Why Are German Words So Long?

If you think about it, every long word is just several short words stacked on top of each other in a trench coat.
una imagen de un perro largo para representar las palabras en alemán que son largas

The German language is a lot like a 900-page classical tome — daunting and intimidating to approach, but totally manageable in snack-size pieces. This is in part due to its complex grammar and its four noun cases, but most often, it’s because German is chock full of words that, on their own, seem 900 pages long. Newcomers to the language often ask, “Why are German words so long?” As an informed reader and appreciator of linguistics, you might soon say, “Why shouldn’t they be?”

Why Are German Words So Long?

The shortest and simplest explanation is that German is a linguistic playground that lets you build all sorts of things out of Legos (in this case, Legos are morphemes, or the smallest meaningful unit of language). Morphemes can include prefixes and suffixes — something that we also mix and match quite a bit in the English language. As it so happens, a lot of those prefixes and suffixes come from proto-Germanic.

The process of combining morphemes to make new words is called agglutination. While English is somewhat agglutinative, German does it more. The German language can combine just about any noun into a new word too, even though it’s not fully agglutinative the way Turkish and Japanese are.

Sometimes, the German language will invent new nouns by putting existing nouns together rather than come up with an entirely novel term. Take the word for “glove,” for example. In German, that’s Handschuh, or exactly what it sounds like in English, which is “hand shoe.”

Compared to languages that are widely spoken in the West, German stands out somewhat for its ability to create increasingly complex compound words. Technically, there’s no limit to how long German words can get. German was made to be infinite! As of writing, however, the record for longest German word in common usage, or that made it into the dictionary, stands at 63 characters: Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, the name of a food safety law that was in effect until 2013. This looks like a mouthful, but it’s really just a word-sentence. Broken down into individual parts, that’s Rindfleisch (beef) + etikettierung (labeling) + überwachung (supervision) + aufgaben (tasks) + übertragung (transfer) + gesetz (law). Then, throw a couple S’s in there to make it flow together.

That may explain how German words can get to be so long. But why are German words so long? Well, different rules for different languages. In German, there are no noun clusters, the way you can string nouns together in English as modifying words to describe the final noun. The German solution for this is just to string them all together into a word.

What Is The Longest German Word?

Technically, there is no “longest German word” because German words are potentially infinite. As explained above, the longest “official” word in German, in the sense that you could find it in a dictionary, is Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, weighing in at 63 letters long.

This likely takes the top spot on any list of top 10 long German words. Here are a couple other solid contenders.

Some Solid Contenders For The Top 10 Long German Words

Schlittschuhlaufen (18 letters)

Translation: ice skating

das Fingerspitzengefühl (19 letters)

Translation: the fingertip feeling (meaning: tactfulness; an intuitive flair or instinct)

Streichholzschächtelchen (24 letters)

Translation: little match box 

Fünfhundertfünfundfünfzig (25 letters)

Translation: five hundred fifty-five.

This may also be among the most difficult German words to pronounce, but don’t be intimidated — just break it down: Fünf + hundert + fünf + und + fünfzig

Nahrungsmittelunverträglichkeit (31 letters)

Translation: food intolerance

Arbeiterunfallverischerungsgesetz (33 letters)

Translation: occupational accident insurance law

Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften (39 letters)

Translation: insurance companies that provide legal protection

Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitaenswitwe (49 letters)

Translation: widow of a Danube Steamboat Company captain

Vermögenszuordnungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung (55 letters)

Translation: asset allocation responsibility transfer regulation

Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (63 letters)

Translation: beef labeling supervision task transfer law

Looking for more German lessons?
Try Babbel