Germans lose their longest word

June 3, 2013 • 4:27 pm

The German language is known for its jawbreakingly long words, and I mastered a few of them when I was learning the language. One I remember (I hope this is right) is Feuerversicherungsgesellschäften, or “fire insurance companies.” But according to The Independent, there are even longer ones, and the longest has just been deep-sixed:

It has 63 letters and would span more than four Scrabble boards, but is no more after a change in EU law.

The word, abbreviated to RkReÜAÜG (and reproduced at the bottom of this article to avoid page display problems!) means “beef-labelling monitoring assessment assignment law” and was conceived in 1999 in the wake of the BSE crisis. Now Brussels has relaxed testing rules and the law has been ditched, along with RkReÜAÜG.

Where does that leave a language fond of words so long they require a sip of water to get through? The longest word in Duden, the German dictionary, is Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung (36 letters; “motor-vehicle liability insurance”) but Guinness World Records also records Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften (39 letters; “insurance firms providing legal protection”).

What’s was longest word, though? Get a load of this:

Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz

78 thoughts on “Germans lose their longest word

  1. Ha ha I saw this today. My favourite German word is Haferschleim…it’s not long, but it’s apt. Klugscheißer comes second.

    1. I think Germans must have phenomenal working memories. Besides trying to remember what the heck is going on with this word when someone says it, remembering everything that was discussed in a long sentence before the verb shows up is impressive. Since I seem to be low in “RAM” I have to wonder if my German speaking ancestors came off as slow 😀

      1. >I think Germans must have phenomenal
        > working memories

        Sorry to disappoint, but all I can remember after reading this news item 5 times today is something with Rind…

        😀

  2. It’s always seemed to me that these supposed “long” words are just a form of cheating because they’re compounds – we could have equally long words if hyphens could legitimately glue two or more words into one. Candidates for “longest word” ought to be indivisible.

    1. If you ever visit Wales I advise you not to discuss their language

      Large patriotic Welsh rugby players may not agree with you 🙂

        1. You mean, the altercation at Rorkes’s Drift between the uDloko, uThulwana, inDlondo and inDluyengwe forces and the 24th Regiment of Foot, popularly known by their later name as the South Wales Borderers, was primarily an eisteddfod of sorts? 🙂

      1. As a disestablishmentarian of Welsh heritage… actually, I think I might keep quiet on my view of just munging compound words together.

    2. Is ‘agglutinative’ the correct term? I remember the ‘Mammal Research Institute’ at the Uni of Pretoria is ‘Soogdiernavorsingsinstituut’, and I am sure Afrikaans has much longer examples – these long words are only really scary in unknown languages

      1. And rather delightfully, the literal translation is “suck-animal-research-institute”.

        Whereas “mammal” is just Latin for “breasty”.

        1. One thing with German is at least their words make sense in that they are directly relatable to the speaker. English has a lot of Latin in it (1066) and that results in two things from my experience: 1) a distancing from the meanings of our words 2) hilarity when we see German words that don’t do that. My big moment of anagnorisis came when I learned the German word for television (Fernsehen)….I thought this was funny when I learned it but since I was also studying Latin I realized television meant the same thing.

          Another example is a friend and I laughing really hard when we saw the word Krankenwagen for ambulance (and it makes more sense – sick vehicle vs what, “something that takes you somewhere because you can’t walk” in French probably through Latin??).

          It was also through learning German that I realized it isn’t my fault my spelling sucks in English – I can spell perfectly in German so it’s my native English language that is defective, not me 🙂

          1. 1. But we can laugh when historical mistakes are transparent in the German. For ex., oxygen is Sauerstoff, in the mistaken belief that it’s present in all acids. The same mistake is enshrined in the English word as well, but it’s opaque to those with no Classical inclination.

            2. Re “ambulance” being “something that takes you somewhere because you can’t walk”:

            World Wide Words: The
            original was the late-eighteenth-century French “hôpital ambulant”, literally “walking hospital”, a horse-drawn vehicle that we would now call a mobile field hospital, taken to a battle to give rapid help to the wounded. This gave rise to “chariot d’ambulance” and “voiture d’ambulance” and at the end of the nineteenth century to the French “ambulance” in its modern sense of a civil emergency vehicle. The English word, initially meaning a vehicle with which to transport wounded away from the battlefield, was borrowed from “voiture d’ambulance” by the British army fighting alongside the French in the Crimean War.

            /@

      2. From what I know, “agglutinative” is not used for compounding or compound formation, athough the word could be used to describe the process (sticking together). The word “agglutinative languages” refers to the way suffixes, prefixes and infixes are derived in grammatical particles such as declensions in these languages.

        Agglutinative languages have signals or syllables for indicating different grammatical aspects, like gender, case aspect, number etc. and the suffixes are formed by using rules, sticking them together. These languages can theoretically have any amount of cases and case ending combinations and invent new ones if needed.

        Since this method yields sometimes long words, common combinations have fused into forms that are shorter and have to be memorized, as in most Indo-European languages. This gives a fixed number of cases and case endings. These are non-agglutinative or fusional languages.

        Both have advantages and disadvantages, and fusional languages can become agglutinative (more flexibility to adopt new paradigms) and vice versa (faster to speak, less effort).

        I’m not a linguist though (work on bioinfomatics and molecular simulation), so I may be wrong.

      1. Compounds can also be created for satiric effect. E.g., “Groschengrab” (“dime grave”) for parking meter.

        Don’t recall at the moment where I first saw that.

    3. That is correct, these long words are really compound words. In English they would have spaces or hyphens between all the different parts; in German the punctuation is omitted. “Schadenfreud”, for example, is such a compound word.

      In principle there is probably no limit to how long you can make a word, at least until you exhaust a good supply of the common German words.

    4. And we have plenty of similar long words in chemistry or medicine. They don’t count as real, though, I guess.

      My goats once suffered from polioencephalomalacia, e.g.–just the first thing that came to mind…not very long by chem/med standards.

  3. “The longest acceptable Finnish word is

    lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas

    (according to the Finnish edition of Guinness Book of Records) which has 61 characters and translates approximately to technical warrant officer trainee specialized in aircraft jet engines. This word has actually been in use in the Finnish Air Force.”

    http://www.finnsnw.org/etc.html

    1. I was going to suggest that the Finnish language has some monster ‘words’ using a similar technique but you beat me to it and with an example. Funny thing is there are a few towns in Finland with some monster names as well.

  4. I’m guessing it’s no coincidence that they all have to do with law or insurance (or both).

  5. Philosophy has some hum-dingerlyish words. One of my profs in grad school was well schooled in German philosophy and he made a point of making up a word in all his articles… which we had to hear in seminars. We knew it was coming when he started smirking.

    One of the older profs once commented after the Reading: “I would be happy to offer the author some tips on writing concise English.”

    The old guy retired, and the Germanwordinventingishassistantprof has moved up to a big-time Ivy League job

    1. ahhhh if I’d known it would look at first glance as if I’d called him an asshat I’d have squeezed that word in intentionally!

    2. Ha ha I had to read an excerpt of Kafka’s The Bridge as an exercise and I couldn’t figure out why it was so confusing….well, it was Kafka in GERMAN! Ahhhhh! I’ve been traumatized most in language classes.

      1. One day at the U.N. a German diplomat was giving a speech, and the American was listening to simultaneous live translation through headphones. Suddenly the headphones went silent, but the speech kept going and going and going… so the American whispered “is this thing still on?” The translator answered “I’m waiting for the verb”

        1. Perfect! You’re wondering the whole time what is happening, it’s like the ultimate language for suspense!

          1. When Confederate armies conquered the formerly Savoyard region of Vaud in 1476, in the wake of the Burgundy wars that saw the defeat and death of the Duke of Burgundy, Charles le Téméraire, the fortress of Estavayer opposed brave but unwise resistance to the Bernese-led forces. The garrison and burghers were beheaded. A cleric who had taken part in the defence of his city was about to meet the same fate. Out of deference for his status, he was granted a last wish. The cleric asked for a reprieve, saying he would dearly love to learn the German language before meeting his maker.

            He died of old age.

        2. ladyatheist,

          A friend of mine once served as life translator for a group of Mexicans visiting our town in Germany. He lived through precisely the same situation when he was supposed to translate the mayor’s welcoming speech.

          I guess it is more likely to happen in politicians’ speeches than in everyday language…

  6. Until 2007, the longest legal term in German was:
    Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmigungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung
    (Ordinance on the transfer of competence regarding approval of real estate trading).

    The current record holder, Verkehrsinfrastrukturfinanzierungsgesellschaft (Society for the financing of transport infrastructure) is comparatively transparent.

    In pre-war Austria, the legendary “Association for subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services” set its own record:
    Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft.

    The Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache outdid itself, and everybody else, with its ironic
    Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetzesentwurfsdebattierklubdiskussionsstandsberichterstattungsgeldantragsformular
    the translation of which I leave as an exercise to the reader.

  7. Even long English words come up fairly short in German. The German translation of Mary Poppins’ supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is Superkalifragilistischexpiallegetisch
    (Super did not become “uber”?? Guess they didn’t want even the faintest echo of Naziism.)

    And oddly, the Germans do NOT(!!) have a single word for “antidisestablishmentarianism”. It is routinely translated as “Gegenbewegung zur Trennung der Kirche vom Staat”

    1. Deutsch ist einfach. I had the best time learning German. So much, that when I was in high school, I spent some of that time in the hall. I was better behaved in university.

    2. Saki enthusiasts will recall the terrible fate of the professor who taught the cat Tobamory English when he turned to teaching an elephant German.

  8. My native language, Malayalam uses a similar technique for creating new words by compounding words which is allowed by grammar. I believe it could be borrowed from Sanskrit. A smaller e.g., an electric switch is called (transcribed with camel cased to show word boundaries)
    “VaydyutaGamanaAgamanaNiyanthranaYanthram”
    This was a big thing during 70s and 80s, but have gone back to using either shorter words or the English words directly. I think the reason for abandoning the creation of longer and longer words was prompted by the desk top publishing industry which has a considerably influence in the progress of language.

    Does any one know if the German practice of compounding words is orginiated from the root Indo-European language?

    1. I do not know for sure, but in Dutch there is a similar practice of compounding long words. However, on average there are a quite shorter than german words. The longest Dutch word is however: kindercarnavalsoptochtvoorbereidingwerkzaamhedencommitteeleden. Which is as long as the longest words in german.

      1. “kindercarnavalsoptochtvoorbereidingwerkzaamhedencommitteeleden”

        Has to be

        “kindercarnavalsoptochtvoorbereidingswerkzaamhedencommissieleden”

        There is an Anglicism in the first version.

        1. You might be right, I heard this particular word yesterday on the radio (on the topic of the longest german word, so they decided to recall the longest dutch word). Quite possible that the DJs has made a mistake. Thanks for correcting.

    2. According to standard classification, Dravidian languages like Malayalam are truly *agglutinative*: morphemes are joined.
      Indo-European languages (including Sanskrit and the modern Indo-Aryan family, probably Proto-Indo-European, and very conspicuously, German), tend to be *fusional*: morphemes are overlayed.
      The distinction is not always sharp, and fusional languages may well derive from agglutinative ones.
      The only truly agglutinative Indo-European language that I know of is Armenian.

      Your remark about the influence of desktop publishing on the structure of the language is highly interesting and intriguing.

      1. The example cited by bamboodreams is 100% Sanskrit (loaned into Malayalam). Vaedyuta-Gamana-Aagamana-Niyantraṇa-Yantram (electricity-going-coming-control-device) which actually sounds silly to me. No wonder such words were deprecated. Also, have a look at this for amusement : http://hellenisteukontos.blogspot.com/2010/03/what-is-longest-word-of-sanskrit.html

        After reading a bit of wiki, my understanding is that what you state here should be called “synthetic” languages. The “fusional” and “agglutinative” definitions have more to do with how grammatical suffixes or prefixes are formed. Fusional languages have suffixes which cannot be broken up into bits with individual meaning — a syllable for indicating gender, one for number, one for case etc. all stuck together, which is what agglutinative languages are doing. Fusional languages have fixed number of cases, and one needs memory to generate them, while agglutinative languages can theoretically have infinite cases as their formation is regular and rule-based. On the other hand, their suffixes are longer.

  9. I thought the record for German was held by the word for a bicycle puncture repair outfit, but I’m obviously wrong.

    How about English? I think it may be

    antidisestablishmentarianistically, meaning

    “In the manner of someone who wants the Anglican Church to remain the state church of England”

    but a contender is

    floccinaucinihilipilification

    “The action or habit of estimating something’s worth as being less than that of a ball of fluff”

    Of course it would be another matter if we were required to find examples of the words actually being used, without any comment on their length.

  10. Haha, that’s nothing! I give you this 130-letter monstrosity (longest Swedish word, according to respected by questionable sources):

    Nordvästersjökustartilleriflygspaningssimulatoranläggningsmaterielunderhållsuppföljningssystemdiskussionsinläggsförberedelsearbeten.

    (I’m just translating it roughly: north-west sea coastal artillery aircraft monitoring simulator compound material maintenance follow-up system discussion input preparation work.)

    But that’s gibberish, of course. As mentioned by previous commenters, the longest word ought to be a proper word that cannot be split into component words. If compound words are accepted, the above word could well be added to ad infinitum.

    Longest word in the Word list of the Swedish Academy is: realisationsvinstbeskattning (28 letters). (Capital gain taxation.)
    Still a compound word, though. But that’s how the Scandinavians and Germans do it. 😉

    1. Oh dear… ‘Respected by questionable sources’ should read: ‘respected BUT questionable sources’ (i.e. the Guinness Book of World Records).

  11. Such official lists list only those words which were published somewhere etc. There are certainly longer words. Some do arise as a game to find a long word, such as Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänslebensversicherungskaufmannsausbildungsplatzsuchender (the first 8 letters are an official word and often used as an example of a long word). The longest word I have seen in print which was not part of a game was a sign in a government building directing one to the office for Staatsangehörigkeitsangelegenheiten (matters of citizenship, i.e. naturalization etc).

  12. I consider these long words, the Umlaut and the three genders an appropriate revenge for the TH. 😉 Those two sounds are hard to pronounce for a lot of Germans.

  13. Speaking of German philosophy anyone who has tried to read the philosophy of Hegel or his followers will appreciate the comment attributed (probably wrongly) to Bertrand Russell:

    “Since German capitalizes all its nouns, German philosophers tend to think they’re talking about Something when they talk about Nothing.”

  14. I don’t understand why people get so worked up about long words in German or Finnish. Basically it does not make a lot of difference whether you say

    ABCDEF

    or

    A of B for C-D of E of F

    What I find more interesting is that languages have very different numbers of sounds, and that those with very few sounds (Polynesian) are forced to use very long words with lots of repeated syllables because otherwise they would simply not have enough different words.

  15. It’s just the way Germans write compound words. English has equally long compounds, but they just don’t write them together.

    1. Quite!
      The only difference between English and German is in the spelling.

      “Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung” and “motor-vehicle liability insurance” follow EXACTLY the same pattern.

      1. Right, and spaces between words are arbitrary – they do not correspond (except for effect) to any property of the signal. (This is why a language one doesn’t understand sounds fast.)

        That said, I think the languages like Inuktitut, which put together more parts of speech, have a better case for saying they have “long words” …

  16. If it’s jawbreaking, ur doin it rong.

    Agglutination, if that is the term, is very practical in languages that can distinguish between similar things, for example in swedish:

    mosters farfar – the father of father, grandfather, of my mother’s sister

    mosters farmor – the mother of father of my mother’s sister

    It is spoken as separate words, or as near as you wish, but spelled and understood as clumps by aggregations.

      1. FWIW, yes, what’s being discussed here is (mostly) not agglutination. That’s only the correct term when the particles being glued together cannot stand alone as independent words, but only have meaning as modifiers in that particular context – as in e.g. Turkish and Finnish. Real Linguists[TM] have a different term for this Germanic habit of running entire words together to make noun phrases. They call it “saving wear on the spacebar”.

  17. The longest German word I can remember from school (nearly 40 years ago) is: Hottentottenpotentatentantenattentat – an attempt on the life of an aunt of a Hottentot potentate. But our teacher *might* have been winding us up.

    /@

  18. There was recently a law passed here (in Germany) to make it easier for foreigners here to get a start. To make the country more accessible to outsiders who might otherwise feel overwhelmed by impenetrable bureaucracy, now there’s the Berufsqualifikationsfeststellungsgesetz.

    “Act to improve the assessment and recognition of foreign professional qualifications”

    http://www.bmbf.de/en/15644.php

    (Advice to German Govt: Don’t put a word like that anywhere where foreigners might see it before they get to Germany!)

    I should add that although Germany can be quite unfair in recognizing foreign qualifications, the upside is that it’s illegal to call yourself “Dr” unless you’ve got a real doctorate. The mad Koran-burning pastor, Terry Jones lived in Cologne for a while and was fined €4000 for calling himself Dr when all he had was a doctorate in theology from an unaccredited university!

    1. Another one I came across recently in everyday use was Untersuchungshaftvermeidungseinrichtung.

      It’s basically a home for young offenders. I won’t explain it any more than that, because it would take too long, but any German speaker would immediately know exactly what it is.

  19. Now this will be fun… While I homeschool in most subjects, I do send the child to school for German. I’ve doing this whole pidgin-English-run-together-bit on ‘how hard could German really be?’ over those B+’s for the whole year…

  20. Another one in Dutch. It has a nice ring in it.
    Hottentottententententoonstelling: show of Hottentot tents.

  21. Could this thread be a contender for the ‘longest average word length in an internet discussion thread’? 🙂

  22. Let us not forget…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDPqB9i1ScY

    Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern -schplenden -schlitter -crasscrenbon -fried -digger -dangle -dungle -burstein -von -knacker -thrasher -apple -banger -horowitz -ticolensic -grander -knotty -spelltinkle -grandlich -grumblemeyer -spelterwasser -kürstlich -himbleeisen -bahnwagen -gutenabend -bitte -eine -nürnburger -bratwustle -gerspurten -mit -zweimache -luber -hundsfut -gumberaber -shönendanker -kalbsfleisch -mittler -raucher von Hautkopft of Ulm.

  23. This reminds me of a certain Monty Python sketch about classical music…

    “Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Panties–I’m sorry–Schumann, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Bach. Names that will live for ever. But there is one composer whose name is never included with the greats. Why is it that the world never remembered the name of Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern- schplenden-schlitter-crasscrenbon-fried- digger-dingle-dangle-dongle-dungle-burstein- von-knacker-thrasher-apple-banger-horowitz- ticolensic-grander-knotty-spelltinkle- grandlich-grumblemeyer-spelterwasser- kurstlich-himbleeisen-bahnwagen-gutenabend- bitte-ein-nürnburger-bratwustle-gerspurten- mitz-weimache-luber-hundsfut-gumberaber- shönedanker-kalbsfleisch-mittler-aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm?”

  24. German has strict rules determining where words are divided when they run from one line to the next (perhaps to allow for the long words). ‘Trocken’ for example has to be divided into ‘troc-‘ and ‘ken’, and the ‘c’ has to be changed to a ‘k’, so it becomes ‘trok-‘ and ‘ken’.

    In eBooks, I’ve been seeing regularly ‘trokken’in the middle of lines, so I wonder if the German spelling is in the process of changing.

    Mark Twain once wrote (I think) that it takes an intelligent person 30 days to learn English, 30 weeks to learn French and 30 years to learn German.

  25. My favorite was always “Arbeitsunfähigkeitsbescheinigung,” which translates as a “certificate of unfitness for work” (i.e. a doctor’s note).

  26. What you published made a ton of sense. However, think about this, what if you added a little information?
    I mean, I don’t wish to tell you how to run your website, but suppose you added a title that grabbed folk’s attention?
    I mean Germans lose their longest word Why Evolution Is True is a little plain.

    You ought to peek at Yahoo’s front page and watch how they write news headlines to get people to click. You might add a related video or a picture or two to grab readers interested about everything’ve
    written. In my opinion, it would make your website a
    little bit more interesting.

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