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The Compounding Magic of German

Sign in Germany: "Wastewater treatment plant" (Wikimedia Commons)

Sign in Germany: “Wastewater treatment plant” (Wikimedia Commons)

Germany has done away with what is arguably the longest word in the German language, a barely pronounceable word relating to a former law on the origin of beef: Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.

But it isn’t much of a loss. Aside from being exceedingly ugly, this 63-letter word has company (even if its buddies don’t trouble the inkwell quite so much). German, like Turkish and Finnish, is all too amenable to the construction of insanely long compound words. Many are ridiculously clunky and obscure: famously, there was Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, meaning “Association for subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services”. But a few of these compound terms convey singular emotions or ideas, like Götterdämmerung, usually translated as “Twilight of the Gods”.

Listen above to hear German journalist Sebastian Borger discussing German compound words, and why they keep multiplying.

Railway station sign, with a pronunciation guide for English speakers, in North Wales. (Wikimedia Commons)

Podcast bonus: hear how to pronounce the name of the village on the island of Anglesey in North Wales known as Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (“St Mary’s Church in the Hollow of the White Hazel Near the Rapid Whirlpool of Llantysilio of the Red Cave”). This village name is a Victorian era construction, intended to attract tourists. Locals sensibly refer to this place as Llanfairpwll or Llanfair.

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