Compounds – elegant or plump?
Posted 20. Mai 2009on:
Today I want to go into a bit more detail concerning a specific difference between German and English – the different formation and use of compounds.
A compound is loosely defined as a word that consists of two different words, forming a new word. Put more academically, it is a lexeme with more than one stem. An example in English would be eyeblack – the two words eye and black form a completely new word (in this case, eyeblack is the stuff football / baseball players use to decrease the glare from the sun during a game). Of course, there is more to compounding than just sticking two words together, but that is too much information for this article.
German is special when it comes to compounding – we have an affinity for creating incredibly long compounds, and we use compounds much more frequently to describe something – in a stereotypical description, a German might say „Schau dir diesen Lederhosenträger an.“ („Look at that lederhosen-wearer.“). A sentence like „Schau dir den Typ, der Ledernhosen trägt, mal an.“ („Look at the guy wearing lederhosen.“) seems less elegant to a German. In fact, the whole construction requires a „mal“ to sound remotely plausible – compounds, to the German, are a very quick and easy way to say something without starting a new clause.
But what really distinguishes German compounding is its ability to stack word stem after word stem to form extremely long compounds. The word that is most used to show that oddity is „Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaft“, which loosely translated means „the society for steamboat shipping on the river Donau“ – it was a game during when I was at school to elongate the compound by adding more word stems that made sense, if even just remotely. An example would be Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänshutständer, which again loosely translates into „captain’s hat-rack of the society for steamboat shipping on the river Donau“. By the way, that was a really weak attempt, but you see the pattern.
More on German compounds (in German, beware):
discussion in a german online-dictionary forum about the longest German compound