The German Animal Names Flowchart

Animal names in German can be both funny and bizarre due to their lego-like construction. This flowchart shows why.
September 24, 2019
The German Animal Names Flowchart

Why does German rely on such an elaborate process to name things as simple as squirrels? When German animal names are broken down into their separate parts, the names of familiar animals mutate into bizarre new creatures.

The German language is famous for some really long nouns. This is because German nouns, verbs, prepositions and adjectives are like lego bricks — you can stick them together in almost any way to create new words that encapsulate new concepts. This gives the language a special ability to name just about anything, including animals. You could call it the German language’s lego brick-like quality, or Legosteineigenschaft (see what I just did there?).

The Uncanny X-Tiere

Comics are full of heroes with names like super, wonder, iron, ultra, bat or cat followed by -man, -woman, -girl or -boy. A lot of German animal names work the same way. Tier, the German word for animal, is often preceded by a word describing that animal’s “super power.”

  • Stinktierstink animal (skunk)
  • Faultierlazy animal (sloth)
  • Gürteltierbelt animal (armadillo)
  • Murmeltiermumbling animal (groundhog)
  • Schnabeltierbeak animal (platypus)
  • Maultiermouth animal (mule)
  • Trampeltiertrampling animal (bactrian camel).
    The verb trampeln means to trample or tread upon, whereas the noun Trampel is a clumsy oaf.

Sometimes suffixes get more specific than -tier, but still tend to describe the wrong animal:

  • Schildkröteshield toad (tortoise)
  • Waschbärwash bear (raccoon)
  • Nacktschneckenaked snail (slug)
  • Fledermausflutter mouse (bat)
  • Seehundsea dog (seal)
  • Tintenfischink fish (squid)
  • Truthahnthreatening chicken (turkey).
    Trut is onomatopoeic for the trut-trut-trut cluck of a turkey, but it’s also been hypothesized that the name comes from the Middle German droten which means “to threaten.”

No, I’m Pretty Sure That’s A Pig

Swine seem to be a popular yardstick in German animal taxonomy.

  • Schweinswalpig whale (porpoise)
  • Seeschweinsea pig (dugong).
    Not to be confused with the Seekuh, or sea cow, known in English as a manatee.
  • Stachelschweinspike pig (porcupine).
    The English word is actually just as literal; porcupine sounds a lot like “pork spine”.
  • Wasserschweinwater pig (capybara)
  • Meerschweinchenocean piglet (guinea pig).
    The ending -chen denotes something small. Add it to the end of Schwein and you get a little pig, or piglet. Since the stems Meer and Wasser are often interchangeable, it’s most likely that Meerschweinchen actually means little capybara.

Just Plain Weird

I’d like to end this list by giving one animal a category all to itself, the humble Squirrel.

Eichhörnchen:

  • little oak horn: Eiche (oak tree) + Horn (horn) + -chen (little)
  • oak croissant: Eiche (oak tree) + Hörnchen (croissant)

alternate names:

  • Eichkätzchen (regional name) and Eichkatzerl (Austria) – oak kitten

Calling a squirrel a tree kitten is reasonably literal, but where does little oak horn come from? It seems that the answer comes down to a misplaced h: Eichhörnchen comes from the Old and Middle German eichorn, which has nothing to do with oak trees or horns. In this case, the eich comes from the ancient Indo-Germanic word aig, which means agitated movement, combined with the now obsolete suffix -orn. Somewhere in history a superfluous H was added (along with the diminutive -chen ending) but the original meaning remained.

Today, Hörnchen is a category of rodents that includes all squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, prairie dogs and flying squirrels.

Want to get more in-depth with these animal names? Check out this video which gives a tutorial on how to fit German word blocks together.

Animal names in German flowchart | Babbel

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John-Erik Jordan
John-Erik was born in Los Angeles and grew up in a suburb named after Tarzan (yes, really). He's lived in Berlin since 2009 and has been Babbel Magazine's managing editor since 2015. Most of his free time is taken up by unhealthy obsessions with science fiction, tabletop games and the Dodgers.
John-Erik was born in Los Angeles and grew up in a suburb named after Tarzan (yes, really). He's lived in Berlin since 2009 and has been Babbel Magazine's managing editor since 2015. Most of his free time is taken up by unhealthy obsessions with science fiction, tabletop games and the Dodgers.

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