Why Does German Have So Many Longwords?

Sam Quillen
4 min readJul 3, 2023

In 1999, the government of the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern enacted new rules for the labelling of beef products. The legislation was called the Cattle Marketing and Beef Labelling Supervision Duties Delegation Law, or Rinderkennzeichnungs- und Rindflesichetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.

The routine agricultural regulation made national headlines. Most Germans snickered, while some more modern stylists lamented it as a case-in-point for grammatical laziness. But, perhaps surprisingly, no one had much trouble pronouncing it. Like other lengthy words, the Mecklenburg law is not really one long word, but many shorter ones rammed together.

This predilection for compounding is particularly pronounced in German, and it is surely celebrated in the dictionary industry. But it is a common feature in Germanic languages. The most popular tongue-twister in Dutch — their equivalent of “she sells seashells by the seashore” — is one single word. If you want to linguistically befuddle a Dutch person, ask where you can find the Hottentot tent exhibition grounds: the Hottentottententententoonstellingsterrein.

The Khoi-San (traditionally called Hottentots) are a desert tribe native to what is now Namibia. They became wildly popular for some reason at the time Germany governed the country, and today “Hottentot” is a popular (somewhat offensive) term for Africans generally in multiple languages of Northern Europe.

English speakers used to think like Germans in this respect. We still use a lot of compound words, notably including both those of native origin, e.g., “overhang,” and Latin or Greek ones, like “photography” (which Aristotle would read literally as “lightwriting”). For whatever reason, we seem to particularly like them for wildlife. We have honeybees, starfish, bluejays, and hummingbirds. The latter avian displays a particular determination: hummingbirds are native to the New World, and every single European language, from German to Greek to Estonian, uses the native name kollibri — except English, which just had to describe our humming birds literally.

Englishmen started breaking up compound words during the Renaissance. It was part of a conscious effort to make English more like Latin. It was also in keeping with a centuries-long trend that transformed English from a synthetic language (one that reflects grammar with complex schemes of cases, prefixes, and suffixes — like modern German) to an analytic one (which makes creative use of word order and prepositions — like Romance languages).

English does, of course, still create new words for new concepts. These tend to go through a three-step evolution, e.g., from “voice mail” to “voice-mail” to “voicemail.” But modern English speakers do tend to look for Greco-Latin compounds, a clunky trend lamented by stylists from Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson.

When European explorers arrived in the Caribbean, they asked the locals what to call the delightful little birds they found flitting around there. The answer was “kollibri,” which was good enough for every single other race of people in Europe. But the English, as ever, were the exception.

The Germans, for all their achievement in Classical scholarship, went a different way. Rather than import Latin or Greek words, as English did, they created new words from native origins. For “hydrogen,” English chemists used the Greek root for “water.” The Germans just called it Wasserstoff, “water-stuff.” Sometimes, German is actually a lot simpler than English: outer space is simply das All.

Sometimes they do borrow from the Romans, but even then, they construct words in an authentically German way — as in Spionagesatellit, spy satellite. Mecklenburg’s law lost the 1999 competition for word of the year to das Millennium, a Latin word becoming popular at the time. But the standard is still Jahrtausend (year-thousand).

Today, German style guides typically recommend against Bandwurmwörter, “tapeworm words.” They certainly can be abused, and as German compound words are perhaps the world’s favourite linguistics joke, they frequently are. It is almost like a linguistic virus — anyone who learns even a bit of German finds him- or herself starting to come up with them.

During a class on European legal systems I took once, I had to give a presentation on a recent legal innovation. I chose a new legal action the German government developed, based loosely on American class actions, to enable Germans affected by Volkswagen’s emissions fraud scandal to sue the company collectively. The action is called the Musterfeststellungsklage, the “model declarative action.” So, I figured, it should follow that this particular one is the Volkswagendieselskandalmusterfeststellungsklage.

In Europe, corporation malfeasance is punished much more lightly than in the United States. Although Volkswagen will probably suffer only light legal consequences for fixing their emissions data, the scandal has yielded colourful demonstrations, as well as language. (I could not find a usable photo for another recent protest, in which a woman ran topless into a quarterly board meeting.)

My new Bandwurmwort has not caught on, and if the culture ministry heard about it, they might take away the pretty certificate I earned by completing an Erasmus summer program there. It is terrible style. But however baroque a 47-letter word may look, any German speaker who read it would have no trouble deciphering what it means.

German compound words are an excellent example of how speaking a new language wires your brain to think differently. Icelandic works the same way, and they even came up with a snappy 22-letter word to describe new words you come up with naturally, on the spot: augnablikssamsetningar, “eye-blink words.” Even if you never learn German, taking a moment to consider different ways you might express a new idea seems like a useful exercise.

Humboldt University of Berlin, my alma mater in Germany. Notably, the statues on its main plaza honour King Friedrich Wilhelm III (its original namesake) in Latin, and the scientist Alexander von Humboldt in Spanish.

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Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets