How to form Compound Words in German

There’s a certain trend on Twitter wherein users rhetorically ask what the German word equivalent is for a particular (typically humorously long) English phrase.

This is because of the rather interesting phenomenon of Compounds in linguistics, wherein a series of words can be combined into a single, longer word.

In English this is rather boring: we usually limit ourselves to combining at most two or three words (e.g.: doghouse) and often even resort to the inclusion of hyphens for legibility (e.g.: white-collar).

In German however, the sky (or page I guess?) is the limit and no hyphenation is required, resulting in amazing results such as “Betäubungsmittelverschreibungsverordnung” (regulation requiring a prescription for an anesthetic).

But, how does one go about forming their own German words? What is the recipe?

DISCLAIMER: I don’t speak German, this is the result of patient research and consultation with tools such as Google Translate, DeepL, Dict.cc along with the help of German-speaking friends in a hope to shed some light on the phenomenon of German compounds. Here goes nothing.

Let’s start from the most basic form of a compound, where we limit ourselves to the combination of exactly 2 words. We will find that, regardless of the part of speech of the individual words, a combination can almost always be made:

Part of Speech Noun Verb Adjective Adverb Preposition
Noun Wortbildung Seiltanzen Blitzschnell Flussabwärts Bergauf
Verb Kochtopf Drehbohren Klopffest Taugenichts -
Adjective Blauhelm Reinwaschen Hellgelb Rundweg Rundum
Adverb Wiederwahl Davonlaufen Immergrün Immerfort -
Preposition Gegensatz Widersprechen Vorlaut Vorweg Nebenan

In observing the usage of compounds in German, a few things will be noticed:

  • The final word, which we refer to as the primary word or grundwort, determines the larger set under which the compound may be categorized in. For example, a Blauhelm, is simply a blue (blau), helmet (helm).
  • The part of speech of the grundwort corresponds to the part of speech of the compound, unless the grundwort is a preposition, in which case the compound is typically an adverb.
  • The grundwort also determines the gender and plurality of the compound if it is a noun.
  • When declining the compound, we only decline the grundwort.
  • The preceeding words, the determiners or bestimmungswörter, are more generic than the grundwort, and have the function to add details to the grundwort.
  • In general, there is a one-way direction of detail, going from general to specific from left to right. For example Bundestagsabgeordnetensekretärinnenschreibttischschublade (Bundestag-congressman-secretary-desk-drawer)

Perhaps the trickiest part in German word formation however is the occasional inclusion of additional letters between words, known as the linking element or the fugenelement, for example Wissenschaft + s + markt = Wissenschaftsmarkt.

While there are various websites and opinions attempting to rationalize the usage of this linking element, the matter of the fact is that there is no official rule as to when and how to use it or not.

As such, the usage of linking elements really boils down to a feel of the German language, and there is no official right way to do it. There’s simply ways that feel better and ways that don’t, on a case by case basis.

Fortunately, linking elements generally only occur in noun+noun or verb+noun compounds, and when they do occur, it is quite rare, so it is unlikely that one will need them. Here is a table listing the occurrence of each of the most common linking elements in noun+noun compounds.

Linking Element None -(e)s -(e)n -e -er other
Occurrence 72.8 % 14.8 % 9.7 % 1.3 % 0.7 % 0.7 %

That being said, there is a very hand-wavy logic that one may follow to determine whether they should include a linking element, and if so which one to include. This logic is not 100% perfect however, and exceptions can be found. In general:

  • if the determinative element is a noun and its Nominativ or Genitiv plural ends with “e”, then add an “e” linking element: doghouse -> Hund + Hütte -> Hundehütte
  • if the determinative element is either a masculine or neuter noun and its nominativ or genitiv plural ends with “er”, then add an “er” linking element: Kind + Garten -> Kindergarten
  • if the determinative element is a noun and its Nominativ or Genitiv plural ends with “en”, then ensure the determinative element also ends with “en”: pear tree -> Birne + Baum -> Birnenbaum
  • if the determinative element ends with “tum”, “ling”, “ion”, “tät”, “heit”, “keit”, “schaft”, “sicht” or “ung”, make sure the determinative element ends with “s”: health advertising -> Gesundheit + werbung -> Gesundheitswerbung
  • if the boundary between the two words would otherwise form a “td”, “mm”, “tk”, “tt” or “nb” join, make sure the determinative element ends with “s” so to intersect this join: Institute director -> Institut + direktor -> Institutsdirektor
  • If the determinative element is a verb that has a stem ending with “b”, “d”, “g”, or “t”, add an “e” linking element: chair for lounging -> Lieg + stuhl -> Liegestuhl
  • If the determinative element is a verb ending with “en”, usually the nominalized infinitive of the verb, then add an “s” to the end of the determinative element.

With this knowledge, we can now outline a general recipe for forming German compounds:

  1. Determine what part of speech (noun, verb, etc.) you are trying to form
  2. Determine what larger set the compound may be categorized in, for example a “blue helmet” will be under the set of helmets. This will be the primary word or grundwort of your compound. In the case of the example, “helmet”.
  3. Find the next most specific word and add it to the left of your grundwort, ensuring to insert a linking element in between if necessary.
  4. For the formation of compounds with more than 2 words, repeat step 3 and this step recursively with the remaining words until there are no words left.

Let’s try our recipe with an example English phrase. I’m hoping to form the German compound equivalent for the expression “Person who writes on their phone using their index fingers”.

Starting from step 1, by looking at our phrase we know that the compound we want to form is a noun. We are helped in concluding this by looking at step 2, where we determine that the larger set the compound may be categorized in is people, particularly people who write, or more succinctly, writers. Our grundwort is therefore “writer”, in German “schreiber” for our use case.

Moving on to step 3, one may argue that “phone” is the next most information-packed word. We get “handy” as a translation.

Combining “handy” and “schreiber”, we find that the there is no need for a linking element, hence allowing us to easily obtain “handyschreiber”.

Arriving at step 4, we repeat step 3 with the remaining element, “index finger”, which in our case we can translate as “zeigefinger”, a compound word for free. Combining “zeigefinger” and “handyschreiber” we find that the former is pluralized as “zeigefinger,” which means we need to ensure that our determiner ends with “er”, which it does, hence getting our final result:

zeigefingerhandyschreiber

It’s not perfect, but it kind of works, and maybe this wasn’t the ideal example of a phrase worth converting into a compound. It’s probably worth double checking with a German friend before throwing words generated with this approach into your alltagsleben, but at least we have something to start with.

Happy wortbildung!

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