der Abend — evening
It’s the end of your workday, a cause for celebration. German speakers will wish you Einen schönen Feierabend! before leaving the office.