Fuzzy bubbles

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Last Sunday's Get Fuzzy:

As we've often observed, the semantic relationship between the elements of English complex nominals is very variable — consider for example olive oil, hair oil, and midnight oil. But my intuition, FWIW, says that "anger management" can't mean "management of angry people" — and not just because the phrase is already taken for another meaning. (Of course Satchel, who thinks that "jerk chicken" is a job description, is an amusingly unreliable lexicographer.)

Meanwhile, in other nominal news from unreliable sources, Daniel Schaefer in the Financial Times recently warned us about a German compound noun bubble ("The German language goes long"):

At first glance, Germany has avoided the sort of bubbles that have burst elsewhere. There was no house price inflation in a country lacking homeowners. Neither did the nation of savers have a decent credit bubble.

But beware. A dangerous bubble is taking over a country famed for its steadiness. The financial crisis and the notorious German Angst have combined to form an explosive boom: in compound nouns.

This verbal euphoria appears innocent when it comes to words such as Rettungsschirm ("rescue umbrella"), Rettungspaket ("rescue package") or Kapitalspritze ("capital injection"). But it takes on ear-bursting brutality with words such as Abwrackprämie ("scrap premium") – recently offered for trading in old cars to stimulate the automobile industry.

More worryingly, this passion for joining up nouns, albeit unlikely to spread around the world as fast as a subprime mortgage bond, is growing quickly in Germany.

Schaefer's premise is, of course, a silly excuse to poke fun at Germanic compounding, and in particular the German spelling convention of writing many compounds without hyphens or spaces, which people have been finding funny at least since Mark Twain's 1880 essay "The Awful German Language":

In my note-book I find this entry:

July 1.–In the hospital yesterday, a word of thirteen syllables was successfully removed from a patient–a North German from near Hamburg; but as most unfortunately the surgeons had opened him in the wrong place, under the impression that he contained a panorama, he died. The sad event has cast a gloom over the whole community.

That paragraph furnishes a text for a few remarks about one of the most curious and notable features of my subject–the length of German words. Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. Observe these examples:




These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions. And they are not rare; one can open a German newspaper at any time and see them marching majestically across the page–and if he has any imagination he can see the banners and hear the music, too. They impart a martial thrill to the meekest subject. I take a great interest in these curiosities. Whenever I come across a good one, I stuff it and put it in my museum. In this way I have made quite a valuable collection. When I get duplicates, I exchange with other collectors, and thus increase the variety of my stock. Here are some specimens which I lately bought at an auction sale of the effects of a bankrupt bric-a-brac hunter:







Of course when one of these grand mountain ranges goes stretching across the printed page, it adorns and ennobles that literary landscape–but at the same time it is a great distress to the new student, for it blocks up his way; he cannot crawl under it, or climb over it, or tunnel through it. So he resorts to the dictionary for help, but there is no help there. The dictionary must draw the line somewhere–so it leaves this sort of words out. And it is right, because these long things are hardly legitimate words, but are rather combinations of words, and the inventor of them ought to have been killed. They are compound words with the hyphens left out. The various words used in building them are in the dictionary, but in a very scattered condition; so you can hunt the materials out, one by one, and get at the meaning at last, but it is a tedious and harassing business. I have tried this process upon some of the above examples. "Freundshaftsbezeigungen" seems to be "Friendship demonstrations," which is only a foolish and clumsy way of saying "demonstrations of friendship." "Unabhaengigkeitserklaerungen" seems to be "Independencedeclarations," which is no improvement upon "Declarations of Independence," so far as I can see. "Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen" seems to be "General-statesrepresentativesmeetings," as nearly as I can get at it–a mere rhythmical, gushy euphuism for "meetings of the legislature," I judge. We used to have a good deal of this sort of crime in our literature, but it has gone out now. We used to speak of a things as a "never-to-be-forgotten" circumstance, instead of cramping it into the simple and sufficient word "memorable" and then going calmly about our business as if nothing had happened. In those days we were not content to embalm the thing and bury it decently, we wanted to build a monument over it.

As Twain points out, the German morphology, syntax, and sylistics of compounding — relative to English — go beyond mere omission of hyphens and spaces:

But in our newspapers the compounding-disease lingers a little to the present day, but with the hyphens left out, in the German fashion. This is the shape it takes: instead of saying "Mr. Simmons, clerk of the county and district courts, was in town yesterday," the new form put it thus: "Clerk of the County and District Courts Simmons was in town yesterday." This saves neither time nor ink, and has an awkward sound besides. One often sees a remark like this in our papers: "MRS. Assistant District Attorney Johnson returned to her city residence yesterday for the season." That is a case of really unjustifiable compounding; because it not only saves no time or trouble, but confers a title on Mrs. Johnson which she has no right to. But these little instances are trifles indeed, contrasted with the ponderous and dismal German system of piling jumbled compounds together. I wish to submit the following local item, from a Mannheim journal, by way of illustration:

"In the daybeforeyesterdayshortlyaftereleveno'clock Night, the inthistownstandingtavern called 'The Wagoner' was downburnt. When the fire to the onthedownburninghouseresting Stork's Nest reached, flew the parent Storks away. But when the bytheraging, firesurrounded Nest ITSELF caught Fire, straightway plunged the quickreturning Mother-Stork into the Flames and died, her Wings over her young ones outspread."

Even the cumbersome German construction is not able to take the pathos out of that picture–indeed, it somehow seems to strengthen it. This item is dated away back yonder months ago. I could have used it sooner, but I was waiting to hear from the Father-stork. I am still waiting.

Anyhow, I'm afraid that Schaefer has not improved on Twain, even in respect to an alleged compound-length record:

German wordsmiths have long contemplated ways of constructing ever larger compound nouns. A high point came with the coming of Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitän ("Danube steam ship captain"), widely presumed to be the longest compound noun on record.

But Schaefer's Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitän is a paltry 29 letters (or, I think, 28 after the spelling reform). Twain's Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen is 37 letters. A small internet search turns up Fernsprecherteilnehmerverzeichnis, Einhandmotorkettensägenführerlehrgangsteilnahmebestätigung, and a BBC article citing a compound of either 79 or 80 letters, depending on how you count.

The premise of Schaefer's joke — that "this passion for joining up nouns" is "growing quickly in Germany", in a way that's analogous to the housing bubble elsewhere in the world — is too feeble to bother debunking. Still, if I could find a German morph analyzer that did a decent job of detecting compound words, I'd try a quick test of the hypothesis that there's been a recent increase in the number, size or novelty of compound nouns in German texts, just for fun. Who knows, maybe there's really a change in one direction or the other?


  1. greg said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 11:15 am

    With regard to the comic, it seems that Satchel's problem is that he reverses the words. 101 Dalmatians became Dalmatians 101, so Dogs 101, he's interpreting as 101 Dogs. As a result of the pattern Jerk Chicken becomes Chicken Jerk (i.e. jerker of chickens) and French Baker becomes Baker French (i.e. baker of French people). So that's why he switches up Anger Management, which as you said can't be read as Management of Angry people in its normal format.

  2. Ingvar said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 11:51 am

    One of the longer, alleged-to-have-been-printed words in Swedish is the (now defunct) "ecklesiastikministersekreterare" (secretary to the minister of church matters).

  3. Mathias Ricken said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    From all I can tell, it's becoming more common to write compound nouns with a space in between, the so-called "Deppenluecke" or "Deppenleerzeichen" (= "idiot's space"). These compound nouns, for example, would be incorrectly written as "Deppen Luecke" or "Deppen Leer Zeichen".

  4. Trish said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    Mark Twain, the original trend-spotter. I bet he would have supported a hypothesis that there has been an increase in compound nouns — even if his secret intention was only to access research that would enable him to add to his collection.

    Great post.

  5. Mark P said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    I think it might be possible that there has been an overall increase in German compounded words because of the necessity of adding words for new technology and the resulting new descriptive terms. But if that were so, it would probably have started sometime early in the industrial revolution. For example, dampflokomotive for steam engine. I suppose the pace might have accelerated in recent decades.

    Making fun of German language seems a lot like the practice of making fun of bad translations.

  6. Olga said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    A correction for the penultimate paragraph: Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitän had only 28 letters before the spelling reform and 29 after. Before the spelling reform, triple consonants were only allowed of the second part of the compound had an onset of Cr or Cl. Thus, it was Schifffracht (ship freight) but Schiffahrt. Now, it is Schifffracht and Schiffahrt. This rule never made sense to me.

    Regarding how to investigate this: Apart from finding a German speaker with nothing else to do, wouldn't it be possible to test for length of word? If the length of words has increased by an average of 2 or 3 letters in the last 10 years, then there may be a point in claiming that compounds are on the rise.

  7. John Cowan said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    I'm rather fond of Antivereinigenstaatensconstitutionenspirituosenwarenhändler 'bootlegger' myself.

  8. Nathan Myers said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    This seems to deserve a posting of its own: http://www.partiallyclips.com/pclipslite.php?id=1592

  9. Sili said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    I've never heard the word "Deppenleerzeichen" before, but I can attest that it's growing pretty common in Danish. It makes for some difficulty googling, but I suppose it's the way of the furture. I blame English – as does everyone.

    When I last took German (in vain) we wer given a slip of paper with a continuation of the "Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitän" – I think it added in their union's fund for supporting widows and orphans. I cannot reconstruct it, myself, I fear.

    Incidentally, I'm inclined to run English words together, despite knowing it's wrong. It just adds a layer of cohesion to the text to me. Anyway – if Anthony Burgess could do it, so can I!

    As for Satchel's trouble with the English language (he's a dog! for crissake what do you expect?) I liked last weeks prolonged discussion of the cruelty of wrapping up gnomes – queer or not – and giving them to people.

  10. HANSFRANZ said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

    Ihr habt vielleicht Probleme!

  11. bfwebster said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

    OK, now I'm trying to remember the comic observation from somewhere — book, movie, TV, comedy routine — where the (English) speaker describes listening to someone talk very excitedly in German and says, "I could just hear/sense all the verbs piling up at the end of the sentence." Anyone else run across that?

    I do agree that Schaefer's "bubble" column is lame and inaccurate; I studied German some 40 years ago in high school, and I was aware then of the propensity for long compound nouns. ..bruce..

  12. Cale said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

    A 29 letter word is clearly too short to be anywhere near a record. Reading the article I could, off the top of my head, come up with geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung (Speed Limit, 26 letters), and I haven't taken German in something like 8 years. If I can get that without even thinking about it, there are obviously much longer words out there (as many others have cited).

  13. Ulrike said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 4:31 pm

    Schaefer is wrong about "Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitaen" being the longest word in German, of course, but making that word longer and longer is a children's game. That's probably how this particular compound made its way into the piece…
    We used "Oberdonaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitaen" as a basis ("captain for the upper Danube steam boat company") and came up with "the screw on the hook for the cap of an O." and things like that. Fun times.

  14. Ulrike said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

    Btw, a children's game as in "what children play", not as in "child's play" :)

  15. Barry Alpher said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

    Watching a Southern Pacific train pass at a grade crossing (years ago), I saw a car bearing the label

    Rail Fissure Detector Car Tender

    If you apply Bloomfield's definition of the word (non-interruptibility without change of sense, etc.) to this, you are forced to conclude that it is a single word. Whether it is WRITTEN as above or "Railfissuredetectorcartender" is irrelevant.

    There is no limit to the length of the English word.

  16. VR Bass said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

    Regarding your last paragraph: I was part of a team at IBM in the early 1980s that was awarded a patent for software methods of doing just such analysis. This was for a multilingual spellchecker (!); our required error rate was under 1 percent, as I recall. The technique involved scanning the word forwards and backwards and picking off the longest strings that formed valid standalone words, as verified by the rules encoded in the electronic dictionary.

    Using the technique to develop a program to count morphemes should not be terribly difficult, assuming you already have at your disposal a dictionary of valid stem forms and rules for forming valid verbs, plurals, adverbs, etc. from them.

    [(myl) I also once worked on a German morph analyzer. There are a couple of issues beyond what you mention — one is that when two words are combined into a compound, there may be a "linking morpheme" ("Fugenelement") between them. This happens fairly often, and the linking morpheme may not always be one that would occur with the word in isolation. Another issue is that there may be several alternative analyses, at least in principle, for a single string. Thus Stadt+plan+ersatz (town map substitute) vs. Stadt+planer+satz (town planner sentence), or Puffer+bau+stein (buffer module) vs. Puff+erbau+stein (brothel building brick), or gelb+rot (yellow-red) vs. Gel+brot (gel bread). For a recent discussion of some of the issues, see e.g. Torsten Marek, "Analysis of German Compounds Using Weighted Finite State Transducers", BA Thesis, Tübingen, 2006, from which the just-cited examples were taken. ]

  17. Lazar said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

    Regarding long German compound nouns, is it ever hard for German speakers to parse them? I mean, when I see long sequences of English words stuck together like that (whether it's nominal or numeric compounds in imitation of German, or whole phrases or sentences for comedic effect), I have this distinct feeling of graphical intimidation, and it strikes me at first glance as just an impenetrable jumble of letters, and I have to slog laboriously through it in order to read it. Would this difficulty fade if I encountered them more?

  18. chris said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 7:14 pm

    I'd say if there's been any change in German compounding, then it's towards breaking the compounds up. And it's not just due to the "Deppenleerzeichen" mentioned above. That happens, but it's never regarded as correct and (in my experience) only seems to be done by people who don't really know how to write very well. You'll never see it in a reputable newspaper, for example.

    However, what you do see is hyphenation in compounds where no hyphenation seems to be strictly necessary. I'm not entirely sure if this is a new development or not; I seem to recall seeing a reasonable amount of hyphenation in literature from a hundred years ago. But these days I do see things like "Grundgeräte-Nummer" and "Handwerker-Alltag". This seems to be much more acceptable than the Deppenleerzeichen, and yet harder to explain.

    Perhaps English influence again? The huge and growing number of foreign loanwords (mainly from English) also results in increased hyphenation independently, since it is generally preferred to hyphenate a relatively unfamiliar loanword in compounds: "Online-Katalog", "Club-Mitglieder" etc.

    [(myl) This might be the influence of the 1996 German spelling reform (Rechtschreibreform), and the reaction to it. The spelling reform didn't encourage the cited optional hyphenation, as I understand it, but the Wikipedia article cites a rising tide of Beliebigkeitsschreibung:

    In the resulting public debate even the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany was called. In its decision of 14 July 1998,[1] the court stated: Because there is no law governing orthography, outside the schools everybody can spell as they like, including the use of traditional spelling. Those activists who had demanded the ruling of the court now complain about the resulting general insecurity and the rise of Beliebigkeitsschreibung (arbitrary spelling).


  19. RKM said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

    Why can't we just take a reasonably large sample text (say, entire front page of a German newspaper) from 2009, and another one from 10/20/30 years ago (Germany has newspaper archives, right?) and just look at the words/characters ratio (MS Word would be enough)? It should give us a fairly good idea (news items have a lot of nouns).

    I doubt if this kind of problem (semi-serious trendspotting) requires anything more rigorous.

    [(myl) A single newspaper page is not a large enough sample even for semi-serious trendspotting, I think. (Maybe for entirely unserious trendspotting…) But of course there are German newspaper archives, and so you could easily look at the distribution of word lengths in letters. Since there are also quite good German morph analyzers, it wouldn't be much harder to look at the distribution of compound lengths (in letters and in morphemes) over time. I suspect that you would see a secular trend towards a decrease in the frequency of compounds written without hyphens or spaces — only partly because of the spelling reform — but I could well be wrong. ]

  20. Robert Cumming said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 5:22 am

    Being familiar with compounding anarchy in English and Swedish, it would be fun to learn how other languages do this in more, umm, logical or structured ways. If they do, that is…

  21. Pekka said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 5:59 am

    If I may mention a Finnish compound I've seen in actual use, I'll just take a short paragraph to tell you about a little guide that arrived a few weeks back. It said on the front: hyötyjätekeräysaikataulu (hyöty+jäte+keräys+aika+taulu). The word means approximately "a timetable for collection of recyclable materials." It's somewhat noteworthy, because you don't see compounds of five words very often in Finnish, but nothing alarming to us native speakers (readers?).

  22. J said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 6:24 am

    Regarding the Rechtschreibreform's impact on Beliebigkeitsschreibung, I do seem to recall that an important aspect of the reform was increased freedom in spelling (including in school). As such, rules regarding punctuation were relaxed considerably, making many commas optional, e.g.
    I personally did consciously change my writing style, using punctuation in a way that supports the structure of the text and improves readability instead of following arbitrary (and often contradicting) rules. I also use hyphenation much more to enhance the readability of long compound words.

  23. Nightstallion said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 6:38 am

    I can confirm that in general use, it seems that hyphenation and Deppenleerzeichen (incorrect, of course) are becoming more and more common, the latter mostly due the influence of the English language. I've also noticed an increase of Deppenapostrophen, also stemming from English genetive " 's ".

  24. Mark P said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 8:24 am

    Is word compounding getting more common in English?

  25. Chris said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    MRS. Assistant District Attorney Johnson returned to her city residence yesterday for the season.

    On first reading, I didn't spot anything wrong with this, other than the slightly odd emphasis on Mrs.

    Of course, once Twain pointed out the problem, I remembered what time period he was from and his objection made sense. But to a modern reader there's nothing wrong with the sentence itself (although the usage does still seem confined to journalists and Dan Brown).

  26. James D said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 9:19 am

    If all else fails, there's always the Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.

  27. Mark P said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    As I understand it, in Germany the wife of someone with a professional title like doctor or professor is, or used to be, referred to as "Mrs. Doctor Schmidt" or "Mrs. Professor Schmidt." I don't think I have ever heard anyone refer to a spouse in the US in the same way, so I assume that Mrs. Johnson is actually the assistant DA. That makes the usage sound very strange to me.

  28. Joshua said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 1:51 am

    Chris: I agree with Mark P, and furthermore, assuming Mrs. Johnson herself is an assistant DA, I still can't think of any contemporary context in which I would expect to read "Mrs. Assistant District Attorney Johnson."

    In most contexts, it would have to be either "Mrs. Johnson, an assistant district attorney" or "Mrs. Johnson, the assistant district attorney."

    Even if a journalist or Dan Brown type put the occupation first, that writer would phrase it as "Assistant District Attorney Mrs. Johnson."

  29. Per Jørgensen said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    AJP Krøhn, I'm still waiting for you to jump in and point this out: Norwegians are not impressed. We may not be masters of verb combounding, but we're damn close (and we must surely have the Germans reoundly beat at it).

    Obligatory if somewhat ridiculous and not actually used outliers included for mirth and to illustrate the point:


    In actual use: A statistician might use a sannsynlighetsmaksimeringsestimator, a probability maximization estimator, which is a thing much distinct from "sannsynlighets maksimerings estimator," a nonsensical string of words.

    In fact, failing to properly compound your noun would produce an orddelingsfeil — a word|division|mistake — which is very different from "ord delings feil," another nonsensical string of words.

  30. Lugubert said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 8:24 pm

    I once translated a manual for a German Hochleistungspapierhandtuchfalzmachine (high capacity machine for folding paper towels).

  31. Marguerite said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 10:04 am

    Always loved that children's game. When I was in gymnasium (many years ago, and I've been away so long my spelling's rusty), I think the longest we came up with was Freiwilligegabelstaplerfahreraufenthalthsraumkaffekasse (the coffee tin for the off-duty staff lounge for volunteer forklift drivers). Of course, the challenge of it was to have someone, not there when the word was chosen, guess the word by clues to its parts: "not forced," "not knife," etc.

  32. Marguerite said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    Ah, and as for whether or not Germans have difficulty with it — only if it's a pun, and can (generally intentionally — as with puns) be read in multiple ways. So, no more difficulty than English speakers have with hyphenated words (especially when spoken — just yesterday saw someone write about "bad-ass pants" and then clarify that he couldn't tell from the picture whether or not they were also "bad ass-pants").

  33. GAC said,

    February 8, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    I could make similar jokes about Chinese. This is probably partly because of my limited skill in the language, but it's not all that uncommon that I'll try to look up a word I don't know only to find that those characters put together aren't actually a word. That's not compounding, though, just the fact that Chinese has no spaces to begin with (and a syntactic structure that can obscure word boundaries a bit).

    And then, of course, 成语 (cheng2yu3 — idioms) are often treated as words in and of themselves, with separate entries in the dictionaries (rather than under the entry for a key word, as I find in Spanish bilingual dictionaries).

    I often wonder if there are Chinese spellcheckers. Ubuntu's pinyin IME has "Smart Pinyin" settings that can accomodate various dialect pronunciations (particularly common ones like s/sh confusion) but I've never seen anything that corrects characters after you actually put them down.

    Rambling on about unrelatedness ….

  34. Aaron Davies said,

    February 9, 2009 @ 10:52 am

    @marguerite: xkcd on mishyphenating infix "ass"

  35. Aaron Davies said,

    February 9, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    @everyone: twain's "translation" reminds me of himmler's dialog in the pythons' "mr. hilter".

  36. Aaron Davies said,

    February 9, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    @chris, mark, joshua: twain's usage is incredibly archaic, but still shows up occasionally in etiquette columns, etc., which may happily inform you that dr. smith's wife is indeed mrs. dr. smith. ("dr. & mrs. smith" as an address for the couple as a unit is rather more common, relatively, of course.)

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