What are German compound nouns, why are they so long, and how do I learn them?
Trying to figure out what’s going on with German compound nouns can be tricky and intimidating, especially when you are new to the language, but it’s usually easy to figure out the meaning of a vocabulary word that you haven’t seen before by breaking it down into its component parts. Don’t forget this is German though, and with all things there are exceptions.
Let’s look at a couple of easy examples first. Now, there are relatively short words such as der Bücherstapel, which is a combination of “die Bücher'' (the books) and “der Stapel” (the pile). In English, we would of course translate this into “the pile of books.”
I want to point out something important here. With compound nouns, the gender will always be the same as the last noun in the word. In the case of “der Bücherstapel,” the noun is masculine because the last word is “der Stapel,” a masculine word. Not so hard right? Take a look at two more examples and see if you notice that pattern.
Let’s start with “das Kopfkissen.” This word literally translates into “the head cushion” and is the German word for pillow. Okay, that makes some sense, German is a logical language after all. What about “die Freizeit?” Something to notice here is that adjectives can also be combined with nouns. In this case the adjective “frei” is combined with the noun “die Zeit” to create “die Freizeit,” meaning “the free time/leisure time.”
Those examples weren’t too hard. Now we’re going to look at two more complicated compound nouns - with pictures of course!
First, “der Zeitraum,” literally translates into “the time room” and means “the time period.” Okay, so maybe you wouldn’t be able to guess that one on a test, but it at least makes some sense and shouldn’t be too hard to remember the next time you see it if you already know the words “die Zeit” and “der Raum.” If you don’t, or you simply want to improve your vocabulary, then check out Learn German with flashcards & spaced repetition | A1 - C2.
Next is “der Zeitgeist,” loosely translated into “the spirit or mood of a particular time period as defined by that era's belief system.” What? Sorry, some German words require a lengthy explanation, as the English language is simply not refined enough to include words like “der Kummerspeck,” which literally means “sorrow bacon” and roughly translates into “the weight gained from overeating as a result of emotional stress.”
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Now the question that must be asked is, is any of this word combining really necessary? Surely there is an easier way to express the German word “Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen.” I hope you will forgive me for not providing a picture for this word, which translates into something like “general state representative assemblies.” In English, we could probably express this word by saying something like “Legislative meetings” or “Meetings of the legislature,” but the inventor of the German language decided we needed to suffer and smashed all four words into one incomprehensible blob.
The difficulty with some of these German compound nouns is not only that they don’t always express a clear idea even if you know the pieces of the word, but also that in the case of a word like “Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen”, you might not know where one word begins and the next word ends, and you’re certainly not going to find the whole word in any dictionary. This can make it somewhat difficult to work out what one of these long compound words means without a lot of effort.
What’s the take away? If you see a big compound word when you are reading German, try to work out the individual parts and see if you can discern the meaning. If you can’t figure out what something means, try a translating tool. I find the free translator DeepL gives me pretty accurate translations in a variety of languages.
Want to learn some common German nouns and improve your ability to understand long compound words? Visit the free German Noun Library | German Noun Genders. Bis zum nächsten Mal!