The German language has a pretty special ability: nouns, verbs, prepositions and adjectives can be stuck together like lego bricks to create new words that describe new things. With German you can invent a name for just about anything. Call it the language’s lego brick-like quality, or Legosteineigenschaft (see what I just did there?).
But do you really need such an elaborate process to name things as simple as skunks and seals? When broken down into their separate components, the names of familiar animals mutate into interesting new creatures.
So let’s grab some word bricks and see what happens when we stick them together. A good first piece would be Tier – the German word for animal. Putting other nouns or adjectives in front of Tier will determine what kind of animal it becomes.
If it smells bad (stinken) then it’s a Stinktier (skunk). Put a belt (Gürtel) on it and you get a Gürteltier (armadillo). If it has a beak (Schnabel), but isn’t a bird, then it must be a Schnabeltier (platypus). An animal that tramples around (trampeln) sounds like it should be called a Trampeltier (bactrian camel), don’t you think? And if the animal is lazy (faul) then it’s just a good-for-nothing Faultier (sloth).
Call It Like You See It
But not every animal is just a “___tier”. German has some basics like Bär (bear), Kröte (toad), Hund (dog), Fisch (fish), Maus (mouse) and Schnecke (snail). Things start to get weird when other German words get stuck onto these bases in order to describe totally different animals.
So if in Germany and you find yourself face-to-face with a little bear that is meticulously washing (waschen) its food in a creek – you can simply describe it as a Waschbär (raccoon). The same applies if you see:
- a toad with a shield (Schild) on its back — Schildkröte (tortoise)
- a dog in the sea (See) — Seehund (seal)
- a fish that squirts ink (Tinte) — Tintenfisch (squid)
- a mouse that’s fluttering (flattern) around — Fledermaus (bat)
- a naked (nackt) snail — Nacktschnecke (slug).
When A Pig Is Not Just A Pig
The only lego-brick-word used as often as Tier seems to be Schwein, the German word for pig.
If an animal is about halfway between the size of a pig and the size of a whale (Wal) then it’s a Schweinswal (porpoise), which is totally different from other pig-like things in the sea (See) like the Seeschwein (dugong). The Capybara hangs out in water (Wasser) and since there aren’t many animals you can use to describe the worlds biggest rodent, they’ve been dubbed Wasserschwein in German.
This may explain why the Capybara’s miniature cousin, the guinea pig, has become known as a Meerschweinchen or ocean piglet – since ocean (Meer) and water are sometimes used interchangeably. When you consider that the suffix -chen denotes something small, Meerschweinchen is like calling a guinea pig a little capybara — which makes at least a little more sense than describing this Andean rodent as a pig from Guinea (sorry English, you lose that round).
But not all “____schwein” are benign and cuddly. A pig covered in spikes (Stacheln) roams the American woodlands, although you probably call a Stachelschwein a porcupine. Come to think of it, the English word almost sounds as if it follows the German rule for animal names; doesn’t porcupine sound a lot like pork spine?
If the logic behind this naming system is tying your head in knots as you learn German, consult this handy flowchart that organizes all of the above animals according to how their German names are constructed.