Don’t break the Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung!*
Surely some of the joy of learning German is the compound word. You know, those super-long, extra complicated-looking strings of letters that stop non-German speakers in their tracks. I see clever Twitter users asking ‘What’s the German word for…’ some obscure feeling, because German often has very specific words for very specific circumstances. Soon, you can be one of those people who debates the accuracy of those words in the replies. No, please don’t, I’m only joking.
Anna Funder, in her book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, enjoyed German’s compound nouns: “I liked the sticklebrick nature of it, building long supple words by putting short ones together. Things could be brought into being that had no name in English.”. That is the mystery for many non-German speakers – these long words that seem to have such a specific meaning, that we just don’t have single words for in English. The thing is, it is essentially a phrase mashed together into one word.
Decoding German compound words
Once you start learning German, the words come apart more easily, and what originally looked like an incomprehensible string of letters suddenly makes more sense.
Look for the primary word that everything else is hanging on, this is ‘das Grundwort’. For instance, in ‘Einbahnstraße’, the primary word is ‘Strasse’ or street. ‘Einbahn’ means one-way.
So we have a big word that would be three words with a hyphen in English, one-way street, but is all one word in German. When you’re not sure which one is the primary word, look for a word you recognize, and you can often work backwards from there.
Let’s look at a longer word: ‘Windschutzschiebenwischer’. ‘Windscutz’ is windscreen, and there’s half of it figured out right there. ‘Wischer’ is a wiper or squeegee, with ‘scheibe’ in the middle, which means to push. So windscreen-pushing-wiper is a fairly accurate description of what a windshield wiper does, isn’t it? Thankfully the pronunciation is fairly straightforward – just take one word at a time and sound it out. German is terrific that way.
It gets more complicated, of course
The translation problems come when some of the words used are not meant literally. For instance, ‘die Warteschlange’ is not a waiting snake, as the literal translation would have us believe, but a queue of waiting people. ‘Die Glühbirne’ is not a glowing pear, but a lightbulb. ‘Drachenfutter’ is not referring to your pet dragon’s food, but the present you give your partner when you’ve screwed up. ‘Kummerspeck’ is not very sad bacon, but the weight you might put on from eating your feelings when you’re feeling a bit emotional.
The German words that don’t translate easily
Of course, when people find out you’re learning German, they really want to hear about those funny words they see on the Internet that don’t have easy English translations. Often they’re talking about words like ‘Weltschmerz’, which means the painful feeling of the weight of the world on your shoulders – who isn’t feeling this one these days, right? It literally translates to ‘world pain’ but it’s a bit more evocative than that. I think we could all use more ‘Gemütlichkeit’ in our lives – it is a feeling of coziness, but also warmth, satisfaction, and safety. It is deeper than coziness. The Scandinavian ‘hygge’ got all the press for this, but maybe it’s because ‘Gemütlichkeit’ doesn’t fit in headlines quite so well.
I’m sure you have a great Sprachgefühle, or a feeling for language, and will throw in some of these terrifically long German words in your next Lingoda class. If you can say it slowly, you can say it fast!
Check out Franzi’s video which explains some more compound nouns in German: