“Boy, those Germans have a word for everything!” Part II

Sometimes you really appreciate the Germanness of English. I was thinking about this, naturally enough, after the resignation of the short-lived U.S National-Security Advisor Mike Flynn (yes it’s often written as National Security Advisor, but it’s logical to hyphenate it). While watching reports on Belgian TV, I noticed that the French for National-Security Advisor is conseiller à la sécurité nationale. Oof! 5 words instead of 2 (or 3, but National-Security can be considered as one, as it’s hyphenated), 13 syllables instead of 10. This doesn’t really give a true impression of the difference though, as French syllables are generally longer than English ones, as in English we have weak forms; short vowel sounds for unemphasized syllables. Think of how brief the io sound in national is, for example, and how many people almost skip it when speaking.

If you were to translate conseiller à la sécurité nationale directly into English, it would be Advisor of National Security. As I’ve mentioned before, this structure is quite common in romance languages. And I don’t mean to criticise it, because it can be useful. It provides a common, consistent structure you can just plug the nouns into. And as it’s so consistent across languages, it can help if you want to learn a similar language. And even if we don’t use it much in English, it’s still useful for lower-level learners, as it’s often grammatically correct, and helps them to construct simple sentences. But it can be long!

So I really love how we can construct so many compound nouns in English. This is something we’ve picked up from Proto-Germanic languages, and is still evident in modern German. Some people like to joke about incredibly long German compound nouns, but I like their simplicity:

der Abend + die Schule = die Abendschule (night school)
das Haus + der Schuh = der Hausschuh (house shoe!)
Even when they get very long, they’re still logical and simply constructed:
(das Haus + die Tür) + (der Schlüssel + das Loch) = die Haustürschlüsselloch (house door keyhole)
der Gummi + (die Hand + der Schuh) = der Gummihandschuh (rubber glove)
I love that last one!
There can be an elegance to Latin-inspired grammar, but sometimes it’s simple to just cram words beside each other, and let their combined meaning be evident!
Thanks to http://www.thegermanprofessor.com/german-compound-nouns/ for providing compound-noun examples.

16 thoughts on ““Boy, those Germans have a word for everything!” Part II

  1. […] What does this mean in practical terms? Well, if you’re going on holiday to somewhere where they speak a Romance language, you’ll probably find it a little easier to find your way around. But if you’re looking to move abroad permanently, and learn a language, you might find it easier to learn Dutch or German, in the long run. When learning a Romance language, you’ll probably be initially encouraged by figuring out the meaning of some words quite easily. But you might get frustrated when some words don’t mean what you think you should, when you forget that sentence structure can be quite different, and you never remember how to conjugate verbs (you only have to do it once in English!). Learning Dutch or German might be tricky at first, but after a while you’ll notice the similar words, and if you really get into it, you might see the similar grammatical structures, relative lack of verb conjugation, and the general directness both languages share with English, in contrast to the greater wordiness of La…. […]


  2. […] As I’ve said before, compound nouns are often tricky for learners of English, particularly speakers of Latin languages, who often use a noun+of (the)+noun construction in their native tongue, when we English speakers form a compound noun. It might seem then that forming a compound noun should be easy to learn: instead of saying something of the something, just put the two words together. Done! Except of course, it’s not quite so simple. […]


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