German Language

Compound Nouns

As you might know, the German language is famous for having ridiculously long words – the so-called compound nouns. I have read an interesting article in a Swiss newspaper that Germany’s longest word – Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz – a 63-letter long title of a law regulating the testing of beef, has officially ceased to exist.

The word, which refers to the “law for the delegation of monitoring beef labelling”, has been repealed by a regional parliament after the EU lifted a recommendation to carry out BSE tests on healthy cattle.

German is famous for its compound nouns, which frequently become so cumbersome they have to be reduced to abbreviations. The beef labelling law, introduced in 1999 to protect consumers from BSE, was commonly transcribed as the “RkReÜAÜG”, but even everyday words are shortened to initials so Lastkraftwagen – lorry – becomes Lkw.

The longest word with a dictionary entry, according to Duden is at 36 letters, Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung, motor vehicle liability insurance.

However a 39-letter word, Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften, insurance companies providing legal protection, is considered the longest German word in everyday use by the Guinness Book of World Records.

In theory, a German word can be infinitely long. Unlike in English, an extra concept can simply be added to the existing word indefinitely. Such extended words are sometimes known as Bandwurmwörter – “tapeworm words”. In an essay on the Germany language, Mark Twain observed: “Some German words are so long that they have a perspective.”

Did you know… The new pope eats Argentines?

I came across a newspaper article just after the new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was announced as the new head honcho of the Catholic Church.

So… is the new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a cannibal who favors his Argentinian fellow-countrymen as a delicious meal, just like the headline in a German newspaper suggested? Admittedly, I have no idea what kind of diet Francis, the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church prefers but I’m pretty sure that he is not after human meat. So you might wonder, why do I ask the question whether Pope Francis craves for humans for supper?

A German newspaper wrote: “Der neuePapstisstArgentinier”, which means “The new Pope eats Argentines”. Actually, (at least I’m pretty confident that’s the case) the writer of this newspaper articles wanted to say this: “Der neuePapstistArgentinier” (“The new Pope is Argentinian”). So, what led to this linguistic accident?

The conjugated forms (2nd and 3rd person singular) of the German verbs “sein” (to be) and “essen” (to eat) share one and the same sound chain, that is, “ist” and “isst” are so-called homophones – the pronunciation of both these forms is identical – but orthographically they mean two totally different things. In order to make sure that you do not walk right into the same trap, here’s an overview of the correct conjugated forms of both the German verbs sein and essen:

sein (to be)
Singular Plural
1st person ich bin – I am Wirsind – we are
2nd person du bist – you are (informal)Siesind – you are (formal) ihrseid – you are (informal)Siesind – you are (formal)
3rd person er/sie/esist – he/she/it is siesind – they are


essen (to eat)
Singular Plural
1st person ichesse – I eat wiressen – we eat
2nd person du isst – you eat (informal)Sieessen – you eat (formal) ihresst – you eat (informal)Sieessen – you eat (formal)
3rd person er/sie/esisst – he/she/it eats sieessen – they eat

As you can see, German shares one and the same form for English “you”, “she”, and “they”, which is “sie” and “Sie”, respectively. When you refer to your immediate counterpart in personal communication make sure to use a CAPITAL letter in formal address.

Unfortunately, the editor’s mistake is irreversible but one thing is for sure: he or she is most probably a laughing stock in the office and definitely among members of the language police. My final remark: Spell-check can save lives!


Danny Ruch – German Teacher

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