Other Tools in Word-Formation


Separable Prefixes

Inseparable Prefixes

Augmentative Prefixes

Nouns from Strong Verbs

Nouns from Verbs with

Adjectives and Adverbs
  from Verbs with


Grammar Review Home

Dartmouth German
    Studies Department

  Election Notice.

Word Formation in German:

German can create new words with a variety of tools, including suffixes, separable prefixes, inseparable prefixes, and various ways of deriving nouns from strong verbs, nouns from verbs with separable or inseparable prefixes, or adjectives and adverbs from such verbs.

  Nature Preserve.

The Compound Noun:

Like English, German also offers the possibility of combining of words, especially nouns. The resulting noun chains in English typically feature spaces or hyphens between the different elements, while German ones normally appear as one word. The German penchant for creating complex compound nouns has long been the stuff of comedy. Mark Twain devotes part of his essay on The Awful German Language to these "curiosities," and many people are familiar with ones like "der Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän" (the Danube Steamship Navigation Company Captain).

The basic German compound word, like its English relation, consists of two vocabulary items, although longer chains are possible. Take the example: "die Sprachschule." The second element, "Schule", is called the "primary word" (das Grundwort), and it designates the larger set (in this case, schools) of which the compound noun is a part. It also establishes the gender and the plural form of the compound noun. The first item "Sprach", is called the "determiner", or "determinative element" (das Bestimmungswort). It designates the subset of the category that the primary word defines. Thus a "Sprachschule" is a school that teaches languages.

This list of provided cleaning services illustrates some of the possibilities that employ the primary word, Reinigung ("cleaning"):

  Cleaning of business and medical offices
Glass surface cleaning
Staircase cleaning
Thorough cleaning
Janitorial cleaning
Doormat service
Building site clearance and final cleaning
Carpet and textile cleaning

As some of the above examples show, the two parts of the compound may also have a connecting element (die Fuge) that can have various forms:

[no connecting element]: "der Arbeitgeber" (employer); "der Arbeitnehmer" (employee);"der Autofahrer" (driver); "der Briefträger" (postman, letter-carrier); "das Gasthaus" (inn); "die Handfläche" (palm of the hand); "der Hausbesitzer" (home-owner); "die Jugendsünde" (youthful folly); "das Muttersöhnchen" (mamma's boy); "das Trinkgeld" (tip).

["-e-"]: "hundemüde" (dog-tired); "die Mausefalle" (mousetrap); "der Pferdestall" (horse stable); "das Schweinefleisch (pork); "das Wartezimmer" (waiting room).

["-n" or "-en"]: "das Backpfeifengesicht" (a face that makes you want to slap it); "das Bauernbrot (farmhouse bread); "das Freudenhaus" (brothel); "die Gedankenfreiheit" (freedom of thought); "der Kettenraucher" (chain-smoker); "der Tintenkleks" (inkblot).

["-ens"]: "die Herzensgüte" (goodness of heart); "das Friedensabkommen" (peace agreement); "das Schmerzensgeld" (compensation for pain and suffering).

["-er"]: "der Bilderrahmen" (picture frame); "der Geisterfahrer" (wrong-way driver).

["-s-" or "-es-"]: "das Arbeitstier" (eager beaver; workaholic); "der Freundeskreis" (circle of friends); "geistesgestört" (deranged); "der Glückspilz" (lucky fellow); "der Gottesdienst" (church service); "die Jahreszeit" (season [of the year]); "das Landesgeld" (domestic currency); "der Liebeskummer" (lover's grief, heart-sickness); "die Staatspolizei" (state police); "das Tageslicht" (daylight); "der Verbesserungsvorschlag" (suggestion for improvement); "das Verhütungsmittel" (contraceptive); "das Verkehrsamt" (tourist office).
mobile phone accessories Which of our four seasons do you most look forward to?

While these compounds are normally written as a single word, hyphenated forms occasionally appear in new coinages:

"Berlin-Kenner" (someone who knows Berlin); "der Balkon-Raucher" (a man who goes out onto the balcony to smoke); "der Cyber-Diebstahl" (cyber-theft), "die E-Mail" (e-mail), "der Jeans-Bügler" (a man who irons his jeans).
  All the best with a cold • With throat-, head-, and joint-pains • With sniffles • Alleviates throat-tickle • With an extra portion of vitamin C
Two capsules 3 times a day at the first sign of a cold
  Part- and whole-body massages
Neck-, shoulder-, and back-massages

Hyphens are also used when a series of compounds share a "primary word". Thus in the advertisement on the right, for cold medicine, "Halsschmerzen," "Kopfschmerzen," and "Gliederschmerzen" are compressed to "Hals-, Kopf- und Gliederschmerzen".
On the left, the primary word is first "massages," then "body-massages," with the determiners "part" and "full"; in the next line, the primary word is again "massages," while the determiners are "neck," "shoulder," and "back"

Sometimes, perhaps due to the influence of English, some constellations are even written as separate words:

"die Monster Laufzeit" (monstrous contract period)
  Mobile internet without a monstrous contract period.

The previous examples of compound nouns are derived from other nouns. But the "determinative element" can also be a verb, which is represented by the stem:

  Feed-in of water for fire-fighting.
"die Baugenehmigung" (building permit); "das Esszimmer" (dining room); "der Fahrgast" (passenger); "das Lehrbuch" (textbook); "das Lesebuch" (storybook; reader); "das Löschwasser" (quench water [water for fire-fighting]); "der Mietvertrag" (rental agreement); "die Mitfahrgelegenheit" (ride; lift); "der Rasierapparat" (electric shaver); "der Rollstuhl" (wheelchair); "der Schreibtisch" (desk); "der Spielplatz" (playground); "die Sprechblase" (speech balloon; speech bubble [in a comic strip]); "die Stehlampe" (floor lamp); "die Tragfähigkeit" (carrying capacity); "die Verschlimmbesserung" (an intended improvement that makes things worse).

The "determinative element" can also be an adjective or adverb. One could make the case that some of these "determiners" fall into the category of separable prefix, at least when the "primary word," though a noun, derives from a verb. The effect is the same either way.

"der Feinschmecker" (gourmet); "der Fernfahrer" (long-distance trucker); "das Großmaul" (loudmouth); "die Hochkultur" (high culture); "der/die Schnellfahrer/in" (speeder); "die Schwarzmalerei" (doom-saying); "der Schwarzmarkt" (black market); "die Spätschicht" (late shift); "die Sprechstunde" (office hour); "der Wichtigtuer" (pompous ass); "die Zusammensetzung" (compound).
  unauthorized parked vehicles will be towed at the owner's expense

The "primary word" can also be a verb. The "determiner" then becomes a separable prefix:

"achtgeben" (to be careful; to pay attention); "gutmachen" (to make amends for); "preisgeben" (to relinquish; to disclose); "stattfinden" (to take place); "teilnehmen" (to participate); "wahrnehmen" (to discern; to experience; to avail oneself of).

The "primary word" can also be an adjective or adverb, so that the compound itself becomes that part of speech:

"arbeitsbereit" (ready to work); "arbeitsscheu" (afraid of hard work); "bärenstark" (strong as an ox [bear]); "baufällig" (dilapidated); "berufstätig" (employed [outside the home]); "butterweich" (soft as butter); "gertenschlank" (willowy, svelte, slender as a willow reed); "hustenreizlindernd" (throat-tickle-alleviating); "kostenpflichtig" (liable for the costs); "lebensgefährlich" (life-threatening; mortally dangerous); "linkshändig" (left-handed); "nervtötend" (tedious, pesky); "reisefertig" (ready to leave [on a trip]); "spindeldürr" (skinny as a rail); "steinalt" (old as the hills); "todsicher" (dead certain); "vollautomatisch" (fully automatic); "vollbesetzt" (completely occupied); "vollreif" (fully ripe) "umweltfreundlich" (eco-friendly); "wildfremd" (totally unknown).

Intensifiers / Augmentative prefixes

Especially in colloquial speech, German-speakers enjoy a special category of compound nouns or modifiers in which the "determinative element" functions as an augmentative, or intensifying, prefix.

In some cases, the determinative element's meaning is obvious. When derived, for example, from "der Riese" [giant], it keeps the notion of "gigantic": "der Riesenfehler" [huge mistake], "der Riesenhunger" [gigantic hunger], "die Riesenfreude" [huge pleasure], "die Riesensauerei" [gigantic mess], "der Riesenspaß" [a lot of fun]. Similarly, "die Spitze" (as well as "top-") raises something to the highest category: "die Spitzenleistung" [top performance; outstanding achievement], "der Spitzenlohn" [top wage]. "Super" and "ultra" are also used frequently, much as in English: "superbequem" [supercomfortable]; das Superwetter [super weather]; "ultraschnell" [ultrafast].

Another group modifies colors: "dunkelblau" (dark blue); "hellgelb" (light yellow); "pechschwarz" (pitch-black); "rabenschwarz" (crow-black); "schneeweiß" (snow-white); "veilchenblau" (violet).

But in many cases, the determiners are not so semantically obvious. For example, a comment on the cold weather can be intensified with a variety of prefixes to become, among a great many other possibilities: "arschkalt"; "saukalt", "scheißkalt", "schweinekalt", or "teufelskalt". In none of these examples does the determinative element (e.g. "der Arsch" [ass], "die Sau" [sow], "die Scheiße" [shit], "das Schwein" [pig], or "der Teufel" [devil]) carry a literal meaning. At the most, they signal a traditionally negative attitude associated with these things.


Here are just a few other examples of augmentative constructions:

Prefix Source Modifier/Noun Meaning
aber- abertausend thousands and thousands
affen- affengeil awesome; really cool
  die Affenhitze awful heat
  die Affenkälte awful cold
  die Affenliebe infatuation
  der Affenzahn breakneck speed
der Bär der Bärenhunger extreme hunger
  bärenstark strong as a bear
die Bombe Bombenerfolg huge success
  bombensicher dead certain
der Dreck der Dreckskerl dirty swine; worthless person
erz- der Erzfeind archenemy
  erzfrech extremely cheeky
  die Erzlüge total lie
  erzmisstrauisch extremely mistrustful
extra- die Extrawurst special treatment
grotten-1 grottenfalsch totally wrong
  grottenschlecht terrible
  grottenhässlich extremely ugly
die Hölle höllenstark hellishly strong
der Hund hundselend really wretched
  hundsgemein vile
  hundsmiserabel sick as a dog
  hundemüde dog-tired
hyper- hyperempfindlich hypersensitive
  hypernervös hypernervous
knall- knallhart tough as nails; hard-hitting
  knallrot bright red
mega- megacool really cool
  der Megahammer wonderful thing
der Mord mordsheiß murderously hot
  der Mordshunger ravenous hunger
  der Mordsspaß huge amount of fun
mutterseelen- mutterseelenallein all alone
ober- oberpeinlich extremely embarrassing
  oberschlau too clever by half
piek- piekfein posh
  pieksauber immaculately groomed
quietsch- quietschfidel especially jolly
  quietschvergnügt happy as can be
die Sau saukalt bitter cold
  saumäßig beastly; lousy
  sauteuer swinishly expensive
die Scheiße ([Das ist mir] scheißegal I don't give a shit
  Scheißding shitty thing
  scheißfaul goddamn lazy
  scheißhöflich obsequious
das Schwein die Schweinearbeit    back-breaking work
  das Schweinegeld heaps of money; a bundle
stink- stinkbesoffen stinking drunk
  stinkbürgerlich disgustingly bourgeois
  stinkfaul bone-lazy
  stinklangweiling totally boring
  stinksauer hopping mad; pissed off
stock- stockbesoffen totally drunk; sloshed
  stockdumm dumb as dirt
  stocksauer hopping mad; pissed off
der Tod todmüde dead tired
  todsicher dead certain
ur- uralt old as the hills
  urgesund extremely healthy

Some "determiners" appear so frequently that they have become a standard prefix. A word like "das Haupt," for example, an older term for head (and largely replaced in modern usage by "der Kopf"), appears in a great many well-established compounds, as well as in more spontaneous coinages. It means "central," "chief," "main," "primary," or "principal". Just a few examples:

"die Hauptachse" (main axle); "die Hauptabteilung" (central department); "der/die Hauptaktionär/in" (majority shareholder); "der Hauptakzent" (main emphasis); "der Hauptbahnhof" (main railway station); "die Hauptbeschäftigung" (main occupation); "die Haupteigenschaft" (primary characteristic; major feature); "der Haupteingang" (main entrance); "das Hauptfach" ([academic] major); "die Hauptfigur" (main character); "der Hauptgrund" (chief reason); "die Hauptperson" (central figure); "das Hauptproblem" (main problem); "die Hauptrolle" (primary role); "die Hauptsache" (most important thing); "die Hauptschuld" (primary share of the blame); "der Hauptsitz" (headquarters); "die Hauptstadt" (capital city); "die Hauptstraße" (main street); "die Haupttätigkeit" (main activity); "der Hauptunterschied" (principal difference); "der Hauptvertreter" (principal representative); "der Hauptwohnsitz" (primary residence); "das Hauptwort" (noun); "das Hauptziel" (primary goal).
  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the principal representative of German Idealism, lived from 1828-1831 in the house next-door (Am Kupfergraben 4a), which was destroyed in World War II.

In some compounds the "determiners" and "primary words" are equal:

"altklug" (precocious); "nasskalt" (wet and cold); "schwarzrotgold" (black-red-gold [the colors of the German flag]); "süßsauer" sweet-and-sour.

Still another form duplicates sounds, with the stem vowel changing between a high-front position and a lower-back one:

"der Mischmasch" (mishmash, hodgepodge); "schickimicki" (trendy, fancy-schmancy); "der Schnickschnack" (bric-a-brac, knick-knack); "der Wirrwarr" (hurly-burly, imbroglio); "wischiwaschi" (wishy-washy); "larifari" (airy-fairy).

Most of the previous examples consist of one determiner affixed to one primary word, but more elaborate noun chains are possible:

  Wheelchair Entrance
  Semester Ticket Office of AStA (Allgemeiner Studentenausschuss [Students' Association]) of the Free University of Berlin.
Entrance to the left past the driveway.
"die Bankdienstleistungen" (banking services); "das Eintopfgericht" (stew; boiled dinner); "der/die Fußballspieler/in" (soccer player); "die Feuerwehrzufahrt" (fire department access); "die Geschirrspülmaschine" (dishwasher); "das Jugendschutzgesetz" (law for the protection of youth); "die Lebensversicherungsgesellschaft" (life-insurance company); "der Minderwertigkeitskomplex" (inferiority complex); "der Rathaussaal" (city council chamber); "der/die Rollstuhlfahrer/in" (wheelchair-user); "der Schreibtischcomputer" (desktop computer); "das Semesterticketbüro" (Semester Ticket Office [A semester ticket is a public transportation pass available to students during the term]); "der Windschutzscheibenwischer" (windshield wiper).

  Fire Department Access

Mark Twain is not the only person to find whimsical possibilities in complex compounds. There is a long tradition of constructing nouns like "die Hottentottenpotentatentantenattentäterin" (the Hottentot potentate's aunt's [female] assassin) or other humorous combinations:

The all-round-feel-good cough-drop We wash washmachine water [ad by the Berlin Waterworks].

A more recent phenomenon is the "Weichei"-definition. A "Weichei" is a wimp or wussie, the opposite of a "real man." Some of the many definitions, which combine noun-compounds with the masculine suffix "-er":

der Ampelgelb-Bremser  = a man who brakes for a yellow light
der Abschiedsheuler  = a man who weeps when saying good-bye
der Apfelschäler  = a man who peels an apple (before eating it)
der Balkonraucher  = a man who goes out on the balcony to smoke
der Beipackzettel-Leser  = a man who reads warning labels on drug prescriptions
der Cabrio-geschlossen-Fahrer  = a man who drives a convertible with the top up
der Chef-Witz-Lacher  = a man who laughs at the boss's jokes
der Eincremer  = a man who uses skin lotion
der Festnetztelefonierer  = a man who telephones using a land-line
der Frauenversteher  = a man who understands women
der Geheimzahl-Aufschreiber  = a man who writes down a PIN
der Handschuhträger  = a glove-wearer
der Kassenzettel-Nachprüfer  = a man who checks the cash-register receipt
der Klamotten-am-Vorabend-Ausleger  = a man who lays out his clothes the night before
der Landungsklatscher  = a man who applauds when the plane lands
der Mittelspurfahrer  = a man who drives in the middle lane
der Quotenopfer  = a (self-proclaimed) victim of quotas
der Rechts-Links-Wangen-Bussi-Geber  = a right-left-cheek peck-giver
der Schattenparker  = a man who parks in the shade
der Sitzpinkler  = a man who sits to pee
der Sockenfalter  = a man who folds his socks
der Tastaturabdecker  = a man who covers the keyborad
der Unterhosenbügler  = a man who irons his underpants
der Vorwärtseinparker  = a man who drive forwards into a parallel parking space
der Warmduscher  = a man who takes warm showers
der Weinschorle-Trinker  = a man who drinks wine-spritzers

More important are the complex meanings that can be compressed within compounds, constructions that are very hard to translate. Here is an example of one such possibility:

  Trittbrett (running-board)
In Hans-Ulrich Treichel's novel Tristanakkord (Suhrkamp, 2000), the protagonist is, in a small way, about to assist a famous musician in composing a work. In contemplating the fame that he will achieve, he refers to it as "eine Trittbrettunsterblichkeit" (p. 212). This coinage is made up of six separate elements: "der Tritt" (step) and "das Brett" (board) combine to fashion "das Trittbrett" (running-board, the foot-board that runs along the side of certain trucks and antique automobiles). German usage has given this word a metaphorical connotation: "hanging on" or "freeloading," especially in the term of "Trittbrettfahrer" (literally: running board rider). To "Trittbrett" the author adds "Unsterblichkeit" (immortality). That term is derived from "sterben" (to die); by adding the suffix "-lich" to the stem "sterb-", we get the adjective "sterblich" (mortal). To that comes the suffix "-keit", forming the noun "Sterblichkeit" (mortality). The prefix "un-", just as in English, produces the opposite meaning (immortality). Finally, the author combines "Trittbrett" and "Unsterblichkeit" to create a spontaneous coinage that will appear in no dictionary but is comprehensible to all: "Trittbrettunsterblichkeit" is an immortality that is achieved by riding in someone's wake (or on someone's coattails). The English translation necessarily lacks both the compactness - and the humor - of the German original.
  Floor-sander rentals

Portmanteau Words (Kofferwörter or Schachtelwörter)

German also uses portmanteau words, which blend two words and combine their meanings. Often these constructions are borrowed wholesale from English, e.g. "brunch", "motel", "smog", "brexit", but others are of German origin:

Denglisch  = Deutsch + Englisch
jein  = ja + nein
Informatik = Information + Mathematik
Teuro = teuer + Euro
Verschlimmbesserung = Verschlimmerung + Verbesserung

Return to the list of contents for "Word Formations"

1 The etymology of "grotten" is uncertain, but some linguists trace it to "Krote", a dialect form of "Kröte" [toad].
back to text