A German mouthful bites the dust
BERLIN -- Some German words, as Mark Twain observed in despair, seem not to be words at all but “alphabetical processions.” He would have been delighted to hear that Germany’s longest official word has just become obsolete, ironically, at the stroke of a pen.
Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, the 63-letter title of a law regulating the testing of beef, has vanished from the language after the law was repealed by a regional parliament.
In German, complex ideas are frequently captured by bolting together short nouns. At its best, that brings a degree of simplicity to the language. For example, Germans say platzangst -- literally, space fear -- rather than the borrowed Greek of “claustrophobia,” or the word dreirad -- three wheel -- when an English speaker would say “tricycle.”
At its worst, the tendency to hang an extra noun onto the existing one can leave the language a jumble of seemingly endless compound nouns. In his 1880 essay “That Awful German Language,” Twain describes these nouns as “a great distress to the new student.”
In everyday use, such nouns often have to be reduced to abbreviations. The beef-labeling law, introduced in 1999 to protect consumers from “mad cow disease” and withdrawn after a European Union recommendation was lifted, was rendered -- for “short” -- as the RkReÜAÜG.
Linguists regarded the beef-labeling law as a legitimate word because it appeared in an official text, but it never actually entered the dictionary because compilers of the standard German dictionary, Duden, judge words for inclusion based on their frequency of use.
The longest word with a dictionary entry, according to Duden, is Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung -- motor vehicle liability insurance -- at 36 letters. Despite the hyphen, it is a single noun; a 1996 reform of German orthography allowed the hyphenation of very long words.
The language’s lengthy compound nouns have, inevitably, acquired their own compound noun: They are known as bandwurmwörter, or “tapeworm words.”
One of the most famous examples for German high school students is Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän -- Danube steamship company captain -- which features in the chorus of an Austrian song from the 1930s. The word, which boasts 42 letters, has become the subject of a series of attempts to make it even longer, through coinages such as Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänswitwe, the captain’s widow, and Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitänsmütze, the captain’s hat.
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