The German language is famous for some really long nouns (Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän comes to mind). 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. You could call it the German language’s lego brick-like quality, or Legosteineigenschaft (see what I just did there?).
But why does German rely on such an elaborate process to name things as simple as squirrels? When broken down into their separate components, the names of familiar animals mutate into bizarre new creatures.
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, where Tier – the word for animal – is preceded by a word describing that animal’s “super power”.
- Stinktier – stink animal (skunk)
- Faultier – lazy animal (sloth)
- Gürteltier – belt animal (armadillo)
- Murmeltier – mumbling animal (groundhog)
- Schnabeltier – beak animal (platypus)
- Maultier – mouth animal (mule)
- Trampeltier – trampling 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:
- Schildkröte – shield toad (tortoise)
- Waschbär – wash bear (raccoon)
- Nacktschnecke – naked snail (slug)
- Fledermaus – flutter mouse (bat)
- Seehund – sea dog (seal)
- Tintenfisch – ink fish (squid)
- Truthahn – threatening 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.
- Schweinswal – pig whale (porpoise)
- Seeschwein – sea pig (dugong).
Not to be confused with the Seekuh, or sea cow, known in English as a manatee.
- Stachelschwein – spike pig (porcupine).
The English word is actually just as literal; porcupine sounds a lot like “pork spine”.
- Wasserschwein – water pig (capybara)
- Meerschweinchen – ocean 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.
- little oak horn: Eiche (oak tree) + Horn (horn) + -chen (little)
- oak croissant: Eiche (oak tree) + Hörnchen (croissant)
- 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.