Three-word compound

In Norwegian at least I can think of words such as “Godstolen” (the good chair) and “blålys” (lit. blue lights - emergency vehicle lights). If you were just talking about some lights that were blue, you’d write “those blue lights”, but emergency vehicle lights are “blålys”.

Off the top of my head, I thought of the word “Reinmachfrau” which is a concotion of an adjective (rein=clean), a verb (mach from machen=to do/to make) and a noun (Frau=woman). It means cleaning woman, literally a woman that makes clean. Actually, Germans can make compound words out of everything on the spot, and everybody would know the meaning even if they’d never heard the word before.

To explain this, I will toy a little around with an example I made up on the spot:

A data base is Datenbank, a compound of Daten (data) and Bank (base). So our first word is:

Datenbank

I expand it with Adminstration, which as you guessed means administration

Datenbankadministration

Budget means budget, so we have:

Datenbankadministrationsbudget

Kürzung means shortage, so there’s:

Datenbankadministrationsbudgetkürzung

Verhandlung means negotiation:

Datenbankadministrationsbudgetkürzungsverhandlung (data base administration budget shortage negotiation)

So in a few short steps, we have a monster of a word that I’m sure nobody has ever spoken or typed before, but it makes sense and every German would instantly understand.

ETA: such endless monstrosities actually don’t come up very often in regular speech, but, not surprisingly, in legal texts and laws.

Grünschnabel, literally green beak, is translated as greenhorn: adjective + noun both in English and German.
Is this discussion a nothingburger?

Indeed, but for the record I made a suggestion for a Datenbankadministrationsbudgetkürzungsverhandlungsvorschlag yesterday and my boss did not understand it.

So you got a Datenbankadministrationsbudgetkürzungsverhandlungsvorschlagsablehnung? You better make a Datenbankadministrationsbudgetkürzungsverhandlungsvorschlagsablehnungswiderruf.

Nice to see that discourse notifies you even when I made this remark as an edit :upside_down_face: Just for the record: I have no boss, I am a free-lancer. I made that up. :wink:

I don’t think there are formal rules in German that restrict compound words to components of a particular type of words, such as nouns or verbs. To give a few examples from the top of my head (in addition to those given by EinsteinsHund) of compound words made up of other types of words:

Schönwetterkapitän: Literally a fair-weather captain, i.e. someone who goes sailing only in fair weather. The Schönwetter- part is made up of one adjective and one noun, and it can be prefixed to all sorts of words. It’s actually a useful word to be used metaphorically; you can use it, in a slightly derogatory sense, for all sorts of people who carry out a given activity (indicated by the third component) only if they don’t expect criticism or difficulties.

Gutmensch: Literally, a good human being; again an adjective plus a noun. It’s used more frequently in recent years, as a criticism of people who do things, or hold certain opinions, for the purpose of feeling good about themselves, or morally superior. The intended meaning is derogatory, especially in political debate, analogous to “social justice warrior” or “virtue signalling” in English.

davonlaufen: Literally, to run away. It’s a compound of an adverb and a verb.

Einparteienstaat: A one-party state, i.e. a regime ruled by one single permitted party. Here, you have three compounds: Two nouns and one numeral.

This article in German Wikipedia cites several grammar sources to support the contention that there are no restrictions as to the categories of words that can be used to build compounds, and that it is even possible that a compound word belongs to a category that none of its components belongs to.

In terms of semantics, the general principle is that the main meaning of a compound word is that of its second component, and the first component modifies the second one. Viz. the example of davonlaufen: Its main meaning is that of running (“laufen”). The first component, “davon” (“away”) modifies the type of running, but it’s still primarily an act of running. You have the same principle in English: A “classroom” is primarily a room, intended for a class; it’s not primarily a class, modified in the sense that it is a class taking place in a room. If you wanted to say that, you could build the reverse compound in German (“Zimmerklasse”). It would be a neologism, and I have never heard that word; but any German speaker would immediately understand the meaning of this word as a class that somehow is related to a room (perhaps a class taking place specifically in a room?). It would strike a German as an unusual word, but the semantics would be identifiable. Or, to present another example: A belfry, i.e. a tower associated with a church, would be a “Kirchturm” in German, i.e. a tower (Turm) modified by the prefix “Kirch-” (church). In other words, a tower belonging to a church. If I were to reverse the order, I’d get “Turmkirche”, which is, again, an unusual word, but it would be universally understood by German speakers (even if they have never heard that word) as a particular type of church that is characterised by having a tower (and I don’t think that word would come across as particularly odd). So in German, you’re pretty much free to build and invent new compound words whenever you feel the need to have that word.

When you have compound words with three (or more) components, there are some ambiguities. Does the first word modify the second, and those two together modify the third? That is the case with Schönwetterkapitän. Or does the second word modify the third, and those two together are then modified by the first? An example for the latter (from the top of my head) would be Holzkirchturm (wooden belfry) - it’s a belfry (Kirche + Turm) made of wood (Holz), not a tower that happens to be attached to a wooden church.

By the way, to give an example of another weird German compound word, take Kompetenzkompetenz. It’s the competence to decide who is competent to decide a particular question. It’s not a super-frequent word, but in legal terminology it does show up occasionally, and it has migrated with the same meaning into English as a loan word (Wikipedia again).

I think German and English are not so different in the habit of making arbitrary phrases (usually noun phrases) by combining one core word with a bunch of modifiers. The only difference, really, is in the written orthography: In English, the words are written as separate words with spaces between; in German, they are written without spaces.

English has a bunch of specific compound words (like “classroom”) that have come to be written as one word. But any sensible combination of words can become a noun phrase.

@Schnitte points out that a combination like can be ambiguous. This happens whether the words are written with spaces or not. What is a “big garage sale”? Is it a big sale of garages? Or a sale of big garages?

English has a concept called an noun adjunct, in which a noun is used as an adjective to modify another noun, e.g, “chicken soup”. These can be extended to more than two words, which may be ambiguous. The Wiki gives the example “chicken soup bowl”

In Spanish, this use of nouns as adjectives seems to be forbidden (although often seen in Spanglish). Thus, a burrito containing chicken is called “burrito de pollo” (burrito of chicken), not “pollo burrito” (although this is often heard in American Spanglish). This grammar avoids the kinds of ambiguities mentioned here.

Hebrew has an interesting twist on this, called the “construct state”. Here, nouns may be used as adjectives to modify other nouns, and this is commonly done to form possessives. However, strangely, the root noun (the one being modified, not the one being a modifier) is inflected.

Great posts, Schnitte and Senegoid.

By chance I just posted about two-noun nouns over in the “ice tea/iced tea” threat. (I should have mentioned they’re sometimes called “adjuncts.”)

I had a Chinese-American English teacher once, in 10th grade, who made a big deal over this. It’s iced tea, not ice tea. Shaved ice (a popular delicacy in Hawaii), not shave ice (as it’s commonly called). And chopped sui, not chop sui.

Whoa! Hold on there. I didn’t think of it at the time, but “chopped sui” makes no sense. The name “chop sui” is a Chinese phrase (or more likely, a made-up phrase intended to sound Chinese). It is not sui that has been chopped.

Heh - yes. Folk etymology.

Okay, I got the spelling wrong. It’s chop suey. Wikipedia gives a whole bunch of claimed etymologies for the name.

Hithertofore is a word that was used in my family. It apparently is the forerunner of our word heretofore.

I grew up in a family that had roots in the Appalachians; folks from there might have retained words from archaic English compared to the rest of the US.