Compound Words #1: Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaft

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welcome to my first post on German compound words. I want to show and explain some compund words that are either famous or that I encounter in my real life. We German speakers like to make up words whenever we need them. I hope I can give you some insight on how we do it. Making up words is one of my favorite parts of our language - so feel free to create your own German words.

As a not-so-perfect start I realised that compound words are only one way to create new words. There are other ways like derivation or conversion, which are more complicated. I will cover them too... when I find good examples.

In the begining I want to explain how compound nouns work in German. I bet it's similar or comparable in a lot of other languages. The birth of a new compound word is similiar to the birth of Frankensteins monster. Frankenstein took a lot of bodyparts (words), combined them and then he somehow brought them to live. The result is a mons... a word whose meaning is a combination of its parts.

So we take two German words: der Dampf (steam) and das Schiff. We combine them by writing them together, without a space between the parts: Dampfschiff This mons... word has a head, from which it inherits its grammatical properties and in most cases this is where you begin interpreting the word. The head is always the last word in the combination.

So for Dampfschiff the head is Schiff. So it gets the gender and plural from this word:

das Schiffdas Dampfschiff

die Schiffedie Dampfschiffe

You also begin interpreting at Schiff. So Dampfschiff is a ship. And the ship is described more precisely by Dampf. Now we kind of have a little riddle: what's the link between the ship and the steam. It could be that the ship uses a steam engine to move on the water. As opposed to a ship that uses sails (Segel), which then would be a Segelschiff. Or a ship that uses a nuclear reactor, which would be a Atomschiff.

It's a riddle because it could also mean a ship that is made out of steam. As opposed to a ship that is made out of plastic (Plastikschiff) or aluminium (Aluschiff). Maybe it transports steam, as opposed to a ship that transports containers (Containerschiff). So the meaning of a compound word can vary between context.

If you switch them (Schiffdampf), then you have steam, that has something to do with a ship. I don't know what that would be, but at least we know the grammatical properties.

You can also combine a noun with verbs, adjectives, adverbs or prepositions.

fahren (to drive) + der Schüler / die Schülerin (pupil/student) = der Fahrschüler / die Fahrschülerin (someone that learns to drive)

schnell (fast) + das Boot (boat) = das Schnellboot (a boat that can go fast, because it's light and has a strong motor)

rechts (right) + der Verkehr (traffic) = der Rechtsverkehr (the concept that you are supposed to drive on the right side of the road)

neben (next to) + das Zimmer (room) = das Nebenzimmer (a room that is next to another room, so that they share a wall)

Sadly this combinations are not always that easy. Did you note that it's Fahrschüler and not Fahrenschüler? For verbs we drop the ending and keep only the root.

And sometimes we add some letters ("Fugenlaut") to make the words easier to pronounce.

For verbs we sometimes add -e, like in:

baden (to bath) + der See (lake) ≠ der Badsee

baden (to bath) + der See (lake) = der Badesee (a lake where people like to swim)

For nouns we sometimes add -s, -e, -es, -n, -en, -er or -ens, depending on the noun. Most of the time it's -s.

die Geburt (birth) + der Tag (day) = der Geburtstag (birthday)

der Hund (dog) + die Hütte (hut) = die Hundehütte (a small hut for a dog)

der Freund (friend) + der Kreis (circle) = der Freundeskreis (the group of people that are your friends)

die Freude (happiness) + der Sprung (jump) = der Freudensprung (when you are very happy, so you jump)

der Held (hero) + die Tat (action) = die Heldentat (a heroic action, like saving someones live)

das Kind (child) + der Garten (garden) = der Kindergarten (kindergarden)

der Schmerz (pain) + der Schrei (scream) = der Schmerzensschrei (a cry of pain)

Unfortunately there is no rule when to add these letters. My tips would be: we tend to add these when there would be an awkward pause in the pronounciation. Like in Geburttag you would need to somehow pronounce two t-sounds. That would require a 'stop', so we add the s. Maybe you somewhen get a feeling for this.

And there are some words like die Katze (cat) where we almost always add the Fugenlaut: das Katzenklo, die Katzenpfote, das Katzenfutter, die Katzenrasse, das Katzenhaar,...

By the way: der Fugenlaut is a compound word, consisting of die Fuge (the gap) and der Laut (the sound). So it also features a Fugenlaut.

Anyway. Time to look at the compound word of the day.

Today's compound word is a classic:


Despite it's length it's quite easy to interpret, because the meaning is straight forward. When we take it apart we get the following:

(die) Donau - (der) Dampf - (das) Schiff - (die) Fahrt - (die) Gesellschaft

We begin with Gesellschaft, because that's the head. Gesellschaft means society. So what kind of society are we talking about? The next part is Fahrt, meaning ride or journey. Ride-Society. Okay that doesn't make too much sense up to now That's followed by Schiff, meaning ship. So the ride is done by ship. Schifffahrt is a usual term for maritime transport. Dampf is the next clue: So we are only talking about maritime transport by steam powered ships. And last: Donau. That's the German name for the river Danube.

Soo: We have a society that deals with maritime transport via steam powered ships on the river Danube.

Funny thing is: This society did really exists. The "Erste Donau-Dampfschifffahrtsgesellschaft" was founded in 1829 in Austria. Inofficialy the captains of their ships were called (der) Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän.

So some people decided to have some fun by creating even longer compound words, like the (das) Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänskajütenschlüsselloch, where the captain now has a cabin (die Kajüte), which apparently can be locked, because there is a Schlüsselloch (n) (keyhole) to it.

Some words to the last word: (der) Mietplatz, is a combination of mieten (to rent) and (der) Platz (place). So apparently I parked my car on a parking spot that the author rented. I wrote that a part is omitted, because we usually refer to a parking lot as (der) Parkplatz. So it could also be (der) Mietparkplatz.

The author could also have written "Sie parken auf einem Parkplatz, für den ich Miete bezahle.", but the note was too small - so she just dropped a sentence by making up a word.

March 18, 2018

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I love the idea of a regular feature on compound words. Thanks for a terrific beginning (and for throwing in "der Fugenlaut" as an extra treat for us).

If you have the time to go into details, wonderful. But please don't feel you have to do that every single time. You don't want this to turn into a chore for yourself. Those of us who are interested can always do more digging on our own.

Thanks again! Have a few lingots!

March 18, 2018

Schifffahrt - the bane of the rechtschreibung.

March 20, 2018
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It would have been nice if you put articles with some of these nouns so that we could tell the gender.

March 18, 2018

I added all the articles. :)

March 18, 2018

Thanks for the great article! By coincidence I was on Donauinsel in Vienna on the banks of the Danube a few weeks ago and spotted another good compound word on a sign at the Kaisermühlen VIC train station: Fahrtreppenbenutzungshinweise {pl} which means escalator usage instructions. There's lots of examples of such signs on google images if you search for the word there.

March 20, 2018
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