Talky Tuesday: Compound interest?

Like several other languages, English uses compound words to create new concepts by sticking two other words together. This can actually be done in one of three ways: open compounds, which are separate words (hang glider); hyphenated compounds, which are what it says on the tin (life-size); and closed compounds, which happen when the words are fused together (superstar).

The latter shouldn’t be confused with a portmanteau word, which is one word shoved into another. That is, the separate words merge to form one that doesn’t contain a complete version of either. A famous example is smog, which comes from smoke and fog.

These kinds of words are named for a portmanteau, which is a large suitcase or trunk that opens into two equal parts, as opposed to a regular suitcase, which pretty much has a shallow lid and a deep storage area. Fun fact: portmanteau is itself a portmanteau, derived from the French words porter, “to carry”, and manteau, “mantle.” They’re very common in English, but not today’s subject, although you can find lists of them online.

Another thing that compound words are generally not is agglutinative, although that depends upon what you’re agglutinating. Broadly speaking, an agglutinative language is considered a “synthetic language,” but that does not mean made up. In this case, synthetic refers to synthesis, which is the creation of a whole from various parts.

English can show agglutinative propensities in word pairs like teach and teacher. The former is a verb, the latter is a noun describing a person who does the verb. Farm, farmer; game, gamer; preach, preacher; account, accountant; debut, debutante; and so on. These are all agglutinative words in English, short and simple, but they really aren’t an essential or sole feature of how words are built in the language.

A good example of simple agglutinatives are the classical versions of the Semitic languages Hebrew and Arabic, which both work in similar ways. They start with a simple word root, and then add prefixes, suffixes, and infixes to change the meaning, basically building a root outward into various concepts. (The modern versions are apparently more analytical, less agglutinative.)

Complicated agglutinative languages will pile on the prefixes and suffixes until a speaker winds up with a ridiculously long word that expresses a concept in great detail, but which a lot of other languages would have achieved through separate words and parts of speech.

What analytical and inflected languages do is build meaning through things like articles, nouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, pronouns, adverbs, conjunctions, interjections, and interrogatives. A language spoken (at them) loudly and — wow! — what?

If you really want to go hog-wild with an agglutinative language, then check out Turkish. It’s a hot mess, but that probably explains why Recep Erdoğan is always so cranky.

But let’s get back to those compound words, because they are also a feature of Spanish and German, which both do them in very different ways, not only from each other, but from English.

English compound words tend to just go for it, jam the words together, and done. Examples: Airport, baseball, windfall, extraordinary, worldwide, sailboat, stockbroker, etc.

Spanish compound words are a little more practical, since they tend to pretty much describe what the thing does, which English compounds don’t always do. Also, they tend to be masculine words regardless of the second half so that, for example, the word for umbrella is masculine despite the second half of the word being feminine (and plural): el paraguas.

Other great examples in Spanish: abrelatas, can opener, literally open cans; autopista, highway/freeway, literally automobile trail; bienvenido, welcome, literally the same in Spanish; cumpleaños, birthday, literally complete years; horasextra, overtime, literally extra hours; lavaplatos, dishwasher (the machine) and also literally washes dishes; matamoscas, fly swatter, literally kills flies.

I think that gives you a good general idea, and you can find lists online as well. But when it comes to the granddaddy of ridiculous compounds that give agglutinative languages a run for their money, look no farther than German.

English may rarely stick three words together to make one compound, but that seems to be our limit. The Germans? Well, they do seem to have a knack for sticking words together to describe things they couldn’t be arsed to come up with single words for, like literally calling gloves hand shoes (die Handschuhe.) I don’t think we get quite that lazy in English.

But the Germans transcend that. Are three words a compound limit for them? Oh hell noes. They’ll go on shoving words together all day long to express a specific concept. I guess the idea of sentences is too much for them.

I kid! A big chunk of my ancestry is German — well, at least the quarter that came down from my paternal grandfather  — and it is the third language, besides Spanish and English, that I have actually studied beyond a passing interest. But, c’mon. Some of their compound words are ridiculous.

Here’s a good one, made up of no less than eight separate words: rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. A literal word-for-word translation into English is “beef meat labeling monitoring tasks transfer law.”

The Week made a great compilation of ten of the worst offenders, but I have to share a couple of them here.

Hey, this one is only three words! Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften, legal protection insurance companies, as in companies that will indemnify your ass against lawsuits.

Again, only four little words but one huge result: Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän. It literally means Danube steamship company captain, and wouldn’t you hate to have to shoehorn that word into your resume? But let us take a moment to look at the unfortunate word in there, and you know exactly which one I mean: dampfschiffahrts. Dampf means steam, and that should be pretty obvious after two seconds of realizing that it’s similar to the English word damp. Likewise, schiff for ship should be a no-brainer.

This leaves us with fahrts and no, it does not mean what you think it does. It comes from the German word fahren, to drive, and tends to wind up in anything involving a vehicle or journey. For that other word referring to the gas driven out of your ass, you want to use der Furz. And yes, it’s a masculine noun, because of course it is.

What? We all know that women never fart. It just isn’t done.

And, finally, there’s another four word jam slam: Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister. It refers to the master of chimney sweeps in a district, but breaks down to district (bezirks) chimney (schornstein) sweep (feger) and master (meister).