In the beginning was the word. In German. Ditto at the end



Now redundant. Always unpronounceable to anyone who doesn’t belong to the 100 million-strong group for whom German is a native tongue. Or for those who don’t speak it as a second language.

Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz is 63 letters long and 14 years old. Till last week, it was the longest word in the German language, a full 18 letters longer than the longest in the Oxford English Dictionary (that would be pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a lung disease).

Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz died because it no longer reflects reality. That is the law that governed beef monitoring and labelling during the 1999 outbreak of mad cow disease in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

RkReÜAÜG, as it was called for short, followed the usual rules that seem to govern German word engineering. Pile word on word. Add on. Add on. And on. So it was constructed as follows:

Rind (cattle) +  Fleisch (meat) + Etikettierung(s) (labelling) +  Überwachung(s) (supervision) + Aufgaben (duties) + Übertragung(s) (assignment) + Gesetz (law)

Some say German has 500 million words but no one can say for sure

Some say German has 500 million words but no one can say for sure

Like Finnish and Hungarian, German allows enormously long words to be created by simply doing away with pronouns. This offers tremendous possibilities for dictionary sales because every edition must, by definition, be fresh in some way, with some new combination or the other. The Deutsches Wörterbuch, the most comprehensive German dictionary in existence, had more than 330,000 headwords in its first edition (1854) after some 16 years of hard work by the Brothers Grimm. Some say the language has 500 million words but no one can be sure.

Perhaps it’s because of the tendency to add on all the relevant bits required and create compound nouns.

So, for example:

Mobile phone – handy

Mobile phone holder – handyholder

Mobile phone holder on the windshield – Handyhalteranderwindschutzscheibe

This last is 33 characters long and probably a good illustration of how German words can grow – like Topsy – into a formidable collection of letters.

Spiegel online has been having a lot of fun with this. Here’s a selection of their gems:

A ballpoint pen that belongs to a captain – Kapitänskugelschreiber

A pen that belongs to a captain of the Danube Steamship Company –  Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänskugelschreiber

The ink in a pen that belongs to a captain of the Danube Steamship Company – Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänskugelschreibertinte

That’s 61 letters, just two short of the just-dead longest German word.

Clearly, they’ll have no problem finding a replacement in no time at all.