Sunday, May 16, 2010

German and Me: Those Compound Words

Perhaps the one thing that has occupied more of my mental capacity this year than anything else is dealing with the German language. Now that I’m nearing the end of my time here, I want to spend a few posts covering my linguistic odyssey this year.

The other day at work I joined some colleagues for a seminar for employees called Geschlechtersensible Gesundheitsberichterstattung. As I sat looking at this two-word line of text spanning the width of the introductory Powerpoint slide thinking to myself, “this might actually be interesting,” it suddenly dawned on me: Oh no! I’ve become like them! Ok, I’m a long way from being a real German, much less mastering this nutty language. But I do mean that those terribly long German words that intimidated me for so long have suddenly become routine. During conversations at work, I surprise myself less when a mouthful like Konfliktbewältigungsmaßnahmen (conflict resolution measures) escapes my lips. Like Mark Twain, I have kept a particular eye out for these fantastic words “marching majestically across the page” as though accompanied by banners and music, and also like him, whenever I come across a good one I stash it in my notebook for safekeeping like a museum collects artifacts. I’ve already shared a handful earlier this year, but today I thought I’d share some of the most prized gems from my collection for your linguistic entertainment:

Krebsfrüherkennungsuntersuchung: Cancerearlydiagnosisexam
Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl: Togetherbelongingfeeling, i.e. feeling of solidarity
Fluglärmschutzbeauftragter: Airnoiseprotectionagent, i.e. the bureaucratic office for the protection against air noise in and around German airports
Hochgeschwendigkeitseisenbahnverkehr: highspeedrailwaytransportation, the preferred mode of travel in Germany
Rolltreppenbenutzungshinweise: escalatorusagetips
Leistungsfähigkeitsverstärkung: achievementcapacitystrengthening, or productivity improvement
Fahrtrichtungsanzeiger: drivingdirectionindicator, i.e. turn signal
Adventskranzkerzenanzünder: Adventwreathcandlelighter
Demokratieförderungsreferat: democracypromotionunit, the office I work currently in.
Rüstungsbegrenzungsübereinkunft: armamentlimationaccord
Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher: eggshellshouldbreakpointcauser, or the little hammer some people use to break open their hard-boiled eggs at just the right spot (most normal people just use a spoon)
Fußballweltmeisterschaftsendrundenteilnehmer: soccerworldchampionshipfinalroundparticipant, or World Cup finalist and something the Germans are hoping to achieve next month.

This not to say that I can masterfully comprehend every long compound word in this nutty language. As you can see, if you can successfully break up these jumbles into their composite words and stick an imaginary space in between them, the task isn’t so tough. But there are sometimes words like Erwerbsminderungsrentenzugänge sprinkled into a sentence. What should be like a game of connect-the-dots becomes a linguistic Rubik’s cube requiring about ten minutes of dictionary consultations and other algorithms to decipher. (If my decoding is correct, this word means “reduction in the earning capacity of pension in-flows”. Uggh.)

Sure, it slows down reading. Sure, it's frustrating at times. Nonetheless, like that Rubik’s cube, it’s the simultaneous challenge accompanying that frustration that makes me love these words and thus appreciate the strange beauty of a language that makes such words possible.

PS. Ever wonder what the longest German word is? Check these two out here and here!

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