Donnerwetter! German’s longest word stricken

If you’ve ever read Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, you have probably encountered Appendix D: The Awful German Language. Therein, Twain waxes eloquent about the vagaries of the Teutonic tongue and mentions the habit of the German language to smash nouns together into long, unreadable strings. He mentions “Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen” (legislator meetings) and “Waffenstillstandsunterhandlungen” (cease-fire negotiations.) He does not mention “Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitaenswitwe” (the widow of a captain of the Danube Steamship Voyage Company), and I have seen longer versions having to do with the cleaning lady of the captain’s cabin, but this one is somewhat sniffed at by German purists.

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“Hardwood floor sander rental”

Now it appears that the longest official word in the German dictionary has been stricken, because it’s no longer needed.

the Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, or “law delegating beef label monitoring,”  was introduced by Germany in 1999 as part of measures against mad cow disease. But the DPA news agency reported today the law was removed from the books last week because European Union regulations have changed. Just to show you how these monsters are cobbled together:

  • Rind (cow)
  • Fleisch (flesh) [Rindfleisch -> “beef”]
  • Etikettierung (labeling)
  • Überwachung (monitoring)
  • Aufgabe (task)
  • Übertragung (delegation)
  • Gesetz (law)

The additional letters between the nouns are there to make things flow smoothly, in the same way as we take “girls” and “baseball” and “team” and come up with “girls’ baseball team.” And that’s really all they are doing – they just happen to cram everything together into one word.

German has other peculiarities, among which are the maddening tendency to throw all their verbs to the end of a very long clause or sentence. I’m currently reading The Lord of the Rings (Der Herr der Ringe) in German; I can’t wait to get to Volume 3 to find out what happens, because that’s where all the verbs are. [1]

But with the “Längsthauptwortsabschaffung” (longest noun elimination, and I just made that up) having been performed, what’s left as the longest official word? That honor falls to Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung (automobile liability insurance)

For what it’s worth, “The Awful German Language” was not Twain’s only foray into German philology. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he came up with Constantinopolitanischerdudelsackpfeifenmachersgesellschafft (İstanbul bagpipe maker company, and remember it’s İstanbul, not Constantinople), which my Teutonically-enabled friends will be quick to point out is improperly formed, but it makes a heck of a magic word. But this segues into the fact that when it comes to smashing words together, the Germans are rank amateurs when compared to Turkish.

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Avrupalılaştırılamayabilenlerdenmısınız? is a complete sentence, a question which means “Are you one of those who is not easily able to be Europeanized?”

Here’s how it’s formed:

  • Avrupa: Europe
  • Avrupa-lı: European
  • Avrupa-lı-laş-mak: become European
  • Avrupa-lı-laş-tır‑mak: to make European (mak is an infinitive ending)
  • Avrupa-lı-laş-tır‑ı‑l‑mak: (reflexive) to be made European (‑l‑ is a linking consonant)
  • Avrupa-lı-laş-tir‑ıl‑abil‑mek: to be capable of being Europeanized (‑mek is again the infinitive ending, changed as a result of vowel harmony)
  • Avrupa-lı-laş-tır‑ıl‑ama‑mak: not to be capable of being Europeanized
  • Avrupa-lı-laş-tır‑ıl‑ama‑y‑abil‑mek: this time the ‑abil is probability: that there is a probability that one may  not be capable of being Europeanized
  • Avrupa-lı-laş-tır‑ıl‑ama‑y‑abil‑en: the one that may not be capable of being Europeanized
  • Avrupa-lı-laş-tır‑ıl‑ama‑y‑abil‑en‑ler: the ones…..(‑ler, ‑lar is the plural suffix)
  • Avrupa-lı-laş-tır‑ıl‑ama‑y‑abil‑en‑ler‑den: of or from the ones who may not be capable of being Europeanized
  • mı? ‑ question tag (legally, this should be written separately, but it is a very common mistake not to).
  • mısınız? ‑ are you (formal or plural)

To be fair, this is a rather contrived sentence, but it’s legal and grammatical and shows how Turkish agglutination works. Pope John XXIII is reported to have said, at one point during his ten years in İstanbul as Papal Nuncio, “I am fond of the Turks…  It is my special intention, as an exercise in mortification, to learn the Turkish language.” Mortification is right.

I spent about 10 years associating with Turks, the Turkish language, and Turkey, and I would like to go on record as saying that John had the right idea. They’re lovely people, with a beautiful country and a hellish but intriguing language. I keep chipping away at Turkish, and perhaps in one or two more lifetimes I’ll be able to say more than “Günaydın, nasılsınız?”. As Robert Sheckley’s character said in “Shall we have a little talk?“, “Stop agglutinating, dammit!”

Given the events taking place in Turkey at this very moment, I pause to wish the good people of this land every good thing, and the right to freedom and self-determination.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


[1] Just kidding. All the verbs are in the appendices.

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4 responses to “Donnerwetter! German’s longest word stricken

  1. Pingback: Donnerwetter! Making fun of German once again. | Playing in the World Game

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