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Today's quote:

Wednesday, November 4, 2020



German is (in)famous for its compound nouns. Everyone from Mark Twain to Dylan Moran (he's an Irish comedian, Des!) has launched into endless tirades about it and made fun of it.

In his essay "The Awful German Language" can be found the following entry, "July 1. -- In the hospital yesterday, a word of thirteen syllables was successfully removed from a patient -- a North German from near Hamburg; but as most unfortunately the surgeons had opened him in the wrong place, under the impression that he contained a panorama, he died. The sad event has cast a gloom over the whole community."

In a speech given in Vienna in March 1899, Mark Twain imparted to the audience a 95-letter word which he claimed had recently been sent to him in a telegram from Linz: "Personaleinkommensteuerschätzungskommissionsmitgliedsreisekostenrechnungsergänzungsrevisionsfund". Twain added: "If I could get a similar word engraved upon my tombstone I should sleep beneath it in peace."

Were he still alive, Mark Twain would undoubtedly be delighted to know that the record for the longest valid German word in official usage has recently been broken - twice. Although the formation of words of unlimited length is possible in the German language by means of combining nouns to form one huge unhyphenated word, common sense ensures that this rarely happens in practice. But in the Bundesland of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a law was introduced on 19 January 2000 to supervise the labeling of beef in the wake of the BSE crisis. It was called: Rinderkennzeichnungs- und Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.

To be fair to the North German legislators, this term was the short (!) one-word form of the law whose full title was: "Gesetz zur Übertragung der Aufgaben für die Überwachung der Rinderkennzeichnung und Rindfleischetikettierung" (phew!!!), which might be translated by a patient man or woman as "the law concerning the delegation of duties for the supervision of cattle marking and the labelling of beef."

Yet even this 63-letter monstrosity was topped in December 2003 by a 67-letter word which summarised a regulation introduced by the German Ministry of Justice concerning who is responsible for the settlement of unresolved disputes about property ownership: Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmigungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung (it won't even fit onto one line!)

What has all this to do with sitting on the banks of the mighty Clyde with a glass of red and a plate of Emmental cheese and pretzels beside me, I hear Des ask? Well, I couldn't help myself taking a photo of it which turned into something of a 'Stilleben' - or still life, or nature mort, if you're that way inclined (like the Germans, both the English and the French offer the possibility of combining words, especially nouns, but their resulting noun chains typically feature generous spaces or hyphens between the different words, whereas the Germans pack them solidly into one word like 'Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän', who happens to be the Danube Steamship Navigation Company Captain).

Which, like an overly long compound noun, finally brings me back to the mercifully short compound noun 'Stilleben' which consists of just two words, 'still' and 'Leben' (probably one of the shortest compound nouns the German language has to offer), and which, according to the 'Reform der deutschen Rechtschreibung 1996', should be spelt with three 'l's', as in 'Stillleben'. I refuse! During my short attendance of the German 'Volksschule from 1952 to 1960, I had it drilled into my head that never should there be three consonants in a row - and so 'Stilleben' it is, complete with Emmental cheese and pretzels but missing a third 'l'.

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