Compound words

In many languages, humans like to create new words by smooshing together two or more existing ones. The meaning of the new word may be immediately obvious from the roots, or it might derive it in a more subtle or historical way. For example, in English:



blue + berry: Obviously it's a berry, and it's blue. Note how it doesn't refer to any blue berry though, only the blueberry!


flash + back: A 'flash' of memory back to the past, by analogy to a flash of light.


straw + berry: Not in the sense of the material "straw", but rather the historical meaning "that which has been strewn".

Recognizing this pattern is helpful when learning a language: you can sometimes infer the meaning of an unknown compound word if you already know the roots. It can also help you recall words once you do know the meaning, since the literal translations are often quite silly and memorable. For example:


die Fledermaus (the bat)

'flutter mouse' - From Old German fledarōn (flutter) and die Maus.

das Faultier (the sloth)

'lazy animal' - From faul + das Tier.

das Wasserschwein (the capybara)

'water pig' - From das Wasser + das Schwein.

Note how compound nouns inherit the gender of their ending root. The many German animal names ending in tier all use das.

Many verbs in German are formed by adding a prefix like ein- or ver- to a another verb, like kaufen (to buy) => einkaufen (to shop). These are a bit quirky and the meaning is not always easily inferrable; we'll cover separable and inseperable verb prefixes in another pattern.

In English, we often make new words not by combining existing English words, but from Latin or Greek roots. This is especially true for medical or scientific terminology. In German, it's much more common to just use German roots. The English word paramecium is derived from Ancient Greek, but in German it's just das Pantoffeltierchen ("slipper animal little").

German sometimes likes to take compound words to extreme lengths. Names for government programs are particularly notorious for this, such as das Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz, the Federal Training Assistance Act in Germany-- which most people quite reasonably abbreviate to BAföG. Good to master compounds if you need to submit forms in Germany!

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