German Compound Words

Mark Twain said the following about the length of German words:

“Some German words are so long that they have a perspective.”

Indeed, Germans love their long words. However in the 1998 Rechtschreibreform, it was strongly recommended to hyphenate these Mammutwörter (mammoth words) in order to simplify their readability. One notices particularly terminology in science and the media following this trend: Software-Produktionsanleitung, Multimedia- Magazin.

When reading these German mammoth words, you will recognize that they are composed of either:

Noun + noun (der Mülleimer/ the garbage pail)
Adjective + noun (die Großeltern/ grandparents)
Noun + adjective (luftleer/ airless)
Verb stem + noun (die Waschmaschine/ washing machine)
Preposition + noun (der Vorort/ suburb)
Preposition + verb (runterspringen/ to jump down)
Adjective + adjective (hellblau/ light blue)

In some German compound words, the first word serves to describe the second word in more precise detail, for instance die Zeitungsindustrie (the newspaper industry.) In other compound words, each of the words are of equal value (der Radiowecker/ the radio-alarm clock.) Other long words have a meaning all of their own that is different from each of the individual words (der Nachtisch/ the dessert.)

Important German Compound Rules

  1. It is the last word that determines the word type. For example:

    über -> preposition, reden->verb
    überreden = verb (to persuade)
  1. The last noun of the compound word determines its gender. For example

    die Kinder + das Buch = das Kinderbuch (the children's book)
  2. Only the last noun is declined. For example:

    das Bügelbrett -> die Bügelbretter (ironing boards)
  3. Numbers are always written together. For example:

    Zweihundertvierundachtzigtausend (284 000)
  1. Since the 1998 Rechtschreibreform, verb + verb compound words are no longer written together. So for example, kennen lernen/ to get to know.

Letter Insertion in German Compounds

When composing long German words, you need to sometimes insert a letter or letters.

  1. In noun + noun compounds you add:

    • -e-
      When the plural of the first noun adds an –e-.
      Die Hundehütte (der Hund -> die Hunde)
    • - er-
      When the first noun is either masc. or neu. and is pluralized with-er-
      Der Kindergarten (das Kind ->die Kinder)
    • -n-
      When the first noun is feminin and is pluralized –en-
      Der Birnenbaum/ the pear tree (die Birne -> die Birnen)
    • -s-
      When the first noun ends in either -heit, keit, -ung
      Die Gesundheitswerbung/ the health ad
    • -s-
      For some nouns that end in –s- in the genitive case.
      Das Säuglingsgeschrei/ the newborn’s cry (des Säuglings)
  2. In verbstem + noun compositions, you add:

    • -e-
      After many verbs that have a stem ending b, d, g and t.
      Der Liegestuhl/ the lounge chair