Long German Words

One of the more noticeable aspects of German is its apparent love affair with long words. Instead of using two or more augmentative terms in isolation, German will happily bolt them all together, creating long and seemingly impenetrable words that look and sound deceptively technical. Where English might talk of a new 'hospital financing reform act', Germans would casually acknowledge the 'Krankenhausfinanzierungsreformgesetz'. And why not?

For language lovers, really long words can be a source of amusement, even when they present something of a challenge to learners. Of course, it's not a trait unique to German - Hungarian, Dutch and Finnish also exercise the right to create headaches for typesetters and an over-dependence on hyphenation. And whilst English trots out a handful of its own examples, these tend to be either contrived or scientific - not part of common parlance as in German.

In using long words, German can often cloak everyday concepts in the sort of words that English would reserve for 'a lung disease caused by the inhalation of very fine silica dust'. By contrast, 'Anschriftenberichtigungskarte' simply means 'change of address card'.

With greater proficiency comes the recognition of components in words such as 'Seitenspiegelverstellhebel'. Before long, one can take an educated guess at the likely definition of previously unseen words, which actually has its advantages when it comes to learning the language. However, this can get you into a bit of trouble if you're not careful. When I came to Germany and saw 'Stadtsparkasse' for the first time, I assumed it was a superior municipal car-parking company, having naively isolated the words 'Stadt's' 'Park' and 'Ass' ('ace'). It eventually dawned on me that if I chopped the word up slightly differently, I got 'Stadt', 'Spar' and 'Kasse' - 'town' 'save' and 'cashpoint'. This makes a lot more sense given that 'Stadtsparkasse' is the name of a popular German bank.

Some of German's long words wrap a whole host of concepts into a single term. 'Niederschlagswahrscheinlichkeit', for example, comprises 'Nieder' (suggesting that something is falling downwards) and 'Schlag' (a knock or hit) to form 'Niederschlag' meaning 'rainfall' (or 'precipitation' in meterological terms). The second half of the word - 'Wahrscheinlichkeit' - means 'probability' and is composed of 'Wahr' (truth) and 'scheinen' (to appear/seem). Put together, the compound word means 'probability of precipitation' or, if you like, the chance it's going to rain.

There are times when long compound words are actually more efficient that their English equivalent. 'Kreisverwaltungsreferat' looks somewhat cumbersome until you consider that in English, it would be 'local district authority department' or something equally verbose. Nevertheless, there are many more examples of long German words that don't manage to encapsulate a concept quite so neatly. 'Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzungen' and 'Kontoführungsgebühren', for example, appear to be rather more tortured ways to convey 'speed limits' and 'bank charges'.

That said, I'm a fan of German's long words and even the Germans can laugh at concepts like the 'Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher', so why shouldn't we? I certainly wouldn't like to be accused of hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia!