German compound nouns explained

by Jakob Straub
January 19, 2021
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In German, word formation happens to a large extent by composition: two or more words come together to create a new one. You can compose all kinds of words that way, such as verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions or nouns, which are called compound nouns. We’re going to look at how the process works and what the characteristics of these composites are.

What are compound nouns in German?

You’ve probably heard the jokes about the ridiculous length that German words can reach. “Fußbodenschleifmaschinenverleih” designates a floor sanding machine rental, for example. When the Germans need a new word, they put together a bunch of existing ones. Composites, “Komposita” in German, are an integral part of the language.

A compound noun, “Nomenkompositum” or “zusammengesetztes Hauptwort” in German, is either made up of at least two other nouns, or different types of words and a noun to create a new noun.

Examples are: 

  • Apfel + Baum = Apfelbaum (apple + tree = apple tree)
  • Tisch + Decke = Tischdecke (table + blanket = tablecloth)
  • Haus + Tür + Schlüssel = Haustürschlüssel (house + door + key = front door key, literally house door key)
  • Orangen + Saft = Orangensaft (oranges + juice = orange juice)
  • Sprache + Schule = Sprachschule (language + school = language school)

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German compound nouns explained

While it might seem as if you can just mix and match words at random to form new ones, German wouldn’t be German if there weren’t rules around compound nouns. The first thing you have to know is that no matter how long the string of individual words is, the very last one determines gender and number. If you want to figure out singular or plural as well as if the noun is masculine, feminine, or neutral, you have to look at that word.

  • Haus + Tier = Haustier (house animal, or pet). To form the plural, you only need to modify the second noun: Haustiere (and not “Häusertiere”)
  • Bäckerei + Fach + Verkäuferin = Bäckereifachverkäuferin (bakery specialist saleswoman) becomes “Bäckereifachverkäuferinnen” in the plural.
  • Hand + Schuh = Handschuh (glove) becomes “Handschuhe” in the plural (and not “Händeschuhe”)

The individual parts of German compound nouns

As you can see, the second or last word in a German compound noun is more important in the sense that it dominates the entire composite. It is therefore called “Grundwort”, or primary word. It designates the larger set. Compound nouns in German often describe a part or individual aspect. The other part of the composite specifies this aspect and is therefore called determiner, or “Bestimmungswort”.

Take the word for language school, “Sprachschule”, for example. It designates a special school and the larger set would be all types of schools. The “Grundwort” is “Schule”, with which you can describe any other kind of school as follows:

  • Sprachschule (language school)
  • Baumschule (tree nursery)
  • Grundschule (elementary school, primary school)
  • Kunsthochschule (art school)
  • Filmschule (film school)

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Connecting elements

In many examples of German compound nouns, the two or more parts, that is the “Bestimmungswort” and the “Grundwort” are directly connected with no element in between. Examples are “Arbeitgeber” (employer), “Gasthaus” (inn) or “Stahlrahmen” (steel frame).

However, many other German compound nouns require a connecting element to bridge a gap, or “Fuge”, between the words and make them sound smoother. This connection can take various forms:

  • -e-: Hundeleine (dog leash), Schweinefleisch (pork), Mausefalle (mousetrap), Pferdewagen (horse carriage)
  • -n- or -en-: Katzentür (cat door), Kettenraucher (chain smoker), Tintenfass (inkpot), Bauernbrot (farmhouse bread)
  • -ens-: Leidensdruck (suffering), Herzensangelegenheit (matter of the heart), Friedenswille (will for peace), Schmerzensgeld (compensation for damages)
  • -er-: Geisterhaus (haunted house), Bilderrahmen (picture frame), Kinderwunsch (wish for children), Kleiderständer (clothes rack)
  • -s- or -es-: Arbeitsplatz (workplace), Freundeskreis (circle of friends), Tageslicht (daylight), Verkehrskontrolle (traffic control), Liebeskummer (lovesickness), Jahreszeit (season), Tagesgeld (daily allowance), Glücksgöttin (goddess of luck), Geistesgegenwart (presence of mind)

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More composites

The primary word in a compound noun will always be, well, a noun, of course. But the “Bestimmungswort” or the determinative elements before can include a verbal noun, adjective, pronoun, preposition or adverb. We’ll give you some examples for these as well!

Compound nouns including verbs

  • Bringen + Schuld = Bringschuld (obligation)
  • sprechen + Blase = Sprechblase (speech bubble)
  • löschen + Wasser = Löschwasser (fire extinguishing water)
  • lesen + Buch = Lesebuch (story book)
  • essen + Zimmer = Esszimmer (dining room)

Compound nouns including adjectives

  • blau + Mann = Blaumann (overall)
  • groß + Maul = Großmaul (loudmouth)
  • fein + Schmecker = Feinschmecker (gourmet)
  • hoch + Leistung = Hochleistung (high performance) 
  • schwarz + Fahrer = Schwarzfahrer (blind passenger, fare dodger)
  • spät + Schicht = Spätschicht (late shift)
  • wichtig + Macher = Wichtigmacher (busybody)

Compound nouns with adverbs

  • abwärts + Fahrt = Abwärtsfahrt (descent)
  • wieder + Wahl = Wiederwahl (re-election)
  • immer + Grün = Immergrün (evergreen)
  • außen + Seite = Außenseite (outside)

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Pronouns in compound nouns

Compound nouns with a pronoun are rarer in German due to the limited number of pronouns, but nonetheless possible. Examples are “Allheilmittel” (cure-all, universal remedy), “Ichbewusstsein” (self-awareness) or “Selbstwert” (self worth).

Prepositions forming compound nouns

  • gegen + Satz = Gegensatz (contradiction)
  • wider + Stand = Widerstand (opposition)
  • vor + Denker = Vordenker (thought leader)
  • neben + Sache = Nebensache (minor matter)
  • für + Spruch = Fürspruch (advocacy)

Prefixes

In German, there are determiners which technically are a noun when they appear in a “Kompositum”. However, they’ve evolved to the role of a standard prefix. “Haupt” is such an example. As a noun, it’s a more or less old-fashioned word for head. As a prefix in composites, it means main, chief, central, principal or primary:

  • Hauptsache = main thing
  • Hauptbahnhof = main station, central train station
  • Hauptrolle = lead role
  • Hauptstraße = main street
  • Haupteingang = main entrance

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Augmentation: fun with compound nouns

In German composites, the determiner often serves the purpose of modifying or augmenting the noun. This is one of the more fun or creative aspects of the German language as you can intensify and modify the noun in interesting ways. It’s very common in colloquial speech and the process has created German words which are impossible to translate. Here are augmentation examples:

  • Affenzahn = breakneck speed
  • Riesenhunger = giant hunger
  • Dreckskerl = dirty bastard
  • Hundeelend = a dog’s misery
  • Mordsspaß = great fun
  • Saukälte = cold as hell
  • Todsicherheit = death’s certainty
  • Megafreude = mega joy
  • Extrawurst = special request, special favour
  • Superwetter = great weather
  • Spitzenlohn = top wage
  • Nasskälte = a wet cold
  • Goldschatz = darling, dear

Do you want to learn more about German compound nouns? We’ll show you how to pronounce long German words!

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